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Are sugar substitutes bad for you? Yes

Sugar substitutes were once touted as a miracle food because they had no calories, needed no land for growing and didn’t appear to impact blood sugar levels or weight. Synthetic sugars have now been suggested to cause weight gain, increase cancer risk and play a role in cardiovascular disease.

Common synthetic sugar substitutes include saccharin, aspartame, sucralose and erythritol. Some were discovered accidentally, while others were created with the goal of being the next big thing in the low-calorie or no-calorie sweetener world.

What about real sugar?

The pressure real sugar puts on our bodies includes an increased demand on the pancreas to release insulin. Over time, it can create burnout, causing more sugar to stick around in the bloodstream rather than our cells, damaging sensitive tissues like nerves, kidneys, eyes and blood vessels. What starts as insulin resistance leads to Type 2 diabetes, weight gain, obesity, heart disease and non-alcoholic fatty liver disease.

NAFLD is something one-quarter of Canadians have, and the U.S. rates aren’t much better. In 2023, 100 million Americans were diagnosed with NAFLD, with even more being undiagnosed. Sugar intake is a major player in NAFLD, which can lead to cirrhosis, cancer and liver transplantation, so it makes sense that a substitute for sugar should be a good thing, and one to reduce these risks and create a healthier population.

They are not a healthier choice, however, and in 2023, the World Health Organization cautioned against the use of sugar substitutes because of their potential cancer-causing attributes and inability to improve weight outcomes. Another detail is that these potential health risks have been known for years. In animals, aspartame was shown to be carcinogenic in the early 2000s.

No safe place for our sweet tooth.

Humans were not designed to process high levels of sweeteners – natural or not – and the brain was not geared to be rewarded with sweet things daily. But many people don’t realize they are consuming the equivalent of three desserts per day. The WHO suggested people keep their daily intake of sugar to less than 50g, although the average North American consumes closer to 80g. Rather than replacing this sugar addiction with another just-as-unhealthy one, focus on real foods like whole fruit to get the sweetness you crave and read labels. The sugar in whole foods doesn’t count toward the 50g limit, while that in anything with a label, from processed grains, vegetables and fruits, including dried fruits and fruit juice, does.

Watch the sugar balance.

It is important to know that the amount of artificial sweetener you would need to consume to affect your health is quite a lot on its own. But we don’t live simple lives. Our world is full of other health hazards and carcinogens, from the sun’s UV light and air pollution to plastics and hormones in our food. So, if you are health savvy and want to reduce your overall risk for disease, artificial sweeteners should be on your “no” list, now and forever.

Dr. Jennifer Brix is a licensed naturopathic doctor. She earned a bachelor’s degree in biology with distinction from the University of Victoria and completed her professional training at the Boucher Institute of Naturopathic Medicine in New Westminster, British Columbia, Canada.


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