Sugar, spice or something not-so-nice

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Sugar, spice or something not-so-nice

By Timothy Mielke

Natural and artificial sweeteners are everywhere in the supplement industry. From protein powders to protein bars, most people will not even touch a nutritional supplement unless it tastes good – and let’s be honest, nobody really wants to choke something down that’s good for them if it tastes bad. Kids have been telling us this about their vegetables for years!

Both nature and science have their own methods for helping supplements taste good, and each one has pros and cons. Sometimes, however, the negatives are worse than we want to know about. Here, we are going to take a look at the most commonly used natural and artificial sweeteners found in the health and fitness industry.


In 1965, aspartame was created/discovered by accident when a bit of the chemical spilled out of a vial and got on the fingers of a researcher. He later licked his fingers and noticed it had a sweet taste. Aspartame is a combination of three components: methanol, aspartic acid and phenylalanine.

The Good: Aspartame has a potency of 100-200 times that of sucrose (normal table sugar), but without the calories or insulin spikes. It tastes like sugar and does not promote tooth decay. Aspartame is used in more than 6,000 products and consumed by more than 200 million people throughout the world. (6)

The Bad: Methanol is a colourless, poisonous and flammable liquid used to make formaldehyde and paint strippers, among other things. Aspartic acid is an amino acid but its use in aspartame works as an excitotoxin, which overstimulates nerve cells in the brain until they are excited to death. Excitotoxins are also shown to play a role in degenerative diseases such as Alzheimer’s disease and Parkinson’s disease. (1)

Acesulfame potassium

Also known as Ace-K or Acesulfame K, acesulfame potassium is the combination of acetoacetic acid, fluorosulfonyl isocyanate and potassium, and is used in foods and beverages to produce a more sugar-like taste. It is stable in liquids and even when used in baking, retaining its sweetness when used at normal baking temperatures.

The Good: Ace-K also has a sweetness of nearly 200 times that of sugar and provides great taste with no added calories. It is found in 4,000 products and 90 countries around the world. (7)  Ace-K does not promote tooth decay, and it is not even stored or metabolised by the body, passing rapidly through the body unchanged. Products made with acesulfame potassium and other sweeteners generally have up to 40 per cent less total sweetener due to its effectiveness. (7)

The Bad: Ace-K also contains methylene chloride, which is a known carcinogen. (2) Long-term exposure to methylene chloride has been linked to milder problems such as headaches and diarrhea, and to more serious side effects like vision problems and cancer.

Sucralose (Splenda)

Sucralose has become one of the most popular artificial sweeteners available today. It is actually derived from normal table sugar and has about 600 times the sweetness. It has roughly three times the sweetness of aspartame.

The Good: Sucralose will not add any calories to your daily intake and will not cause insulin spikes. Sucralose is largely unrecognised by the body as food and the majority of people do not even absorb a significant amount in their digestive system – only around 15 per cent. (8)

The Bad: Although it is derived from normal table sugar, sucralose is made through a chemical process in which the sugar molecules are ‘washed’ in chlorine, adding them to the compound. In addition to the chlorine, a whole host of additional chemicals are needed to produce sucralose, including acetic anhydride and methanol, to name a few. A recent (and controversial) Italian study has shown that a lifetime of sucralose consumption can lead to a greater risk for developing leukemia. (3)


Stevia is a plant that is from the sunflower family and is native to both North and South America. Stevia is rapidly gaining popularity as a natural way to sweeten foods and beverages without adding unwanted calories. It is sometimes referred to as Reb-A or rebiana. It is used widely around the world as a natural sweetener in places like Japan, South Korea, Brazil and Columbia.

The Good: Stevia is natural and does not add any calories or promote insulin spikes, making it helpful for those who are watching their weight. Stevia can also help lower blood pressure (4), may be beneficial in treating diabetes (5) and increasing strength during muscle contractions which pump blood from the heart.

The Bad: Stevia is still relatively new to the market and research but so far only mild side effects such as nausea, bloating, dizziness or numbness have been reported.

Sugar alcohols

These are a group of sweeteners that are found in many processed foods, although they are derived from plant products like fruits and berries. Some of the most common of the sugar alcohols are sorbitol, maltitol, xylitol and hydrogenated starch hydrolysates. These chemicals were given the group name of ‘sugar alcohol’ because part of their chemical structure resembles sugar and part resembles that of alcohol. There is no ethanol in sugar alcohol, which is found in alcoholic beverages.

The Good: Sugar alcohols have less calories per gram than normal sugar (1.5 -3 calories per gram, compared to four calories per gram of typical sugar), (9) and they do not cause tooth decay. Sugar alcohols do affect blood sugar, but not in the same way as typical sugar.

The Bad: Mild side effects such as gas and bloating are associated with sugar alcohol consumption, and they have also been known to cause a ‘laxative effect’. While sugar alcohols do not affect insulin the same way typical sugar does, they still contain calories, and excessive consumption may cause weight gain. Be sure to read labels to see just how many calories a food contains. Just because it is marketed as having a low amount of ‘net carbs’, that does not mean it is low-calorie.

So there is the rundown on a few of the most popular sweeteners used in the supplement industry today. This is not an exhaustive list but it does give more background on what we’re putting into our bodies. At the end of the day in the health and fitness industry (and everywhere else), what we’re putting into our bodies should not be a guessing game.


1. Lipton SA, Rosenberg PA. Excitatory amino acids as a final common pathway for neurologic disorders. New England Journal of Medicine 1994; 330:613-622.

2. U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. Toxicological Profile for Methylene Chloride; Sept. 2000

3. Study conducted by Dr. Morando Soffritti through an independent laboratory.

4. Ulbricht C, Isaac R, Milkin T, Poole EA, Rusie E, Grimes Serrano JM, Weissner W, Windsor RC, Woods J. An evidence-based systematic review of stevia by the Natural Standard Research Collaboration. Cardiovasc Hematol Agents Med Chem. 2010 Apr; 8(2):113-27

5. Curi R, Alvarez M, Bazotte RB, Botion LM, Godoy JL, Bracht A (1986). ‘Effect of Stevia rebaudiana on glucose tolerance in normal adult humans’. Braz. J. Med. Biol. Res. 19 (6): 771–4

6. Aspartame Information Centre, ‘Benefits of Aspartame’, viewed May 22 2014 <http://www.aspartame.org>

7. International Food Information Centre, ‘Everything You Need to Know about Acesulfame-Potassium’, viewed May 22 2014, <http://www.foodinsight.org/Content/6/Everything-You-Need-to-Know-About-Acesulfame-Potassium.pdf>

8. Mercola, Dr 2013, ‘CSPI Downgrade Splenda from “Safe” to “Caution”’, viewed May 22 2014 <http://articles.mercola.com/sites/articles/archive/2013/06/26/cspi-downgrades-splenda.aspx>

9. Yale-New Haven Hospital, ‘Eaten any sugar alcohol lately?’, viewed May 22 2014, <http://www.ynhh.org/about-us/sugar_alcohol.aspx>

Tim Mielke is an American writer, fitness expert and former competitive bodybuilder with 20 years in the health and fitness industry. He has written dozens of articles on health and fitness, has received numerous awards for his writing, and has been involved in the formulation of several different nutritional supplements. His crowning achievement is his book, The Book of Supplement Secrets: A Beginner’s Guide to Nutritional Supplements, which has received excellent reviews. Tim is currently writing a second edition, as well as developing his own nutritional supplement line.


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