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  • All You Need to Know About Sweeteners

    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.

    1.   Stevia

    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 [1].

    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 [2].

    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 [3].

    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.

    2.   Sucralose

    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 [4], and can potentially alter the state of your gut microbiome in a negative manner [5] -- 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 [6].

    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.

    3.   Aspartame

    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 [7].

    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.



    1. Mishra, Neha. "An Analysis of antidiabetic activity of Stevia rebaudiana extract on diabetic patient." Journal of Natural Science Researc 1.3 (2011): 1-10.
    2. Suresh, V., et al. "Uses of stevia (Stevia rebaudiana)." J. Med. Plant 6.2 (2018): 247-248.
    3. 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.
    4. Pepino, M. Yanina, et al. "Sucralose affects glycemic and hormonal responses to an oral glucose load." Diabetes care 36.9 (2013): 2530-2535.
    5. 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.
    6. Bannach, Gilbert, et al. "Thermal stability and thermal decomposition of sucralose." Eclética Química 34.4 (2009): 21-26.
    7. 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.
  • Aspartame

    Aspartame (additive no. 951) is a non-nutritious, low calorie artificial sweetener used in over 6000 food products. It is commonly found in diet sodas, Equal®, sweetened low fat yogurt, sugar free deserts, some condiments, certain sweets and sugar-free gums. The use of aspartame is approved by the US (FDA), European Union (EFSA) and Australia/New Zealand (FSANZ) food safety authorities and is considered safe for human consumption by over 90 countries in the world (Acceptable daily intake at up to 40mg/kg/day of body weight as of 2006).

    A survey conducted by the Cancer Council of Australia in 2003 found that most Australians consume 6-15% of the established acceptable daily intake of aspartame per day, which was well below the level where adverse health effect could occur. To put this into perspective, Diet Coke contains around 0.52mg/mL of aspartame. This means, a 60kg person would need to drink around 4.6L of Diet Coke per day to reach the upper limit of the acceptable daily intake for aspartame. If you prefer Coke Zero, which contains approximately 0.24mg/mL aspartame, then one 60kg will have to drink 10L of that stuff a day to be considered unsafe. That is quite a lot of liquid and it's very unlikely for anyone to consume that much fluid in a day.

    What was generally agreed on by most food safety governing bodies, is that aspartame, even though can be damaging to human health when consumed in high doses, is safe for normal human consumption as the average aspartame ingested daily per person falls well within the upper limit of its acceptable daily intake quantity. That sounds quite harmless, I mean, too much of anything can be damaging to health, even drinking too much water can cause hypernatremia (water intoxication) and may potentially lead to death, no kidding. So where did all these controversies surrounding aspartame come from?

    Historically, there has always been controversy surrounding the use of aspartame, the head of FDA was fired in 1981, allegedly after refusing to approve the legalization of aspartame (Cancer Council of Western Australia, 2010, accessed on 10th December 2012). Since the legalization of aspartame, there have been a number of reviews by food safety authorities over the safety of its consumption, and each time the reviewing organization maintained the position that aspartame is safe for human consumption.

    The most recent controversy over the safety of aspartame consumption that lead to a new round of reviewing and re-evaluation appeared to sprung from 2 independent studies published in 2010. One study investigated the long-term carcinogenic (cancer causing) effects of aspartame in mice (Soffritti et al. 2010, American Journal of Industrial Nutrition) and concluded that the life-long consumption of aspartame can result in liver and lung cancers in the mice tested. The other study analysed 59,334 Danish pregnant women and made the association between artificially sweetened soft drink intake and the increased risk for preterm delivery (Halldorsson et al. 2010, American Journal of Clinical Nutrition). In response, the EFSA conducted scientific evaluations on the above 2 studies and released its statement on February 2011. In the statement, EFTA pointed out the fatal experimental design flaws of both studies mentioned above, and rightfully concluded that neither provide sufficient evidence to demonstrate that aspartame is carcinogenic or can increase the risk of preterm delivery. Based on available scientific evidence at the time, the EFTA stated that aspartame is safe for human consumption.

    A number of studies regarding to the safety of consuming aspartame has been published since EFTA statement on February 2011. Below are snippets of some of the scientific literatures available since 2011 regarding the safety of aspartame:

    • It was found that the consumption of equal or greater than 1 daily serving of diet soda can slightly increase the risk of non-Hodgkin lymphoma and multiple myeloma in men but not in women compared to those compared to caloric sugar-sweetened soda, the author concluded that the study results indicated the "possibility" of a detrimental effect of aspartame on the risk of cancers tested (Schernhammer et al, 2012, American Journal of Nutrition).
    • A study found that the long-term consumption of aspartame can lead to an imbalance of antioxidants and pro-oxidant status in the brain in rats (Abhilash et al, 2012, Drug and Chemical Toxicology).
    • Chronic exposure of aspartame can result in detectable methanol in blood and subsequently induces oxidative stress in rat brains (Iyyaswamy and Rathinasamy 2012, Journal of Biosciences).
    • A medical case report found that the consumption of aspartame caused systemic allergic dermatitis in a 37 year old woman (Veien and Lomholt 2012, Contact Dermatitis).

    Sound scary isn't it? Well only if the results of the studies are scientifically sound. Perhaps in response to the new studies emerged describing the possible adverse effects of consuming aspartame, on May 2011, EFTA was asked by the European Commission to conduct a full re-evaluation on the safety of aspartame. On June 2011, EFTA launched a public call for scientific data on aspartame and the re-evaluation is expected to be completed on May 2013.

    Many consume artificially sweetened food and drinks as part of their weight management regime. The intake of aspartame in place of caloric sugar does not cause weight loss if a person consumes the same amount of calories. Interestingly, it has been found that consuming aspartame without knowing can lead to reduced total calorie intake whereas knowingly ingesting aspartame can increase overall energy intake (Yang 2010, Yale Journal of Biology and Medicine). So if you want to lose weight, either ingest aspartame in place of caloric sugar without knowing it, or just simply eat healthy and restrict your overall daily energy intake. The long-term effect of artificial sweeteners on children and adolescents is unknown and its potential role in weight management in relatively unclear (Foreyt et al. 2012, The Journal of Nutrition). Additionally the American Heart Foundation and American Diabetes Foundation also issued a statement stating that there are insufficient data indicating that the use of artificial sweeteners in place of caloric sweeteners "reduced added sugars or carbohydrate intakes, or benefit appetite, energy balance, body weight, or cardiometabolic risk factors" (Gardner et al. 2012, Circulation). Thus, I suggest you to exercise caution when using artificial sweeteners such as aspartame as part of your weight management regime, until more concrete scientific data on the safety and efficacy of these sweeteners are available.

    So what's my position on aspartame? Well, I myself am guilty of consuming decent quantities of diet soda each week. After researching for this article, the can of diet soda that usually sits on the side of my computer when I'm having the writer's block was replaced by a glass of spring water. I am eager to see the final results of the EFTA re-evaluation and their soon-to-be updated recommendations regarding to aspartame consumption. Until then, I will be on an aspartame elimination diet.

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