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Are Artificial Sweeteners Really Better Than Sugar?
Updated on September 27, 2023
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Diet / Weight Loss
Are Artificial Sweeteners Really Better Than Sugar?
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Whether artificial sweeteners are better than sugar depends on your health goals, taste preferences, and how you include them in your diet.

Generally, artificial sweeteners are great for reducing calorie and sugar intake. As sugar substitutes, they provide sweetness without adding too many calories or causing blood sugar spikes.

However, it’s important to note that artificial sweeteners come with potential concerns and depend on different factors, such as:

  • Different taste preferences
  • Metabolic responses
  • Health debates

Moreover, artificial sweeteners and sugar substitutes don’t provide essential nutrients from natural sugar sources, like fruits.

Whether you choose regular sugar or artificial sweeteners, they should be consumed in moderation as part of a balanced diet.

Are Artificial Sweeteners Really Better Than Sugar? 3

Understanding Sweeteners and Gut Health

Experts are still figuring out how artificial sweeteners can affect gut health. Some things scientists are looking into are:

Good and Bad Bacteria

The gut has many tiny living organisms called bacteria that help digestion. Some studies suggest that specific artificial sweeteners might change the kinds of bacteria in your gut.1

Bacteria can affect your health, so knowing how artificial sweeteners alter the good and bad gut bacteria is important. Not all studies agree, so research is currently inconclusive.

Sweetness and Cravings

Artificial sweeteners can taste super sweet. Some research shows that consuming artificial sweeteners can affect sweet taste perception.2

You might like extremely sweet things more when you eat a lot of sweets. This might make you crave more sugary stuff, affecting how much you eat and your gut health.

Blood Sugar and Insulin

Some people use artificial sweeteners to avoid sugar spikes. However, consuming artificial sweeteners might still change how your body uses sugar. They can confuse the body’s normal metabolic response.

When you use artificial sweeteners, they provide a sweet taste that activates the taste receptors on the tongue. This tells the brain that sugar is incoming.

In anticipation, the body starts preparing to process this sugar by releasing insulin, which regulates blood sugar levels.

However, artificial sweeteners contain little to no actual sugar. When the body doesn't receive the expected sugar influx, it can lead to disruptions in insulin regulation and may contribute to insulin resistance over time.

As a result, this could impact how the gut works and how you process energy.

Inflammation and Irritability

There's concern that some artificial sweeteners can irritate the gut. This might lead to tiny amounts of inflammation, similar to the body's response to something it doesn't like.3

Experts are doing more studies, and we're not yet sure how big of a deal it is.

Note: If you have glucose intolerance, this may also be triggered. Those with glucose intolerance may sometimes have adverse reactions to artificial sweeteners.

The Importance of Gut Health

The collection of bacteria in your gut called the "gut microbiota," “gut microbiome,” or "gut flora," is significant in your overall well-being. One of the most essential roles of your microbiome is its influence on digestion and nutrient absorption.

Imagine your gut as a busy neighborhood inside your intestines. It's home to many organisms called bacteria that help with digestion. Bacteria break down your food and turn it into energy and nutrients your body needs.

There's more to it. Your gut also has a say in how your body fights off harmful bacteria. It's like having your bodyguards. They ensure your immune system is strong and ready to defend against foreign bodies, allergies, or intolerances (like glucose intolerance).

Your gut and brain are friends. They work together, affecting how you feel and even how well you think.

So, taking care of your gut is vital to your health. If the bacteria in your gut are happy and working together, you're less likely to have tummy troubles and other problems.

If they're unhappy—maybe because you're not eating well or stressed—it can lead to issues like upset stomachs, being more prone to sickness, or even feeling down.

Eating good food can keep your gut strong and your body healthy.

