Firstly, let’s define what sweeteners are. Sweetener is the name given to a substance that makes a product taste sweet, but nowadays when we talk about sweeteners we think of substances that can be used as alternatives to sugar, to sweeten food with fewer calories (kcal).
Its consumption has increased in recent years given the growing concern about the increase in obesity and related diseases, such as diabetes, cholesterol, hypertension, etc.
However, a judgement has to be made on whether these sweeteners can lead to other types of problems and whether we can say that some types of sweeteners are more suitable than others.
There are two types of sweeteners, so-called natural or nutritive sweeteners and artificial or non-nutritive sweeteners.
- Natural or nutritive sweeteners are those that provide some energy value, that is, they have calories. Some examples are fructose and polyols (maltitol, sorbitol erythritol, xylitol, etc.)
- Artificial or non-nutritive sweeteners, on the other hand, have no energy value. This group would include aspartame, acesulfame, saccharin, cyclamate, stevia, etc.
Now the question is, which type of sweetener is most suitable?
If we only consider this difference, it might seem that artificial sweeteners are the best option for replacing sugar or, if that is the aim, for reducing body fat as they don’t provide calories and so appear to be healthier. But there are studies investigating the possible relationship between the consumption of these non-nutritive sweeteners and weight gain. These studies are based on the fact that, in the absence of energy value, there is a decrease in the feeling of fullness and a greater desire for food. This leads to possible abuse of processed foods, high caloric load and an increased intake of saturated fats and/or sugar, achieving exactly the opposite effect to the one desired.
However, nutritive sweeteners provide some kcal. They’re more filling than artificial ones, so they have an advantage over them as they can be better at helping to keep hunger pangs under control. However, some of these sweeteners or polyols cannot be absorbed in the small intestine and enter the large intestine, where they’re digested by the body’s microbiota, causing gas, inflammation and digestive discomfort.
The exception to this rule is a sweetener called erythritol, which is absorbed to a greater extent in the small intestine, reducing the possible adverse effects. However, taking too much erythritol can also cause intestinal discomfort.
Another aspect to take into account with any type of sweetener is that it modifies the natural sweetness of the food or drink to be consumed, creating the need to ingest extremely sweet foods, when what should be done is to get the palate used to the natural flavour of foods.
In conclusion, a great deal of research is needed into the possible long-term negative effects that the habitual consumption of both natural and artificial sweeteners may have on the intestinal microbiota and on health. However, with the data already available, it could be said that sweeteners can be a good alternative to sugar for certain sectors of the population such as people with diseases derived from sugar consumption or who are overweight or obese. They may also be a solution for healthy people who want to stop consuming sugar to look after and improve their health, provided that their use is reduced in both quantity and frequency as part of learning to appreciate the natural taste of food and drink without extra sweetness and they are only consumed occasionally.
D.ª Patricia Ramo