Exposed: Plant-sweeteners and type 2 diabetes
By: Shona Wilkinson
Why do those collagen gels, turmeric shots, or green, vanilla and chocolate meal replacement shakes taste so nice? It's because they include plant-sweeteners that are up to 350x sweeter than sugar that have no long term benefit for weight loss as an alternative to sugar, and they increase the risk of type 2 diabetes and other serious health conditions. The World Health Organisation (WHO) has now officially warned consumers against using non-sugar sweeteners, including artificial sweeteners and plant-sweeteners such as stevia, which is found in most collagen supplements and meal replacement powder mixes.
'Plant-based' doesn't always mean good - don't forget, sugar is plant-based. We explain sweeteners, their risks, what to look out for, and why you should avoid sweeteners in food and drink, and avoid meal replacement and protein shakes which include plant-sweeteners.
Why are sweeteners bad?
The consumption of plant-sweeteners and artificial sweeteners has been a concern for a long time now given their use in weight loss foods and drinks, gummies, liquid supplements, meal replacement and protein powders.
The debate culminated in May 2023 with the World Health Organisation (WHO) announcing after extensive research that using sweeteners "does not confer any long-term benefit in reducing body fat in adults or children" and, worse still, "there could be 'undesirable effects' such as an increased risk of type 2 diabetes, cardiovascular diseases, and mortality in adults." Learn more about the 10 symptoms of diabetes to look out for, and below we explain how sweeteners increase the risk of diabetes.
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The sweeteners the WHO is referring to include those found in the best-selling collagen and turmeric shots, meal replacement and protein shakes, including stevia and stevia derivatives, saccharin, sucralose, aspartame, advantame, cyclamates and many others.
Why did the WHO act? One reason is that companies proudly state on their packaging 'No artificial sweeteners', yet their products contain high levels of plant-sweeteners which are shown to be at least as bad as sugar and artificial sweeteners for increasing the risk of type 2 diabetes and other health conditions. The image below is an example from the pack of one of the most popular supplement powders, claiming it is 'free from artificial sweeteners'. Yet the ingredients list on the pack shows it includes 'Stevia', a plant-sweetener which is at least as bad for your long term health as any artificial sweetener.
Of equal concern is not only do these meal replacement powder drinks contain up to 65% fewer nutrients than a high quality Daily Multi-Vitamin, they are endorsed by some of the most popular podcasters, bloggers and sports people, including Dr Andrew Huberman and Formula 1 star Lewis Hamilton. This is one of the reasons the WHO needed to act. You may also enjoy reading 'Do meal replacements work?'.
What are sweeteners?
Sweeteners are substances used to enhance the taste of food and beverages without adding significant calories. They come in various forms, including natural plant-based options and artificial options. Sweeteners are found in thousands of food products from snack bars, chewing gum, biscuits, cakes to supplement powders.
Plant-sweeteners, such as stevia, stevia derivatives and xylitol, are derived from plant or tree sources and offer an alternative to traditional sugar. Sweeteners such as stevia are 200-350x sweeter than sugar and can have just as serious health consequences as sugar, as highlighted by the WHO.
Artificial sweeteners, such as aspartame, saccharin and sucralose, are often positioned as healthier ‘artificial’ options to sugar. They’re synthetic compounds designed to mimic the taste of sugar and are more commonly found in fizzy drinks and processed foods.
Common myths about sweeteners
Here are two of the biggest myths about sweeteners, as confirmed by the World Health Organisation (WHO).
Myth 1: Sweeteners don't affect my blood sugar or risk of diabetes
Sweeteners do impact blood sugar and the risk of diabetes. The body releases insulin in response to a sweet taste. When the sugar doesn't enter the blood system, there becomes an excess of insulin. The excess insulin takes the available blood sugar and stores it as fat, and you are then left with too low blood sugar levels, contributing to sugar cravings. These sugar cravings can lead to consistently high production of insulin, which your body then becomes resistant to and stops accepting, leading to higher levels of glucose in the blood. This is known as pre-diabetes or ‘insulin resistance’. You may also enjoy learning about the symptoms of high blood sugar.
Myth 2: Plant-sweeteners are always safe
Not true. While stevia and monk fruit extract are generally considered safe in the short term, their long term risks have now been confirmed by the WHO, and other plant-based sweeteners may have differing impacts on health. It is crucial to evaluate each sweetener independently.
