Kidney Diet Tips

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Update on Artificial Sweeteners and Sugar Alternatives

In the past 50 years, the use of artificial sweeteners has skyrocketed. Instead of seeing a sugar bowl at restaurants and coffee shops, we now see rectangle tubs filled with colorful single serve packets of chemical sweeteners. These chemicals include products like sucralose (Splenda®), aspartame (Equal® and Nutrasweet®) and saccharin (Sweet ‘n Low®). These products have been marketed as alternatives to sugar. Many people use them as a way to cut calories to aid weight loss, and to help those with diabetes better manage their blood sugar. What once was a can of soda with 140 calories and nearly 40 grams of sugar can now be made with 0 calories and 0 grams of sugar. Seems ideal, right?

Artificial Sweetener Concerns

The concept behind the use of artificial sweeteners seems valid. However, over the past decade scientists have reported many possible significant side effects of regular consumption of artificial sweeteners.

Here are some of the possible consequences:

  • Artificial sweeteners are more potent than table sugar. They may alter the taste buds natural response to sugar and cause the body to crave sweeter foods. This may lead to overeating. What once seemed “too sweet” may eventually be “not sweet enough”.
  • Despite being intended to help people with obesity and diabetes, these sweeteners have been linked to increased rates of these conditions. They do this by altering the body’s natural insulin response.
  • Frequent intake has been linked to cancer, memory problems including dementia, risk of stroke, and other serious diseases.
  • Artificial sweeteners have been shown to alter the gut bacteria in the body. This can have negative effects on digestion, immune function, and the inflammatory response leading to increased inflammation and disease.

Sweetener Options

So what can you do to get the sweet taste we all desire without these negative side effects? The good news is that there are plenty of other options to naturally sweeten foods we love.

Healthier alternatives to table sugar and artificial sweeteners include:

  • Honey: Raw honey is known to have antioxidant and antibacterial properties, making it both safer and superior to table sugar.
  • Maple Syrup: Maple syrup contains more health-promoting minerals than table sugar including zinc, which is beneficial for the immune system.
  • Coconut sugar: Coconut sugar contains a prebiotic fiber called inulin, which slows sugar absorption in the bloodstream leading to better blood sugar control. It also contains trace amounts of minerals like iron and zinc.
  • Stevia: Stevia is a natural zero-calorie herbal sweetener that comes from the leaves of the Stevia plant. It is the only natural sweetener that does not raise the blood sugar, making it especially ideal for people with diabetes.
  • Fresh or frozen fruit: If you’re going to sweeten your food, this will have the most health benefits. Fruit not only contains antioxidants, vitamins and minerals, but also fiber.

So what’s the bottom line?

Despite the fact that the FDA has approved the use of artificial sweeteners, their use should be seriously reconsidered. Natural sugars are best, but as with many things, the dose is what makes the poison. Sugar is still sugar and consuming too much of it, even from natural sources, may have negative health effects. The 2015-2020 Dietary Guidelines for Americans recommend limiting calories from added sugars to no more than 10% of total calories consumed each day. That’s 200 calories or about 12 teaspoons of added sugar for people on a 2,000 calorie diet. These guidelines are for the general population. Your individualized goals may vary based on your needs.

By making gradual changes to your eating habits to cut back on foods with added sugar, you can reduce cravings for sugar in the first place. This is the ultimate goal!

This article is for informational purposes only and is not a substitute for medical advice or treatment. Consult your physician and dietitian regarding your specific diagnosis, treatment, diet and health questions.

Joanna Foley, RD

Joanna Foley, RD

Joanna is a registered dietitian practicing over 3 years, with experience in both the acute care and outpatient environments. She is passionate about promoting behavior change to help individuals achieve higher quality of life by adopting healthier habits. Joanna believes that food truly is the best medicine. In her free time Joanna enjoys experimenting with new recipes, traveling the world with her husband, and running half marathons.