Artificial Sweeteners and Sugars: Good for the Gut?

There are several sweetening agents on the market — sugar alcohols, artificial sweeteners, all-natural sweeteners, and refined sugars — but how do these products affect gut health? Keep reading to learn about possible digestive symptoms linked to these sweetening agents.

Key takeaways:

A quick review of the digestive system

The digestive system includes the mouth, stomach, and small and large intestines. Food is digested as it is pushed along, and essential nutrients, vitamins, and water are absorbed into the body.

Certain foods aggravate the gut and cause unpleasant symptoms such as bloating, flatulence, belching, and cramping. Typical culprits include sugar alcohols and excess refined sugars.

Moderating intake of all sweetening agents and choosing foods proven to support a healthy digestive system help to promote and maintain a healthy gut. These include high-fiber foods like fruits and vegetables, unprocessed foods, lean proteins, and healthy fats such as nuts and avocados.

What are sugar alcohols?

Sugar alcohols are a carbohydrate with a hydroxyl group that chemically changes the molecule into a type of alcohol. Although these types of sugars are a type of alcohol, they will not cause intoxication because they do not have the ethanol molecule.

Many foods labeled “sugar-free” contain sugar alcohols and are listed as ingredients on the label. They are easily identifiable because they end in “-ol”, such as sorbitol or mannitol. Consuming large amounts of sugar alcohols can result in diarrhea and loose stool.

What are non-nutritive sweeteners?

Non-nutritive sweeteners are also called artificial sweeteners. These products produce a sweet taste but do not contain carbohydrates; therefore, they don't affect blood glucose levels. Examples of artificial sweeteners include aspartame, sucralose, and saccharin.

Many other products, such as stevia, are praised for being all-natural, but they are not necessarily healthier than non-nutritive sweeteners — especially if consumed in large amounts. Therefore, there are better options to help meet health goals and adhere to nutritional beliefs.

What is sugar?

Food with carbohydrates is broken down into simple sugar molecules, the body's preferred energy source. The types of carbohydrates consumed significantly impact how the digestive system reacts. Highly processed foods containing high amounts of sugar, like candies, sodas, baked goods, and fried desserts, are more likely to harm gut health.

Furthermore, it is easy to overindulge in sugar because large amounts are found in everyday products, such as flavored yogurts, fruit juices, sports drinks, and breakfast cereals. The only way to know if sugar has been added to the product is to read the ingredient list.

Nutrition Tip
Sugar is written as an ingredient in many ways. Check labels for alternative names such as glucose, high fructose corn syrup, maple syrup, cane sugar, brown sugar, and confectioners sugar.

How sugar affects the digestive system?

A diet rich in refined sugars and low in fiber interferes with the number of probiotics in the digestive system. These microscopic bacteria are health-promoting agents linked to properly maintaining immune function, mental health, and gut health.

Dwindling probiotic colonies can be resurrected by converting back to a diet rich in fiber and decreased refined sugars. There are many ways to swap out foods for healthier options at home, including the following:

  1. Substituting fruit juice for whole fresh fruit.
  2. Halving a dessert serving and adding whole fresh fruit.
  3. Choosing unsweetened dairy products, such as plain yogurt and kefir; add nuts and seeds to add fiber.
  4. Eating whole-grain products, like bread and crackers.
  5. Opting for whole grain, unflavored breakfast cereals, containing ingredients such as oats or bran. Add fresh fruit and nuts to increase flavor and texture profiles.

New research shows that adding fermented foods to a diet may help slightly, but many will still likely need to take probiotic supplements to help replenish healthy gut bacteria levels.

Nutrition Tip
Probiotics don't need to be taken forever: the focus should be on maintaining adequate probiotic levels through diet.

Sugar and leaky gut

A leaky gut is known medically as impaired intestinal permeability. This means harmful pathogens are passing through the delicate mucosal lining of the intestinal walls, which can cause inflammation in the surrounding tissues.

Early research suggests that eating large amounts of sugar reduces probiotic colonies, which normally aid in protecting this barrier. Without them, the risk of permeability increases. However, increasing the number of healthy bacteria in the gut helps restore probiotic colonies.

Eating small amounts of sugary products can be OK, but it should not be a staple feature at every meal. No singular sweetening agent is better for the gut than another (natural or artificial)— they should all be consumed in moderation. Therefore, the best approach to maintaining a healthy and nutritionally balanced diet is to prioritize balanced meals that include carbohydrates from healthy natural sources such as whole grains, fresh fruits, plain dairy products, and legumes.

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