We broadly categorise non-sugar sweeteners into natural sweeteners and synthetic (or artificial sweeteners). Commonly used ‘natural’ sweeteners are stevia, xylitol and erythritol. The chemically manufactured synthetic sweeteners in common use are aspartame, acesulfame K, sucralose, saccharin and cyclamate.
Because of their nil or low calorie content and the fact that they do not elevate blood sugar or stimulate an insulin response in the body, non-sugar sweeteners have been advocated for use in diets for weight control and diabetes for many years.
The current thinking in the low-carb science world is that people who are significantly overweight and/or diabetic ultimately need to decrease their sense of, and craving for, sweetness in order to fully reverse their metabolic dysfunction. Therefore in these patients excessive use of non-nutritive sweeteners can be counter-productive. Having said that, sweeteners are still way better than consuming sugar!
They do provide a mechanism to sweeten baked goods and hot beverages, offering the opportunity for an enjoyable variety of foods to be prepared the low-carb way. Non-nutritive sweeteners are not all created equal. Most health professionals would concur that the ‘natural’ sweeteners (stevia, xylitol and erythritol) are better for you than their synthetic chemical counterparts; although the term ‘natural’ simply indicates that stevia, xylitol and erythritol do occur naturally (in plants, fruits and vegetables), but obviously for commercial use they are industrially produced.
Stevia is an extract from a South American plant called Stevia rebaudiana and has been used by humans for hundreds of years. Xylitol and erythritol are categorised as polyalcohols or sugar alcohols. Excess xylitol ingestion can have a laxative effect in some individuals causing bloating, flatulence and diarrhoea. The chemically synthesised artificial sweeteners such as aspartame do not have such a healthy reputation.
Studies have associated their use with weight gain, hunger, altered gut flora, interrupted leptin-insulin signalling, altered brain chemistry and increased cancer risk. Weight gain is a feature especially with a regular intake of artificially sweetened ‘zero’-rated fizzy drinks (diet sodas).
A 2009 study published in Diabetes Care showed a daily consumption of diet fizzy drinks was associated with significantly greater risks of abdominal fat accumulation, metabolic syndrome and type 2 diabetes. In summary, infrequent to moderate use of stevia, xylitol or erythritol is considered safe for people in the early transitional stages of a low-carb program. Over time, however, it is best advised to gradually reduce the demand or requirement for sweetened things if you want to curb cravings and achieve successful weight loss.