When it comes to supplements, most of us pay close attention to the profile of the most predominant ingredients.
Like, how many grams of protein, carbohydrates, and fat they contain. Or with respect to pre-workouts, how much creatine, caffeine, l-tyrosine, beta-alanine, and citrulline malate they contain,
You know what I mean?
But most of us fail to take a detailed look at their other ingredients, like preservatives, colouring, and the big one, sweeteners.
Artificial vs natural sweeteners
When it comes to the sweeteners found in supplements, they can be broadly categorised as either Artificial or Natural sweeteners.
We can think of both types of sweeteners as “sugar substitutes” that are used to make something taste sweet without the addition of calories that come with regular table sugar (get it… sugar substitute...).
Natural sweeteners as those that have been created from naturally occurring compounds and ingredients. These sweeteners are often derived from plants, and provide very few calories per gram.
On the other hand, artificial sweeteners are synthetic sugar substitutes that are most commonly created in laboratories. These compounds are often known as “intense” sweeteners because they are a lot sweeter than sugar.
Artificial sweeteners can be a useful alternative to sugar because they generally provide very few (and often zero) calories per serving.
However, it is important to note that when looking at these two types of sweeteners, the names can be a little misleading.
There are certain artificial sweeteners that are based upon a number of naturally occurring substances, such as herbs (or sugar itself), and then created in labs. On the other hand, some producers call their sweeteners "natural" even though they are heavily processed or refined.
With this in mind, the natural vs artificial sweetener debate is often a stupid one, because most are safe for consumption and very useful in certain circumstances.
Which is why we wanted to shed some light on the topic.
The most common sweeteners
There are a number of sweeteners that appear very regularly in supplements (amongst a number of other low-calorie foods) that have distinct pros and cons.
With this in mind, we wanted to take a look at the three most common so you can identify what ones you think are best for you at an individual level.
When it comes to natural sweeteners, stevia is arguably the most common.
Derived from the leaves of the stevia plant (“stevia rebaudiana”, for those of you interested in latin), this unique compound contains zero calories but is 200 times sweeter than table sugar.
As such, it is a popular addition to supplements, as well as being a common sugar substitute for people trying to lose weight. Interestingly, there is some evidence to suggest that stevia can also have some other positive effects on heath and function.
In fact, research has shown that it can reduce blood sugar levels in both healthy and overweight individuals. This also appears to come with increased feelings of satisfaction and fullness after eating, even despite lower energy intake .
Moreover, one study has also shown that stevia can lower blood levels of total cholesterol, LDL (or ‘bad’) cholesterol, while simultaneously increasing levels of HDL (or ‘good’) cholesterol found in the blood .
Based on the research, most governing bodies have come to the conclusion that stevia sweeteners are safe for consumption for people of all ages, as long as they keep their daily intake below the recommended 4mg per kg of body weight.
It is important to note that in a single study on rats, stevia consumption did lower testosterone levels and sperm count, although this finding was most likely due to the fact that they were taking more than ten times the recommended limit .
Finally, people with asthma, eczema, or an allergy to plants in the Compositae or Asteraceae families may experience some allergic reactions to stevia. While rare, symptoms may include swelling and itching of the mouth and tongue, stomach pain, nausea, and even vomiting.
All in all, stevia is a great sugar alternative that can provide a number of health benefits beyond just reducing calories -- you just need to be cautious if you have certain allergies to the plant families mentioned above.
Sucralose is a zero calorie artificial sweetener, of which Splenda is the most common brand.
It is often used as a sugar substitute in cooking and baking, while also being added to many food products worldwide (it is especially common in supplements). Sucralose is about 500 times sweeter than sugar, and doesn’t have a bitter aftertaste like many other sweeteners.
It is arguably for this reason that it is so popular.
As far as artificial sweeteners go, sucralose appears to be safe and well tolerated in the vast majority of the population.
However, there is a small body of evidence suggesting that in a small subset of the population sucralose may increase blood sugar levels , and can potentially alter the state of your gut microbiome in a negative manner  -- albeit this appears to only occur in higher dosages.
Moreover, some recent research would suggest that at high temperatures, sucralose may start to break down and interact with other ingredients (especially fat molecules), creating compounds called chloropropanols .
While this may not be a huge concern for most, there is some suggestion that a high consumption of chloropropanols may lead to an increased risk of cancer.
It is also important to note that research would suggest that the issues with sucralose are only going to arise if you either use it in your cooking (i.e. high temperatures), or consume more than the recommended intake of 5mg for each kg body weight -- which is actually quite a lot.
Lastly we have one of the most popular artificial sweeteners on the market -- aspartame.
Aspartame is arguably the most commonly used sweetener when it comes to diet foods and sugar free alternatives because it's easy to make, extremely sweet, and contains absolutely zero calories per gram.
Made from naturally occurring ingredients “aspartic acid” and “phenylalanine”, aspartame borders the line between natural and artificial sweetener. This is because while it is generally made in lab settings, aspartic acid is produced by your body, and phenylalanine is an essential amino acid that you get from food.
Despite some common concerns amongst the population around aspartame causing cancer, these appear to be unfounded.
The European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) conducted a review of more than 600 aspartame studies and found no reason to remove aspartame from the market. They also reported no safety concerns associated with normal intakes, indicating that it is in fact extremely safe .
Recommended aspartame intakes generally sit between 40 and 50 milligrams per kilogram of body weight -- which is a lot.
I mean, a can of coke zero contains 87mg of aspartame.
With this in mind, a 70kg human would have to drink a whopping 32 cans of coke zero before exceeding the recommended daily limit.
However, it is important to note that while aspartame is a great option for most of the population, it should be avoided by people who have a condition called ‘phenylketonuria’ or are taking medications for schizophrenia, as it may have some adverse effects in these individuals.
Sweeteners are one of the most common ingredients used in supplements like pre-workouts and protein powders to make them sweeter (duh).
However, not all sweeteners are made equal.
It appears that while all of them offer an effective way to reduce calorie consumption and keep you feeling satisfied, only stevia has extra positive effects on health. This would suggest it is the best option, with sucralose and aspartame coming in a close second.
- Mishra, Neha. "An Analysis of antidiabetic activity of Stevia rebaudiana extract on diabetic patient." Journal of Natural Science Researc 1.3 (2011): 1-10.
- Suresh, V., et al. "Uses of stevia (Stevia rebaudiana)." J. Med. Plant 6.2 (2018): 247-248.
- Gholizadeh, Fatemeh, et al. "The protective effect of Stevia rebaudiana Bertoni on serum hormone levels, key steroidogenesis enzymes, and testicular damage in testes of diabetic rats." Acta histochemica 121.7 (2019): 833-840.
- Pepino, M. Yanina, et al. "Sucralose affects glycemic and hormonal responses to an oral glucose load." Diabetes care 36.9 (2013): 2530-2535.
- Abou-Donia, Mohamed B., et al. "Splenda alters gut microflora and increases intestinal p-glycoprotein and cytochrome p-450 in male rats." Journal of Toxicology and Environmental Health, Part A 71.21 (2008): 1415-1429.
- Bannach, Gilbert, et al. "Thermal stability and thermal decomposition of sucralose." Eclética Química 34.4 (2009): 21-26.
- EFSA Panel on Food Additives and Nutrient Sources added to Food (ANS). "Scientific Opinion on the re?evaluation of aspartame (E 951) as a food additive." EFSA Journal 11.12 (2013): 3496.