Processing alternatives to sugar

When presented with the options of either regular Coke or Diet Coke, junior Kylan Elliott chooses Diet Coke.   

“I don’t really drink regular Coke too often, but when I have, it’s just so sweet, and I can’t really drink it,” said Elliott. “But Diet Coke is just the right sweetness.”

Diet Coke contains aspartame, a nonnutritive sweetener also known as a sugar alternative. Nonnutritive sweeteners increase sweetness without the addition of sugar.

Nonnutritive sweeteners fall into two categories, either naturally or artificially derived, said Emily Szmuilowicz, endocrinologist and associate professor of medicine at Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine. 

Naturally derived nonnutritive sweeteners come from plants, while artificial sweeteners are human-made.

“I think our evidence that sugar is a detrimental health product is a thousandfold higher than anything we have on any of the artificial sweeteners or alternative sweeteners,” said Kimber Stanhope, research nutritional biologist at the University of California, Davis.

Sugar alcohols, such as sorbitol and maltitol, are naturally occurring alternative sweeteners that may have gastrointestinal effects, meaning these substances may get into the colon and cause stomach aches, diarrhea and gas, Stanhope said. 

“There is some interesting data that suggests [sugar alternatives] bypass the small intestine to get to the large intestine and have negative effects on the microbes in the colon,” Stanhope said.

According to Szmuilowicz, most sugar alternatives are considered to be safe in moderate amounts.

For people who need to reduce the amount of sugar in their diet, replacing a portion of sugar with a nonnutritive sweetener will decrease the amount of sugar the body is exposed to, Szmuilowicz said. 

“But I don’t think the goal should be increasing the consumption of nonnutritive sweeteners,” said Szmuilowicz. “I think the goal should be … eating foods that are going to not only taste good, but actually provide [someone] with the nutrients that are essential to grow and have energy and sustain health.”

According to Elliot, even though she is aware consuming so many artificial sweeteners may not be good, she continues to drink Diet Coke because she thinks artificial sweeteners taste better and are not overwhelmingly sweet.         

“I’ve been told by a lot of people that [Diet Coke] is bad for my health, but I’m so used to it,” said Elliott. “And I’ve consumed so much by now that I’m just kind of scared to see what that’s actually doing to me.”