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What began with the accidental discovery of artificial sweeteners has led to the thriving, multi-billion dollar diet industry. Targeting those who are trying to manage or lose weight without compromising taste, zero-calorie sweeteners such as aspartame, saccharin, acesulfame, neotame, and sucralose have given dieters what seems to be the perfect alternative to sugar. These sugary substitutes are not absorbed by the body and are much sweeter than table sugar, meaning less is required to achieve the same taste many of us crave. But are they too good to be true? Recent findings have undercovered the hidden costs of weight loss in artificial sweeteners.

Fool Your Tongue, But Not Your Brain

Amidst the controversy over artificial sweeteners and their inconclusive link to obesity and cancer, scientists are discovering how our brains respond to these sugar alternatives. In a study led by Guido F. W. Frank, the brain activity of 12 women was measured in response to drinks sweetened with sucrose (table sugar) and sucralose. Both forms of sweetener was found to activate the taste center in the brain, but only sucrose induced a “significant response from several brain regions of the taste-reward system.” What does this mean? The rewarding feeling we get from sweets may be calorie-dependent, meaning our brains are not fooled by non-caloric sugar substitutes.

How About Chronic Diet Drink Consumers?

In another study out of San Diego State University, researchers discovered chronic consumers of diet beverages (at least one per week) elicited greater responses of the taste-reward system to both sugar and saccharin than non-diet soda drinkers. The brains of chronic diet beverage drinkers were seen to also respond to saccharin similarly as to sucrose, suggesting that regular consumption of diet drinks can alter how our brains react to sugary substitutes. This means that overtime, our brains may be unable to distinguish between real and alternative sugars.

Everything in Moderation

The use of non-caloric sweeteners has risen over the past several years, sneaking into everyday products such as gum, vitamins, and especially beverages. Based on these studies, it is advised to moderate daily intake of artificial sweeteners to maintain a healthy, normal brain-reward system. Below are a few sugar substitutes recommended by experts at Nutrition Action:

 

Erythritol. This sugar alcohol is virtually non-caloric and occurs naturally in some fruits and fermented foods. Because 90% of erythritol is absorbed before it enters the large intestine, it usually does not have laxative effects like other sugar alcohols. About 60-70% as sweet as table sugar, erythritol is often desired to mimic the properties of sucrose with its similar bulk and taste. At larger quantities (about 50 grams or more) though, some individuals experience nausea and upset stomachs.

 

Xylitol. Found in birch and other plants, this sugar alcohol is about as sweet as sucrose and contains approximately 25-33% fewer calories. Many individuals do not experience an aftertaste with xylitol, but may suffer from its laxative effects because it is not fully digested in the body. With no known toxicity or carcinogenicity, xylitol is FDA-approved for sweetening purposes.
Neotame. This FDA-approved sweetener is the only artificial sweetener to also be ranked as safe by the Center for Science in the Public Interest. Although it is 7,000-13,000 times sweeter than sucrose, neotame is not as popular as other sugar alternatives due to problems with taste.

 

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