For International Diabetes Day, I wrote a post on some surprising ways to manage your blood sugars for diabetes prevention and management and at the top of my list was avoiding artificial sweeteners. Since this is such a controversial topic given our current diabesity epidemic, I thought that it would be worthwhile expanding upon that tip with more in-depth information about why you should reconsider your love of calorie free sweeteners.

1. Zero calorie sweeteners are not associated with lower weights.

Epidemiological studies (while not gold standard evidence) show that overall, use of zero calorie sweeteners in fact is not associated with lower weights over time. You know what is? Eating more plant foods.

 2. Zero calorie sweeteners may increase your appetite and food intake.

Part of the complexity of hunger regulation involves pathways in the brain that are triggered both by the sensation of sweet on the tongue and the expected rise in blood sugars that usually follow their ingestion. When the blood sugar rise doesn’t come, the messaging is incomplete – essentially leaving your body and brain dissatisfied and looking for more.

3. Zero calorie sweeteners are completely unnecessary for human life and work by biological trickery.

In order for zero calorie sweeteners to taste sweet without providing energy, they need to either resist absorption into the blood stream (such as sugar alcohols or sucralose) or be created via a non-biological, low caloric substance (such as aspartame or acesulfame-K). We have little long-term evidence to support what this biological trickery does to human health and in fact, it is likely that it will be difficult to tease out these effects with certainty.

4. Zero calorie sweeteners reinforce a sweet tooth

These hyper-sweet substances only serve to reinforce our love of sweets, luring our taste buds away from the naturally sour, bitter and astringent flavours of healthy plant foods. Nature simply can’t compete with these manufactured flavours and the more you indulge in commercial sweetened foods the more likely it is that you will go down the wrong dietary path.

5. Zero calorie sweeteners are most often found in unhealthy choices and provide a cloak of ‘healthwashing’ that helps you to justify those choices.

Why not have a diet cola instead of a glass of almond milk, fresh pressed green juice or organic milk? Because, while calorie free, that diet cola has absolutely zero beneficial nutrients and a few – caffeine, phosphoric acid – that can be of detriment to the human body. But its lack of calories seems like a free pass when it is anything but harmless to your overall health and vitality.

6. Most natural, calorie-free sweeteners aren’t really that natural.

If artificial sweeteners are evil, natural alternatives must be better, right? Not so – sugar alcohols, for example, can cause digestive distress in those with sensitive digestive systems. Given the large numbers suffering from irritable bowel-like symptoms and food sensitivities, sugar alcohols don’t seem like a great dietary choice. Xylitol, a sugar alcohol beneficial for dental health, is actually a byproduct of the pulp and paper industry. Stevia, while a natural choice in its whole, powdered and tincture forms, is losing favour to the more highly processed RebA isolates that look like little sugar packets. We have no long-term data to show safety in these new isolates and those who claim safety because of traditional stevia use should consider all of the drugs that are in fact isolated from natural sources as well.

So what to do? Choose unsweetened, whole foods most often and learn to love the true flavours of real food. When the time comes for a bit of sweetness, go for the real thing – I love honey and maple syrup best – and know that it is a treat, not a way of life.