Health risks of sweeteners
Consuming sweeteners daily or in excessive amounts may pose certain health risks. Health issues that can arise from sweeteners include:
1. Metabolic effects and diabetes
Long-term consumption of artificial sweeteners has been associated with altered metabolism, weight gain and an increased risk of metabolic disorders, including diabetes. This is because the body tastes something sweet and prepares insulin for the incoming sugar load, but because the sweeteners do not contain sugar, insulin stores all available blood sugar as fat. The body then becomes low in blood sugar, which triggers cravings, most often sweet food. If you reach for the sweetener again, the same process occurs again.
Insulin resistance is when the body has produced insulin at too high levels over a long period and becomes too resistant to the insulin. This means your body doesn't use the insulin to convert blood glucose into energy, leaving higher blood glucose levels in the blood. Diabetes is a condition where the body is unable to deal with blood sugar which can create serious health risks, including cardiovascular disease, stroke and death. You may also enjoy 'The best foods for Type 2 diabetes'.
2. Gut health and sweeteners
Sweeteners can influence the composition and diversity of gut bacteria, potentially affecting digestion, nutrient absorption, and our overall gut health. This, in turn, can affect your concentration, mood, skin health and other issues including bloating and IBS. Learn more on why you should improve your gut health.
3. Cravings and food choices
Regularly consuming sweeteners may perpetuate cravings for sweet-tasting foods and beverages, making it even more challenging to maintain a balanced diet and maintain a healthy weight. You may be interested in reading 'Is oat milk good for diabetes?'.
4. Sensitivities and allergies
Some people may experience adverse reactions to specific sweeteners, ranging from digestive issues to allergic reactions and hyperactivity.
The World Health Organisation (WHO) advice on sweeteners reminds us to approach sweetener consumption with caution and if at all, in moderation and fully aware of the risks. While sweeteners can provide a low-calorie alternative to sugar, it is essential to understand the potential health risks associated with their use. Always check the label for stevia sweeteners, mannitol, xylitol, aspartame, sucralose, saccharin and other sweeteners and if you spot them, think twice.
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Stevia sweeteners: Stevia is a plant-based sweetener derived from the ‘Stevia rebaudiana plant’. It is very commonly mistaken as a healthier alternative to artificial sweeteners. Stevia is up to 350x sweeter than sugar and contains zero calories. Stevia is the most common sweetener used in meal replacements and protein shakes. Always #CheckTheIngredients and #CheckTheLabel for Stevia.
Shakes like this contain stevia sweeteners.
Monk Fruit Extract: Also known as Luo Han Guo, monk fruit extract is derived from the fruit of the 'Siraitia grosvenorii' plant. It is a natural, non-caloric sweetener that is much sweeter than sugar. Monk fruit extract is commonly used in beverages, baked goods, and other food products.
Xylitol: Xylitol, which is just as sweet as sugar, is a common ingredient in sugar-free chewing gum. While it occurs naturally in many fruits and vegetables, it is commercially produced from birch tree bark and corn for use as a sweetener.
Mannitol: Mannitol occurs naturally in honeydew, algae, mushrooms and olives, and for commercial and pharmaceutical use as a sweetener it is extracted through the hydrogenation of sugars from corn or wheat starch, to be used as a sweetening agent.
Common artificial sweeteners
Artificial sweeteners have gained popularity due to their low-calorie content and sweetness when compared to sugar. However, as with all sweeteners, the WHO emphasises that their consumption should be moderated or avoided.
Erythritol: a sugar alcohol often found in sugar-free products, is known for its minimal impact on blood sugar levels, making it a popular choice for those with diabetes. However, excessive consumption of artificial sweeteners can have health consequences.
Aspartame: Found in various sugar-free and diet products, including soft drinks, chewing gum, and desserts. Aspartame is also often used as a tabletop sweetener.
Sucralose: This sweetener is commonly known by the brand name Splenda. It is used in a wide range of food and beverage products, including baked goods, beverages and dairy products. Sucralose is actually derived from sugar, producing a sweetener that has no calories but is 600 times sweeter than sucrose from sugar.
Saccharin: Known by the brand name Sweet'N Low, Saccharin is a widely used artificial sweetener. It is often used in tabletop sweeteners and soft drinks as well as other sugar-free products.
Sorbitol: Sorbitol is commonly used in diet drinks and foods, mints, cough syrups and sugar-free chewing gum, and is usually made from potato starch. It’s at least as sweet as sugar and is also commonly found in fruits including apples and pears.
Acesulfame Potassium (Ace-K): Ace-K is a calorie-free sweetener that is commonly used in combination with other sweeteners. It can be found in a variety of foods including baked goods, beverages and dairy products.
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