Is this sweetener fooling me?

“… It’s the holidays season …” and I have had far too many lattes and mince pies in the past few weeks. It’s like one continuous sweet celebration. Still, we are social animals and here I am, just popping out for a coffee with friends. Will I choose a standard cinnamon dolce latte with good old syrup (273 kCal) or the skinny version with only 108 kCal to its name and not sacrificing any sweetness as my LattePilates App told me? (click here for free download, link) The choice should be a no brainer. But I linger on the “confirm” button for the standard cinnamon dolce even though my App is questioning my decision, telling the world, queuing behind me, that I am about to overshoot my limit yet again.

The reason for this scene at the Starbucks counter is my health freakishness. Yes, I think a lot about what I put in my mouth. And yes, before you mention it, I am addicted to latte. “Woman is a miracle of divine contradictions” (Jules Michelet).

Many coffee shops offer sugar-free alternatives for some of their drink menu. For the sugar-free drink, sweeteners can replace all the sugar in the original recipe whether in the form of syrup or dry sugar, hence significantly reducing the calories in your drink. There are many types of sweetener popularly used in the food industry namely; aspartame, saccharin, sorbitol, sucralose, xylitol, stevia. Studies performed on large groups of people provide strong evidence that these sweeteners are safe for human consumption in terms of cancer risk, leading to the approvals by authorities such as FDA1 and EFSA2. These sweeteners thus can be safely used as a means to control our calorie intake and blood sugar level, especially for people with diabetes3. However, there are growing concerns over the effect of sweeteners on other diseases; metabolic syndrome, type 2 diabetes and obesity. One of the effects that catches my interest is the stimulating effect of these sweeteners on our appetite. Basically, when we consume a sweetener, our brain receives a signal that we are taking a high calorie sugar. But the calorie does not arrive after a while. This may cause the brain to respond in various, complex ways, including making us crave sugary food even more. The possible adverse effects of sweeteners on our body are very well summarized in an article “Artificial sweeteners: sugar-free, but at what cost?” by Holly Strawbridge, from Harvard Health Publishing4. It is important to mention at this point that these are issues under on-going research. Angela Manderfeld wrote a very informative article “The Relationship between Diabetes and Sweeteners”5 summarizing previous research in an easy to follow style. I like the cartoon, too. So, what now? We still need to have consistent results of a long term study on a large and diverse enough sampling group, hopefully humans, to draw a meaningful conclusion. So it is unlikely that we will have a definite answer anytime soon.

Meanwhile, I still believe that the moderate consumption of the approved sweeteners is perfectly safe (it’s the brownies my brain was tricked into eating after the sugar craving episode that is dangerous!). But it does not necessarily mean that it is the most suitable option in every situation.  For people with diabetes, under weight control or on a low carb diet, the low calorie sweeteners can be the most suitable answer as sugar could be detrimental for their health. For my average self, I will up-level the self-discipline a little bit more and choose my latte more wisely to try to keep the empty calories within an acceptable level. See my article on “Latte: drink responsibly” here for calorie comparison (link). As for now, I will only rely on the sweetener in an emergency such as today.


1. FDA food additives ingredients
2. European Food Safety Authority
3. Livewell – The truth about artificial sweeteners
4. Harvard Health – Artificial Sweeteners. Free but at what cost?
5. Diabetes Council – the relationship between diabetes and sweeteners

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