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Today, I am taking on the artificial sweetener monster. The one that claims to keep you fit and healthy, without all those nasty calories. The one that whispers sweet nothings to you about how you can slam that Diet Coke with no guilt whatsoever. So here goes.

There has always been this big debate over artificial sweeteners. So what are they? They are compounded “sugars” which are many times sweeter than normal sugar. For example, table sugar is about 4 grams of carbohydrate PER TEASPOON. So why is that important? Well, we know that table sugar is not good for us. Artificial sweeteners (AS) are compounded to be many times sweeter than regular sugar, which is why they are labeled as 0 calorie sweetener. Scientists have figured out how to make AS with little to no sugar. This has been a huge game changer for people with diabetes. Everything sugar free seems to be their friend.

Why do I bring this up? You've likely heard, or may believe, that AS are nearly ALWAYS a better solution to regular sugar. Or, you may have heard that they cause cancer, headaches, etc. Unfortunately, some of this information is misleading. There are definitely AS people are sensitive to. For example, if I have a few too many sugar free or diet beverages, I get some upper respiratory problems. The moment I notice that, I realize I've overdone it and back off. Then, the problem goes away. My suggestion here is to cut out any sweeteners from your current diet and see what happens.

To cut AS from your diet, you're going to have to do a little research on your food and drink choices. This is a tough one because many food products deemed “healthy” are spiked with AS. Typical AS in foods and beverages is commonly listed as follows: acesulfame potassium, sucralose, and aspartame. The first two are the major AS in our food and beverage supply today. Aspartame has gotten a bad rap and most companies are going “aspartame free” because of that reason. It seems the jury is out and nothing is completely conclusive so I won't say I am an anti-aspartame person, but it's always better to avoid in the event it is, in fact, a naughty substance.

So what foods have AS? The ones to watch for are fat free or low fat yogurt and also canned or packaged fruits. These are the typical “healthy” foods which contain some sweetener. Aside from that, you can always “guess” AS may be included if the front of the box says, “sugar free” or “low in sugar”. Food labels are a whole different animal. Click HERE to access that content.

I know what you're thinking. “Okay, great, now I have to look at all my labels to spot artificial sweeteners. These labels are so confusing I don’t even want to mess with that idea. Isn’t there an easier way to do this?” Well, I suppose you can just avoid having to look at a food label by only buying fruits, veggies and raw nuts. Then maybe slaughter a beef out back and raise some range-free chickens. Is that going to happen? I didn’t think so. I might be crazy enough to do that, but most people really don’t want to avoid all the convenient, neatly packaged, readily available food and drink options. So let's get back to reality and determine the best route to take to solve this problem. There is an alternative.

STEVIA. It is a “natural” sweetener! Here's why: it is made from a plant and is formulated into the granular or liquid form to make our U.S. sugar addiction just a little more natural and healthy. 'Merica. Sugar addiction CLICK HERE. To find foods sweetened with stevia, you can usually look at the front of the box, which will read, “Naturally Sweetened with Stevia” or sometimes might say “No Artificial Sweeteners”. Don’t be fooled though, no artificial sweeteners still might mean big time sugar rush. Some health products that don’t contain AS or stevia, but instead contain agave nectar, organic cane sugar, honey or something similar to sweeten the product. While these are NOT bad, we are talking about limiting any sugar response in the body. The ingredients listed above will still have a sugar response or raise your blood sugar. Are these better than regular sugar? ABSOLUTELY. In a battle between table sugar and a natural sugar (agave nectar, organic cane sugar, honey), I would choose the natural sugar all day.

By now you're likely sold on stevia, because it's awesome and would meet all the demands of that sweet tooth. But this could also be you: you love DIET soda, have a yogurt daily and have a staple of packaged fruits. You also love to add a little bit of sugar to your cooking and into your coffee too? Well, I have some recommendations:

1. Find a diet soda or tea without sugar

a.)Iced tea (black and green teas are typically your only options) if it is flavored and still 0 calories it probably has an AS and now you'll have to turn the beverage over and look at that darn label.

b.)Diet soda – ZEVIA- it is diet soda with stevia. How does it taste? Well it's not a Diet Coke, but it definitely has a good flavor profile and I personally like and recommend this if you are going this route.

c.) “Okay- I love diet soda though.” Well, if it's not sweetened with stevia I usually don’t recommend it, but find a non-aspartame diet soda (most are doing this now, anyways). Do I recommend it, NO, but you are being difficult.

d) “Okay, so what do you drink other than water out of a fresh, running spring?” Selzer water. “OMG. That crap tastes like soap!” No, it doesn’t, you are addicted to high levels of sugar or even used to a lot of hyper sweet AS. Limit your daily intake of sugar in food, and AS in your beverages. Then try it. You'll think selzer water or La Croix is the bomb.

2. Yogurt

a.) MY go-to is Greek yogurt. Unsweetened Greek yogurt is the healthiest option because I know you add granola and fruit to it anyway.

b.) “What if I hate the taste of Greek yogurt?” Try it again and go for a Dannon Triple Zero yogurt instead. Any flavor is good and is sweetened with STEVIA. Not to mention, it's packed with protein. Click HERE for protein awesomeness.

c.) “I can't have dairy. What about soy or coconut yogurt?” While they are dairy free, I typically won't recommend it because the MACROS (carbs, protein, fat) are not that great. Usually there are added fats, limited protein, and more sugars.

3. Fruits

a.) This one is easy! Buy fresh fruit. I am not a fan of packaged anything, but fruit? Come on! Bring an apple or banana. “Well, I like those convenient fruit bowls.” Okay, how are they packaged? What is that juice or syrup made up of? You guessed it. SUGAR. If it's not sugar, it’s an AS and typically not STEVIA.

4.What about my sugar in coffee?

a.) Buy stevia! You can get big bags of it or individual packets.

Please, for the love of all things sweet, switch to stevia. While it may be a bit of a change to your current diet, your body will thank you.

Thank you for investing in your health.

Joseph Champa, RD, CSCS

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