Different Types of Sweeteners

When it comes to adding sweetness to food and drinks, there are lots of choices out there, including:

  • Table sugar – The most common sweetener derived from sugarcane
  • Honey – Natural sweetener that comes from flower nectar
  • Maple syrup – Natural sweetener from maple sap used as a sugar substitute
  • Agave nectar – Derived from agave plants and usually used as sugar substitutes
  • Stevia – Plant-derived sweetener that is sweet but low in calories
  • Aspartame – Artificial sweetener found in diet sodas and sugar-free food
  • Sucralose – Artificial sweetener commonly used in sugar-free gums
  • Saccharin – Decades-old artificial sweetener commonly found in tabletop sweetener packets
  • Erythritol – Sugar alcohol used as a low-calorie sugar substitute in many products
  • Monk fruit extract – Natural sweetener that is intense in sweetness without the calories

There are natural sweeteners and artificial sweeteners. Finding the one for you depends on your preferences and health needs.

Luckily, both natural sweeteners and artificial sweeteners can be easy to find in supermarkets.

Best Sweeteners for Gut Health

There’s no definitive answer regarding the best sweetener for gut health. Let’s look at some sweeteners to see how they can affect overall gut health.

Stevia and Gut Health

Stevia is a natural sweetener from a plant called Bertoni or Stevia rebaudiana. It's sweeter than sugar but has no calories, so many people use it as one of the most common sugar substitutes.

While stevia might seem like a healthier choice, some studies suggest it could affect the balance of bacteria in the stomach.4

There's a possibility that stevia could interfere with how our gut communicates with the rest of our body. It can also potentially reduce the number of good bacteria, affecting digestion and metabolism.

Not all studies agree, so more research is needed to understand how stevia impacts our gut health. The key takeaway is that while sugar substitutes like stevia might seem like a great way to cut down on sugar, be mindful of their potential effects on gut health.

Since it’s one of the more popular low calorie sweeteners, more people tend to use it.

Erythritol and Gut Health

Erythritol is a natural sweetener that's made by fermenting glucose. Natural sweeteners like this are often used as a sugar substitute.

While not as sweet as regular sugar, it has zero calories and doesn't cause tooth decay or spikes in blood sugar levels. You may find it labeled as "sugar-free" or "low-calorie."

There are some downsides to erythritol. A study found it may cause some people bloating, cramps, gas, or diarrhea.5 Another study found that consuming erythritol may result in blood clots.6

Erythritol may also positively impact the blood sugar levels of people with blood glucose intolerance.

While erythritol can be a sugar substitute, you should know its potential side effects and ongoing research about its impact on health.

Xylitol and Gut Health

Xylitol is an artificial sweetener used as a healthier alternative to sugar. It's often found in sugar-free products like gum and candy. Some studies suggest that xylitol could be good for the bacteria in our gut.7

Xylitol may increase good bacteria in our gut. However, artificial sweetener consumption may lead to stomach problems like diarrhea and gas, so it's important to use it in moderation.

Regarding how our body handles sugar, xylitol has been shown to have a more negligible impact than regular sugar. Still, research must be done to understand how xylitol affects gut health.

Yacon Syrup and Gut Health

Yacon syrup is a natural sweetener from the yacon plant, which grows in South America's Andes Mountains. It is unique because it's made of a carbohydrate that our bodies can't fully digest, meaning it has fewer calories than other natural sweeteners.

One of the benefits of yacon syrup is its potential to improve gut health. It can stimulate the growth of beneficial bacteria in the gut and promote a healthier gut microbiome.8

Some studies suggest that yacon syrup might relieve constipation and increase stool frequency. However, people with sensitive stomachs may experience discomfort, including gas, diarrhea, nausea, and upset stomach when they consume yacon syrup.

Monk Fruit Sweetener and Gut Health

Monk fruit sweeteners may positively impact gut health more than regular sugar. It doesn't have the carbohydrates that can feed harmful bacteria. 

Excessive regular sugar intake can sometimes negatively affect the balance of bacteria and lead to issues like inflammation.

Monk fruit sweetener is sweet without adding calories or raising blood sugar levels, making it a popular choice for people looking to reduce their sugar caloric intake.

The Effects of Artificial Sweeteners on Gut Bacteria

Different artificial sweeteners may have other effects on gut bacteria. Let’s dive into some common artificial sweeteners and how they impact gut health.

