Low sugar or no sugar: Deciding what to drink

Before you reach into the fridge to grab yourself something cold to drink, you may want to think about the choice you’re making. Are you opting for a reduced sugar or sugar free beverage? What is the difference and should this knowledge affect your choice?

Why reduce or cut out sugar?

It’s no secret that reducing or cutting out sugar from your diet has many health benefits. One teaspoon of sugar contains 16 calories, so cutting back could help with weight loss. You may also decrease your risk of dental cavities, diabetes, heart disease, liver disease and metabolic syndrome. A low or sugar free diet may also help you to feel more energetic and enjoy better sleep. Your skin should love you for it too!

But artificial sweeteners (a.k.a. sugar substitutes) may have adverse effects on some individuals. It’s always better to opt for healthier low-sugar drinks, such as herbal teas or black coffee. Water is, of course, the best choice.

 Reduced sugar beverages

Large beverage companies now offer reduced sugar drinks with the same great taste, but low or no calories. Sugar added to drinks is processed cane sugar (sucrose) and should be limited, so low sugar beverages are a better choice compared to classic sugar-loaded drinks. However, low sugar drinks should also be consumed in moderation. Two wrongs don’t always make a right!

Added sugar shouldn’t be confused with natural sugars found in unprocessed drinks, such freshly squeezed fruit or veggie juice, and milk, which have nutritional value.

Sugar free beverages

Many sugar free beverages contain artificial sweeteners. Because artificial sweeteners are usually several times sweeter than sugar, only a little is needed. Most sugar free drinks in South Africa contain aspartame and acesulfame potassium, which are 200 times sweeter than sugar. Some drinks also contain sucralose, which is 600 times sweeter.

Although these substitutes have been tested and regulated to make sure that they’re safe for human consumption, they have no nutritional value and there’s much controversy surrounding them. For example, studies’ results vary on appetite and weight loss/gain, as well as diabetes risk.

Sugar free drinks have also been linked to health issues such as an increased risk of heart disease and kidney disease, and a possible increased osteoporosis risk. Drinks sweetened with sucralose, a no-calorie sugar substitute that is processed from sugar, have been linked to effects on gut bacteria, which causes poor blood sugar control. Further research is needed though to confirm these effects.

However, you really should avoid these drinks if you’re allergic to sulfonamides, as you may experience breathing difficulties, rashes, or diarrhoea. If you have the rare hereditary disorder, Phenylketonuria (PKU), limit your intake as you can’t metabolise phenylalanine, a common amino acid found in aspartame. Also avoid aspartame if you have dyskinesia (a muscle disorder), or suffer from an anxiety or sleep disorder.

So, what should I drink?

Overall, low sugar or sugar free drinks are healthier than sugar-loaded ones, but you should be aware of how your body responds to artificial sweeteners and make the best choice for you. Either way, it’s always better to drink beverages which contain natural sweeteners. Your healthiest option is always, always going to be water!

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