It’s not out of line to say that, culturally, we’ve become obsessed with what’s “healthy” and what’s unhealthy. Whether this obsession is actually making us healthier or not is a different conversation. What is noticeable is that the most popular “healthy” products for us are actually pretty suspect.
Alternative sweeteners in particular are an especially popular substitute to refined sugar, but in reality, they’re not actually that great. There’s even evidence to suggest that stevia, a popular sugar alternative and natural sweetener, may contribute to infertility.
Not all sugar alternatives are created equal, and even though something may be labeled as “natural” doesn’t mean it’s without its flaws. Alternative sweeteners in particular are often advertised as healthier choices compared to sugar, but in reality, they present a whole host of potential health problems if they become a dominant aspect of your diet.
The Artificial Sweetener Craze
We’ve been consuming both natural and refined sugars in our day-to-day diets for as long as we can remember. In the 1950s, as the post-war boom in progressive industry and technology blossomed, artificial sweeteners became known as “healthier” than sugar, and our parents and grandparents’ generations took that concept and ran with it.
Artificial sweeteners became known as “healthier” than sugar in the 1950s.
Even now, the fact that a regular soda may contain hundreds of calories versus a diet “sugar free” alternative is pretty compelling to the simplistic part of our brains that may be actively counting calories. But in reality, the artificially sweetened option isn’t all that healthy either. Regardless, many people watching their weight or being pushed by suggestive marketing may think that choosing an artificial sweetener is actually better for them.
These marketing tactics are especially enticing when foods or drinks are branded as “zero calorie” or “sugar free.” Added sugars are included in the majority of products we passively consume every day, and the average adult consumes 22 teaspoons of sugar each day (kids and teenagers consume even more). With this information in mind and with millions of adults facing obesity and conflicting ways of how to combat it, it’s no wonder that artificial sweeteners, though controversial since their implementation, play a major role in our food production.
Is Stevia Affecting Fertility?
There are two distinct kinds of sweeteners: natural and artificial.
Because natural sweeteners are chemical compounds that occur in nature, they’re often touted as “better” for us because they’re not synthetic, like artificial sweeteners are. But is that really the case? Though stevia, an extremely popular sugar alternative, is found in nature and has been used for thousands of years, there are reported concerns and risks which have long been associated with its consumption.
Native Indians indigenous to South America have been using the stevia rebaudiana herb for generations as a naturopathic remedy in the form of medicinal teas. Stevia is several hundred times sweeter than traditional sugar, and is calorie-free, making it a natural sugar substitute.
Matto Grosso Indians in Paraguay used stevia leaves in teas as a form of contraception.
Stevia as a sweetener is most commonly found in an isolated compound form. Stevia in its whole leaf form has not been approved by the FDA as of 2016, and there are conflicting reports which allege that stevia in its most base form can be potentially harmful to fertility. This direct risk is associated with a 1968 report which outlines how Matto Grosso Indians in Paraguay were using stevia leaves in teas as a form of contraception.
A subsequent study at Purdue University and another one thereafter in Brazil studied male and female rats and their consumption of stevia, with the findings asserting that the stevia-consuming rats were unable to produce as much offspring as the control groups. However, many modern fertility specialists have had issues with the methodology of these studies, and the possible contraceptive attributes of stevia are still under argument today.
Health Risks Associated with Artificial Sweeteners
While the jury may be out currently on all the potential risks associated with natural sweeteners, we’re now fortunately aware of the myriad of risks that artificial sugar alternatives pose to our health. These include popular brands most of us turn to instead of sugar, like products containing aspartame, xylitol, sorbitol, NutraSweet, Sweet ‘n Low, and Splenda. These, and many other artificial alternatives, can be found in your salad dressing, toothpaste, yogurt, cereal, gum, and alcoholic drinks, among other things.
Ideally, zero-calorie artificial sweeteners should be a perfect way for most of us to cut back on sugar and lose weight. But unfortunately, constant reliance on artificial sweeteners poses both long and short-term problems.
Artificial sweeteners can increase our risk of obesity, diabetes, and metabolic disorders.
In the short term, artificial sweeteners satiate our cravings for sweetness by confusing our metabolism. As Dr. Stephen Sinatra explains, “When you drink a diet soda, the sweetener activates your taste receptors just like sugar does – and that, in turn, stimulates appetite and causes your body to release a number of hormones. One of those hormones is insulin, which is produced to remove the anticipated influx of glucose from the blood. However, because the sweetener doesn’t have any actual glucose in it, the insulin ends up removing whatever sugar is already in the blood – causing blood sugar to dip too low, and further triggering the appetite to compensate.”
In the end, because our hunger hormones have been essentially tricked into thinking we’ve consumed sugar when we actually haven’t, we might end up overeating other junk food to actually satiate those hormones.
In the long run, artificial sweeteners can increase our risk of obesity, diabetes, and metabolic disorders. It can also seriously mess with our gut microbiome, which is a delicate ecosystem and can affect everything from digestion to mood.
Artificial sweeteners should also be monitored during pregnancy, as overindulgence can lead to risks of developing gestational diabetes and insulin resistance.
Long ago, we might have thought of sugar alternatives as our saving grace when it comes to sugar consumption. But experts agree: just because it’s not refined or natural sugar doesn’t necessarily mean it’s the best alternative.
In reality, there’s no perfect solution to our obsession with sugar and sweeteners in our food, although we do know there’s a heavy reliance on both in the food we eat every day.
It’s true that every individual’s diet and needs are different, but knowing the risks beforehand of exactly what we’re consuming makes us smarter and better informed eaters as well as consumers.
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