artificial sweeteners
We tell you the advantages and disadvantages of sugar substitutes. (Photo: iStock)

They sweeten the palate, but they can trigger irreversible diseases when consumed in excess.  These are the famous artificial sweeteners, which a nutritionist and a chemist put under the microscope in an interview for Tec Review.

According to Yaqui Valenzuela Schejtman, a specialist belonging to the Mexican Association of Nutriology (AMENAC), these sugar substitute substances enhance sweetness.

So, your taste buds gradually adapt to artificial sweeteners that are up to 200 times sweeter than sugar, which can cause more and more people to need more and more of them to be able to satisfy their desire for sweetness.

“One problem with sweeteners is that if they’re consumed in very large quantities, such as 15 sachets a day, they can lead to insulin resistance and, eventually, diabetes,” states Valenzuela Schetjman.

Natural sugar has a very high glycemic index. This means that it’s metabolized so fast that it can cause spikes in blood glucose, which is when you feel a lot of energy and then a very strong slump.

“This means that glucose input isn’t maintained slowly, which prevents the body from having constant energy throughout the day”, mentions Valenzuela.

Artificial sweeteners are mainly non-caloric. That is, they don’t contribute a single calorie to the body, therefore they can’t be categorized among substances with a high glycemic index.

If a person is on a weight loss plan, these artificial substances do help to dispense with the calories from sugar, according to the AMENAC nutritionist.

“I don’t recommend artificial sweeteners 100%, in the sense of not consuming them in excess. But if a person eats a sachet a day it’s not serious. It’s more recommendable than if they were to consume two spoonfuls of sugar daily. I definitely don’t recommend them to children. They should use honey or agave syrup,” warns Valenzuela.

This nutrition expert says that if people don’t like the taste of artificial sweeteners, they should consume the product of bees instead of refined sugar.

“Honey, due to its low glycemic index, enters the cells slowly, which is healthier,” asserts this specialist. In terms of nutrition, she starts from the premise that it’s best to have nothing in excess and everything in moderation.

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Artificial sweeteners: right and left molecules

Chemistry provides us with chirality, a phenomenon that at macroscopic level we can understand perfectly through the example of our hands. These give us the concept of right and a left. One hand can’t be superimposed on the other, because it’s impossible for the fingers of the left hand to coincide with the fingers of the right hand.

The same thing happens at microscopic level, where there are chiral molecules, i.e. pairs of left and right molecules, just like the hands.

One such case is aspartame, a typical molecule of synthetic sweeteners, in which only the left version (L) tastes sweet, because the right (D) is bitter, according to Rubén Gaviño Ramírez, who holds a PhD in chemistry and works at the Institute of Chemistry of the National Autonomous University of Mexico (UNAM).

“The human body has sensors capable of distinguishing between both chiral molecules,” says this scientist.

Although the body interprets the L molecule of aspartame as sweet, it doesn’t mean that it’s similar to sugar.

“The synthetic molecules of sweeteners don’t have a structure similar to the sucrose from sugarcane or the fructose from fruit or the glucose from honey, which are all part of the sugar family. They are totally different types of molecules, even though they’re both interpreted by the taste buds as sweet substances,” explains this UNAM expert.

The idea that artificial sweeteners have 0 calories is not necessarily true, “because the body manages to metabolically transform them into the sugars that it needs to make the brain work, for example.”

Dr. Gaviño concludes by saying that he prefers not to consume artificial sweeteners, since he believes that the natural sugar from the fruit in his diet is enough to sweeten his life. He also agrees with nutritionist Valenzuela that, in terms of calories, it’s best to have nothing in excess and everything in moderation.

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