Sugar vs sweeteners
Due to the introduction of the Sugar Tax in the UK, we are now seeing more products with artificial sweeteners. But are these a healthier alternative?
Obesity, sugar and additives
One of the driving forces behind the introduction of the Sugar Tax is the current obesity crisis taking place in the UK. According to statistics from the House of Commons Library, the rate of dangerous obesity in the UK has exploded from 19% of the population in 1993 to 29% in 2016.[i]
As we all know, obesity can lead to a number of problems, including heart diseases, certain cancers and diabetes.[ii] But does cutting sugar and switching to artificial additives help people lose weight? Unfortunately, this is one of those issues that seems to have two conflicting bodies of evidence.
Some research has found that when people consumed beverages sweetened with artificial additives on a daily basis, they were at an increased chance of developing heart disease and becoming obese.[iii] Some arguments have also suggested that because artificial sweeteners activate certain parts of our brains that cause hunger, people make up the calorific deficiency by eating more food.
On the flip side, if you consider an average can of fizzy drink can contain around 140 calories, then it makes sense that by swapping to an alternative with an artificial sweetener that provides zero calories that weight loss can be better managed. There’s also the argument that as diet drinks are marketed towards people who are likely to be wanting to lose weight already, their calorific intake may be coming entirely from bad food choices and drinks are guiltless in the bad calorific intake they already consume.
As dental professionals, perhaps the more pressing issue is the impact both sugar and artificial sweeteners can have on oral health. Sugar is undoubtedly detrimental for our teeth, causing increased incidence of decay – but are artificial sweeteners as bad?
Again, this seems like a contentious issue. Some studies put forward the argument that these substances are just as bad for teeth as they soften the tooth enamel, and leaving teeth more prone to decay.[iv]
Conversely, other sources claim that because oral bacteria feed off of sugar, artificial sweeteners are a much better option as they do not allow this process to take place, thus inhibiting plaque formation. Furthermore, some artificial sweeteners such as xylitol have been found to have benefits for oral health due to antibacterial properties.[v]
What should you suggest?
In the end, it’s clear that more independent research needs to be carried out to determine whether artificial sweeteners are in fact safe or harbouring some unpleasant health effects.
Due to this uncertainty, professionals should recommend patients stick to drinks that don’t contain either of these things, such as milk or water. We may one day know whether we can trust artificial sweeteners fully, but until then it’s better to be safe than sorry.
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[i] The House of Commons Library. Obesity Statistics Briefing Paper, Number 3336 6th August 2019. Link: file:///Users/writer/Downloads/SN03336.pdf
[iii] Time Magazine. Artificial Sweeteners Are Linked to Weight Gain—Not Weight Loss. Link: https://time.com/4859012/artificial-sweeteners-weight-loss/ [Last accessed August 19].
[iv] Oral Health CRC. The Potential of Sugar-Free Beverages, Sugar-Free Confectionary and Sports Drink to Cause Dental Erosion. Link: http://www.oralhealthcrc.org.au/sites/default/files/Dental%20Erosion%20Briefing%20Paper_FINAL2015.pdf [Last accessed August 19].
[v] New York Times. Sweet Tooth. Link: https://www.nytimes.com/2012/09/11/science/are-sugar-substitutes-bad-for-teeth.html [Last accessed August 19].