Aspartame and Gut Bacteria

Some studies with animals have suggested that aspartame can alter your microbiome. It may cause bacteria imbalance or dysbiosis, causing issues like inflammation, metabolic disorders, and immune system problems.9

Sucralose and Gut Bacteria

In a recent study, scientists examined how sugar substitutes, including sucralose, affect blood sugar levels and gut bacteria.10

They found that sucralose could cause a spike in blood sugar. The study also showed that after people ate these sugar substitutes, their stomach bacteria changed.11

We still don't know exactly how big of a problem this is, and scientists need to do more research to understand it better.

Acesulfame Potassium and Gut Bacteria

Acesulfame potassium, or Ace-K, is an FDA-approved sugar substitute. However, some scientists are digging deeper and are concerned with some findings.

In a study with mice, they saw that Ace-K might make the mice put on weight and mess up the good bacteria in their guts.12 This isn't great news because these changes could cause issues like getting overweight and having inflammation that doesn't go away.

So, even though it got the green light, Ace-K’s safety is still debatable.

Saccharin and Gut Bacteria

In a similar study with sucralose, saccharin was also found to have the potential to alter stomach bacteria and create an imbalance.13

Can Artificial Sweeteners Cause Stomach Problems?

Artificial sweeteners may cause stomach problems for some people. These can include issues like feeling bloated, gas, or diarrhea.

Since some artificial sweeteners aren't easy for the body to absorb, they stay in your gut longer and cause problems.

The Connection Between Artificial Sweeteners and Stomach Issues

Consuming certain artificial sweeteners can lead to an imbalance of good bacteria in your gut. For example, in a study, artificial substitutes like saccharin and sucralose were found to alter gut microbes, resulting in stomach problems.13

Some people can handle artificial options just fine with no stomach problems. If you notice that some artificial sweeteners upset your stomach, cutting back on them or avoiding them might be smart.

Common Stomach Problems Associated with Artificial Sweeteners

Some common stomach problems linked to artificial sweeteners are:

  • Bloating
  • Gas
  • Diarrhea
  • Gastrointestinal distress
  • Nausea and vomiting
  • Stomach cramps
  • Changes in bowel movements
  • Sensitive stomach

Natural Sugar Alternatives and Their Impact on Gut Health

Now, let’s explore different natural sugar alternatives and how they can impact gut health.

Honey and Gut Health

Honey is a sweet and natural syrup made by bees from flower nectar. It has been linked to potential benefits for gut health. It's rich in antioxidants and prebiotics, which can positively influence the gut microbiota.

Prebiotics are food for the friendly bacteria living in your gut. When these good bacteria thrive, your digestion works better, and your stomach stays healthier.

Are Artificial Sweeteners Really Better Than Sugar? 4

According to a study, honey might also have anti-inflammatory and antibacterial properties that help your gut.14

Consuming honey in moderation is still important due to its high natural sugar content. Too much can lead to excessive sugar intake and potential health issues.

Coconut Sugar and Gut Health

Coconut sugar is a natural sweetener made from coconut palm tree sap. It's good for your gut because it contains inulin, a fiber that acts as a prebiotic, helping friendly gut microbes grow stronger and improve digestion.

Coconut sugar has a lower glycemic index than regular sugar, so it doesn't cause quick blood sugar spikes that can harm your gut.

However, use it in moderation, especially if you have blood glucose intolerance issues like diabetes. A balanced diet with fiber-rich foods like fruits and vegetables should be the primary focus for human gut health, with coconut sugar enjoyed as an occasional treat.

Maple Syrup and Gut Health

Maple syrup is a natural sweetener made from the sap of maple trees. It’s friendly to your gut health because it has a special fiber called inulin, which supports your digestive system and immunity. 

One tablespoon of this sweetener provides about a third of essential nutrients like zinc, copper, potassium, magnesium, calcium, and iron. It provides about a third of the daily manganese requirement, which is crucial for your bones, brain, nerves, and metabolism.

