In terms of combating diabetes and obesity artificial sweeteners seem to be everyone’s solution. They are low in calories and reduce the amount of added sugar in your diet when used to replace table sugar. In theory these two things should mean you are eating healthier and lowering your risk of heart disease, obesity and diabetes. But this may not be the case. There are five FDA approved artificial sweeteners: saccharin (Sweet’N Low), acesulfame (Sweet One), aspartame (NutraSweet), neotame, and sucralose (Splenda) and one natural low-calorie sweetener, stevia (Truvia). (1,2)
FDA approval means that research studies have shown that they don’t lead to cancers on their own. Unfortunately, though most studies used have been short term and used smaller portions than the average person consumes. So, the long-term effects of what these chemicals do to the body is unknown currently. None of the sweeteners listed above are helpful to the body because they are all non-nutritive. Non-nutritive means that they contain few or no calories and no nutrients. They are derived from non-natural sources, plants/herbs or are chemically altered sugar and are sweeter than normal table sugar. (3) Even though artificial sweeteners reduce sugar intake they still don’t solve the problem of eating unhealthily. A cake made with artificial sweeteners is still a worse choice for a snack than say a piece of fruit. Foods that contain natural sugars, like whole fruit, are all around nutritious. Even though on paper they are higher in sugar, that piece of fruit is also high in fiber, and vitamins. Whereas even though the piece of cake made with artificial sweeteners is lower in sugar, it has no vitamins or minerals, and is high in fat.
What about stevia, the natural low-calorie sweetener? The FDA approval of stevia is only for less than 4 mg/kg of body weight, which for the average person is around 2 stevia sweetened beverages per day. (4) Consume more than this and the research starts to show mixed health results. There are some sweeteners that are nutritive though. These include agave nectar, blackstrap molasses, brown rice syrup, corn syrup (yes, corn syrup), date sugar, dark brown sugar, light brown sugar, maple syrup, honey, raw cane sugar, and table sugar.5 Molasses and date sugar come out on top of this list, providing the most nutrition that sweeteners can. As for date sugar, its not exactly sugar, more so just dried dates that have been made into a powder. Its high in fiber and protein, and even has some vitamins and minerals like iron, potassium and magnesium. (5) It's high in fiber and acts like a thickening agent, so it’s good for baking or smoothies, but not for drinks like coffee or tea.
Going back to the question that started all this, which should you use to reduce diabetes and obesity risk, the answer is none. Any of the nutritive sweeteners listed should be used instead of the artificial sweeteners, but as with anything, moderation is key. Someone with diabetes shouldn’t throw away the table sugar and load up on the Sweet’N Low, they should consume the table sugar in moderation and choose the piece of fruit over the artificially sweetened cake.