With a low to no calorie sugar count, artificial sweeteners may seem like a treat for people with diabetes. But recent research suggests that artificial sweeteners may actually be counterintuitive. Especially if you’re looking to manage or prevent diabetes. In fact, the increased consumption of these sugar substitutes may correlate to the increase of obesity and diabetes cases.
The good news is that there are sugar alternatives you can choose from. You’ll still want to count your intake for glucose management, but these options are far better than the marketed “sugar-free” products.
Stevia is a FDA approved low-calorie sweetener that has anti-oxidant and anti-diabetic properties. Unlike artificial sweeteners and sugar, stevia can suppress your plasma glucose levels and significantly increase glucose tolerance. It’s also technically not an artificial sweetener. That’s because it’s made from the leaves of the stevia plant.
Stevia also has the ability to:
- increase insulin effect on cell membranes
- increase insulin production
- stabilize blood sugar levels
- counter mechanics of type 2 diabetes and its complications
You can find stevia under brand names like:
- Sun Crystals
- Sweet Leaf
While stevia is natural, these brands are usually highly processed and may contain other ingredients. For example, Truvia goes through 40 processing steps before it’s ready to be sold, and contains the sugar alcohol erythritol. Future research may shed more light on the health impacts of consuming these processed stevia sweeteners.
The best way to consume stevia is to grow the plant yourself and use the whole leaves to sweeten foods.
Tagatose is another naturally occurring sugar that researchers are studying. Preliminary studies show that tagatose:
- may be a potential antidiabetic and anti-obesity medication
- can lower your blood sugar and insulin response
- interferes with the absorption of carbohydrates
But tagatose needs more studies for more definitive answers. Talk to your doctor before trying new sweeteners like tagatose.
Other sweet options
Monk fruit extract and coconut palm sugar are other alternatives that are gaining popularity. But no processed sweetener can beat using fresh whole fruit to sweeten foods.
Another excellent option is date sugar, made of whole dates that are dried and ground. It doesn’t provide fewer calories, but date sugar is made of the whole fruit with the fiber still intact. You can also subtract fiber from total grams of carbohydrates, if you count carbs for meal planning.
Some artificial sweeteners say “sugar-free” or “diabetic-friendly,” but research suggests these sugars actually have the opposite of effect. Your body responds to artificial sweeteners differently than regular sugar. Artificial sugar can interfere with your body’s learned taste. This can confuse your brain, which will send signals telling you to eat more, especially sweet foods.
Artificial sweeteners can still raise your glucose levels
One study saw normal-weight individuals who ate more artificial sweeteners were more likely to have diabetes than people who were overweight or obese.
Another 2014 study found that these sugars, such as saccharin, can change your gut bacteria composition. This change can cause glucose intolerance, which is the first step towards metabolic syndrome and diabetes in adults.
For people who don’t develop a glucose intolerance, artificial sweeteners may help with weight-loss or diabetes control. But this replacement still requires long-term management and controlled intake. Talk to your doctor and dietitian about your concerns, if you’re thinking of replacing sugar regularly.
Artificial sweeteners may also contribute to weight gain
Obesity and being overweight is one of the top predictors for diabetes. While artificial sweeteners are U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approved, it doesn’t mean they are healthy. Food products lead you to think non-caloric artificial sweeteners help with weight loss, but studies show the opposite.
That’s because artificial sweeteners:
- don’t reduce weight when used alone
- can still significantly increase body mass index (BMI)
- reduce energy intake
- are less effective than calorie restriction and exercise
- can trigger continuous eating so energy intake is constant
- can lead to overeating when mixed with regular sugar
For people with diabetes looking to manage their weight or sugar intake, artificial sweeteners may not be a good substitute. Being overweight or obese can also increase your risk factors for several other health issues such as high blood pressure, body pain, and stroke.
Safety rating for artificial sweeteners
Currently, the safety rating for artificial sweeteners is incomplete. The FDA tested and approved five artificial sweeteners before the newer studies were published. Artificial sweeteners are currently ranked as “AVOID,” by the Center for Science in the Public Interest. Avoid means the product is unsafe or poorly tested and not worth any risk.
Sugar alcohols are naturally found in plants and berries. The types most often used in the food industry are synthetically created. You can find them in food products that are labeled as “sugar-free” or “no sugar added.”
Labels such as this are misleading because sugar alcohols are still carbohydrates. They can still raise your blood sugar, but not as much as regular sugar.
Common FDA-approved sugar alcohols are:
Swerve is a new consumer brand available in many grocery stores that contains erythritol. Another brand, Ideal contains both sucralose and xylitol.
Different from artificial sweeteners
Sugar alcohols are often synthetic, similar to artificial sweeteners. But these two classifications of sugar alternatives are not the same. Sugar alcohols are different because they:
- can be metabolized without insulin
- are less sweet than artificial sweeteners and sugar
- can be partially digested in the intestine
- don’t have the aftertaste like artificial sweeteners
Research suggests that sugar alcohols can be a sufficient replacement to sugar. But reports also says that it won’t play a significant role in weight loss. You should treat sugar alcohols the same as sugar and limit your intake.
Sugar alcohols are also known to produce side effects such as gas, bloating, and abdominal discomfort. Although, erythritol is usually better tolerated, if you’re concerned about these side effects.
Recent studies suggest that artificial sweeteners are no longer the healthy alternatives to sugar. In fact, they may increase your risk for diabetes and weight gain.
Try stevia, if you’re looking for a healthier alternative. Based on research to date, this alternative sweetener is one of your better options. It’s known for its anti-diabetic properties and ability to stabilize blood sugar levels. You can get stevia in raw form, grow the plant yourself, or buy it under brand names like Sweet Leaf and Truvia.
But you should still limit your total added sugar intake rather than switching to sugar substitutes. The more you consume any kind of added sweeteners, the more you palate is exposed to sweet tastes. Palate research shows that the food you prefer and crave is the food that you eat most often.
You’ll see the most benefit for managing your sugar cravings and diabetes when you reduce all forms of added sugar.