It’s rich in antioxidants that can lower your risk of heart disease and certain cancers.

While maple syrup offers health benefits, remember not to go overboard. It's still sugary, so enjoy it in moderation, especially if you have glucose intolerance.

How to Choose the Right Sweetener for Your Gut Health

When choosing the right sweetener for your gut health, use natural sweeteners like honey, coconut sugar, and maple syrup. They are better for your gut than artificial sweeteners and regular table sugar. They offer human gut health benefits because they contain helpful nutrients like antioxidants and prebiotic fibers.

Factors to Consider When Choosing a Sweetener

Choosing a sweetener involves the following:

  • Health goals – Consider your medical history and dietary restrictions when choosing between natural or artificial sweeteners
  • Taste – Some artificial sweeteners have an aftertaste, which may not be suitable for specific beverages or recipes
  • Calorie content – Some artificial sweeteners are low in calories, while natural sweeteners can be high
  • Allergies – Be aware of allergies that you have to avoid choosing natural or artificial sweeteners that may trigger them
  • Texture – Some natural or artificial sweeteners are too coarse while others may be too fine
  • Cooking or baking – Some artificial sweeteners are not suitable for high temperatures, so pick those that can survive your cooking or baking methods
  • Natural vs. artificial – Natural sweeteners are packed with nutrients but may be calorie-dense, while artificial sweeteners can be zero-calorie options

Making Informed Decisions about Sweeteners and Gut Health

To make informed decisions about sweeteners and gut health, consider whether you want natural or artificial sweeteners. See how they may interact with your gut microbiome.

Natural or artificial sweetener consumption should be in moderation because excessive intake can lead to stomach bacteria imbalance. Choose natural or artificial sweeteners that match your nutritional needs and goals.

Consult a doctor or dietitian to guide you in selecting the right natural or artificial sweeteners for a healthy gut.

Updated on September 27, 2023
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14 sources cited
Updated on September 27, 2023
  1. Effects of Sweeteners on the Gut Microbiota: A Review of Experimental Studies and Clinical Trials.” National Library of Medicine.

  2. The Effect of Artificial Sweeteners Use on Sweet Taste Perception and Weight Loss Efficacy: A Review.” National Library of Medicine.

  3. Artificial Sweeteners: History and New Concepts on Inflammation.” National Library of Medicine.

  4. The Effects of Stevia Consumption on Gut Bacteria: Friend or Foe?” National Library of Medicine.

  5. Erythritol.” American Chemical Society.

  6. Erythritol and Cardiovascular Events.” National Library of Medicine.

  7. Xylitol Enhances Synthesis of Propionate in the Colon via Cross-Feeding of Gut Microbiota.” National Library of Medicine.

  8. Dietary Intake of Yacon Roots (Smallanthus Sonchifolius) Affects Gut Microbiota and Fecal Mucin and Prevents Intestinal Inflammation in Mice.” National Library of Medicine.

  9. Artificial Sweeteners Negatively Regulate Pathogenic Characteristics of Two Model Gut Bacteria, E. coli and E. faecalis.” National Library of Medicine.

  10. Ten-Week Sucralose Consumption Induces Gut Dysbiosis and Altered Glucose and Insulin Levels in Healthy Young Adults.” National Library of Medicine.

  11. Potential Effects of Sucralose and Saccharin on Gut Microbiota: A Review.” National Library of Medicine.

  12. The Artificial Sweetener Acesulfame Potassium Affects the Gut Microbiome and Body Weight Gain in CD-1 Mice.” PLOS ONE.

  13. Potential Effects of Sucralose and Saccharin on Gut Microbiota: A Review.” National Library of Medicine.

  14. Honey: Its Medicinal Property and Antibacterial Activity.” National Library of Medicine.

Will Hunter
Will Hunter
Content Contributor
Will is a content writer for KnowYourDNA. He received his B.A. in Psychology from the University of California, Los Angeles. Will has 7 years of experience writing health-related content, with an emphasis on nutrition, alternative medicine, and longevity.
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