I would need extra fingers to count the amount of times I’ve gone into the shop to find a quick snack and been bombarded with the choice in the health food aisle. When time isn’t always on our side (I’m not the only one to get ‘hangry’, I hope!) it’s often quite overwhelming to know what to choose. More products than ever are claiming to be ‘sugar free’, ‘low in sugar’, ‘no added sugar’ or to ‘contain natural sugars’ and it can be hard to know what it all means as sneaky marketing and nice packaging can essentially disguise any questionable ingredients.
Artificial sweeteners are a hot topic and widely used in many of the foods we consider ‘healthy’. The main benefit of an artificial sweetener is that it means products can be made to taste sweet without having all of the calories. Unfortunately this generally means a food additive has been used instead, which isn’t natural or defined as ‘Real Food’ - our focus here at KOJA.
I’ve rounded up some of the main offenders used in ‘health foods’ and protein products and what they really are:
Aspartame – This is an artificial sweetener used in food and beverages with a similar sweetness level to sugar. Aspartame became popular in the 1980s under well known brands such as Equal. It’s now used widely in Coke Zero, Wrigley’s Chewing Gum, other “no sugar” soft drinks. Extensive research has been conducted to claim that aspartame is safe however there is also a lot of debate linking Aspartame with leukaemia and other blood cancers. The results of these studies are often inconsistent, meaning if you’re asking me I’d simply avoid them.
Aspartame is made in a laboratory by adding aspartic acid with phenylalanine. When this is broken down in our bodies it creates Methanol- a simple alcohol which, to our bodies, is a toxin. Yes, it’s only in minor quantities but it’s not healthy and definitely isn’t real food.
Other names for Aspartame: aspartic acid, phenylalanine, equal, nutrasweet.
Sugar Alcohols: This is a group of sweeteners that are chemically made by combining sugar molecules and alcohol molecules. They are different to low-calorie sweeteners like Aspartame because they contain calories, about half the amount of normal sugar. Sugar alcohols are definitely off the list for anyone following a low FODMAP diet. Like with many artificial sweeteners they often leave a strange aftertaste in your mouth. Commonly used Sugar Alcohols are: Xylitol, Erythritol, Sorbitol; we go into more details on these below. Another important reason why we choose to avoid sweeteners like these is because of their laxative warnings. Unabsorbed food additives can retain water in the large intestine causing diarrhea. Your digestive system can’t properly absorb the nutrients in food if sweeteners are causing a diuretic and laxative effect. Diarrhea is also likely to lead to dehydration. These are all factors that are highly likely to leave you feeling tired and exhausted, instead of healthy and energised from real food. No thanks.
Xylitol – A sugar alcohol. What really concerns me about Xylitol is that it is almost always marketed as ‘Natural’. I call b**lsh*t. The regulation surrounding the use of the term natural in food products is very loose. Xylitol is a food additive that has some plant origins however is manufactured by the hydrogenation of xylose. Doesn’t sound very natural right? So don’t be fooled – it contains no vitamins or minerals and is essentially empty calories. If too much is consumed some people have experienced negative digestive issues.
Sorbitol - Another sugar alcohol chemically produced. It can be confusing because Sorbitol can be found naturally in some fruits but, and this is a big but, those fruits don’t have ingredient lists! As soon as you read sorbitol on an ingredient list please know it has been manufactured and chemically produced and added during food manufacturing. It is not natural. Sorbitol is one of the worst offenders for causing water retention, leading to a laxative effect. You know the sign they put on chewing gum and mints? Take that as a warning that the product is not real food.
Erythritol – A sugar alcohol. This is labelled as 100% natural… but seriously? Erythritol is a chemical compound, a sugar alcohol, used as a food additive and sugar substitute It is industrially and chemically produced. If consumed in large amounts, it has been associated with stomach problems like diarrhoea or cramps.
Acesulfame K - Another chemical sweetener, Acesulfame K is usually found in a blend with other sweeteners such as aspartame and sucralose. These are often blended together to mask the bitter aftertaste caused when sweeteners are used on their own.
Stevia – Derived from a Stevia plant, it’s main usage is to provide a sweet flavour without any added calories. However in practice the taste is very different from real food sources of sweetness and stevia will often leave a bad aftertaste in your mouth for several minutes. For that reason Stevia is commonly found together with a cocktail mix of other food additives to cover the bad taste so that's one of the main reasons I recommend limiting it.
Natural Flavours – Whilst not technically a sweetener I had to mention this culprit here. Whilst I’m on the topic of the misuse of the word Natural, this one is a main offender. The words ‘natural flavour’ are used when essential oils are heated or roasted within a product for flavouring, but they provide us with no nutritional value – because it’s only flavouring. It’s another case where I have to question the definition of natural.
So you might be thinking – what would actually happen if I did eat some of these additives? When we eat foods containing carbohydrates, our blood sugar levels rise and our bodies release insulin to bring it back to a normal level. Claims have been made that artificial sweeteners can interrupt this process, and that they can also play havoc with our gut and the good bacteria. The worry is that we don’t really know the complete effect of artificial sweeteners as there hasn’t been consistent and conclusive human based studies. Occasionally, eating a food or drink with sweeteners is not going to be an issue in my opinion but reading labels and knowing what you’re consuming every day is important.
My advice would be - if you see artificial sweeteners on a label– avoid the product. (Even when they’re marketed at ‘natural’! Remember it’s often b**lsh*t!)
And of course, when it comes to food additives and artificial sweeteners you’ll never find any of these ingredients in our range of products – KOJA products are all made with only natural ingredients and real food. Our mission is to eat Real Food and Feel Better.
P.S. We have done more research and have enough here for a Part 2 on sweeteners so stay tuned for more on Monk Fruit, Chicory Fibre, Inulin and more.
Foods to avoid if you want to reduce your food additive intake, especially artificial sweeteners:
- Beverages: No sugar soft drinks, Coke Xero and low sugar milk drinks.
- Some yoghurts and ice-creams.
- Protein bars - almost all of them, except KOJA of course ;)
- Chewing gum.
What other products do you avoid because of artificial sweeteners? Comment below.