Do artificial sweeteners influence blood sugar?

Sweetener tablets and hand with box with cup of tea

Image: Amaviael/

Artificial sweeteners are among the most commonly used food additives worldwide and, thanks to their low-calorie content, they’re considered safe and beneficial. But are they really a healthy alternative to sugar?

It’s got to be better than sugar . . . right?

Years of research have taught us that a high intake of sugar is linked to a whole range of health woes, from tooth decay to diabetes. This is why artificial sweeteners such as Equal and Splenda have come about as an alternative sugar replacement designed to give you that sweet hit without raising blood glucose or increasing your waistline.

But research published in the journal Nature casts some doubt on this idea! The findings suggest that artificial sweeteners, like saccharin, sucralose and aspartame, might be triggering a blood glucose response and contributing to the very conditions (diabetes and obesity) that they were designed to help.

While further evidence is required to pinpoint the precise cause of this blood sugar response, it appears that artificial sweeteners may disrupt the microbiota (bacteria) living in your gut, impacting the blood sugar response and increasing the risk of diabetes. Though past studies have found no health risks with these products, others suggest links with obesity and even cancer. And this latest research adds a new and intriguing dimension to the debate over artificial sweeteners.

Low- or no-calorie sweeteners have also been linked to weight gain. This may be because the ultra-sweet taste tricks your taste buds into thinking you have eaten, which can boost appetite and create a desire for additional calories. A regular use of sweeteners could just be the very cause of your sweet tooth.

The advice

The two scientists involved in this new study, Segal and Elinav, insisted that their findings were preliminary and shouldn’t be taken as a recommendation to avoid artificial sweeteners. However, we would still recommend caution!

If you’re looking to avoid sugar and artificial sweeteners, there are many wholefoods available which provide a source of phytonutrients and have a lower glycaemic index (GI) than ordinary sugar.

Top 4 healthy sweet alternatives

  1. Dried fruit: figs or Medjool dates are especially great if you’re looking for that sweet kick that’s all natural sugar from fruit! Try freezing your dates so they have a beautiful toffee mouthfeel.
  2. Honey: an ancient sweetener with medicinal properties. Be sure to pick up a good quality honey to ensure phytonutrient benefits—think manuka, yellow box, iron bark or beechworthy.
  3. Maple syrup: produced from boiling the sap of sugar maple trees to concentrate it into a viscous amber syrup with a uniquely sweet flavour. A pure maple syrup is best as it retains the most vitamins and minerals, including manganese, zinc, iron and calcium.
  4. Agave syrup: used by the Aztecs in Central America to treat wounds because of its antibacterial properties, agave syrup (or nectar) is produced from the sap of that Mexican cactus. It has a particularly low GI as it contains predominately fructose. While popular among raw foodies, this one can be pricey!

Sue Radd is an Advanced Accredited Practising Dietitian and one of Australia’s leading nutritionists and health communicators. Her most recent book Food as Medicine: Eating for Your Best Health received the Gourmand World Cookbook Award for Best Health and Nutrition Book in the world for 2016.

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Category: Physical Health

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