When getting started on a sugar-free diet, one may be tempted by the many alternative sweeteners. Sugar alternatives have ridden a wave of popularity since they were first introduced over 100 years ago. “Where diners once found a sugar bowl, they’re now more likely to find a multicolored collection of single-serving chemicals.” While there are many trendy faux sugars to choose from, all of them have the potential to feed sugar addiction, and leave one with lingering cravings and lasting side effects. As reported by the National Institute of Health, “The use of nonnutritive sweeteners was associated with increases in weight and waist circumference, and higher incidence of obesity, hypertension, metabolic syndrome, type 2 diabetes and cardiovascular events.”  So let’s explore sugar alternatives and, later on, healthier ways to get your sugar fix and feed your hungry body and mind.
The oldest artificial sweetener, Saccharin (Sweet’n Low), was discovered in 1879 by researchers at Johns Hopkins who were seeking new uses for coal tar derivatives. It is up to 700 times sweeter than table sugar, and in the 1970’s, was linked to cancer. However, saccharin is still approved for use in beverages, juice drinks, processed foods, toothpaste and other health products.
Aspartame (NutraSweet, Equal) was created in a laboratory in 1965 by a scientist who, while hoping to discover a new ulcer medication, licked his fingers and discovered that the new compound was sweet. Aspartame is 200 times as sweet as regular table sugar. Once absorbed by the body, aspartame quickly converts to formaldehyde, a chemical used in the funeral industry for embalming. Although the FDA has yet to recognize these, reported Aspartame side effects include headaches, neurological and psychiatric changes including mood disorders and panic attacks, and cancer.
Sucralose (Splenda) was discovered in 1976 when a British researcher was told to “test” a new compound. He misunderstood, tasted it instead, and discovered that the new chemical compound was sweet and calorie free. As Deborah Warner writes in Sweet Stuff: An American History of Sweetener: “Each tiny yellow packet contains a tiny bit of sucralose and a whole lot of dextrose and maltodextrin (the filler). Since sucralose is 600 times sweeter than ordinary sugar (and about 3 times as sweet as aspartame), a little goes a long way.” Like aspartame, sucralose has become a highly marketed and defended chemical product with a long list of possible side effects that include migraines and headaches, dizziness and tinnitus, intestinal cramping and bloating, rashes and acne, bleeding gums and chest pain. 
Rebiana (Stevia) is unlike other chemical sugar substitutes since it actually comes from a plant. It was discovered by an Italian botanist who learned from the native South American Guarani people that the herb Stevia was sweet. It was used “as a treatment for burns, colic, stomach problems and sometimes as a contraceptive.”  The Stevia sold today as a sugar replacement looks nothing like its original leafy form and actually consists of concentrated steviol glycosides. It is up to 400 times as sweet as the sugar in the sugar bowl, and holds the FDA rating of “generally recognized as safe.” Whole leaf Stevia is prohibited by the FDA for use in America. Use of Stevia may actually contribute to weight gain, a higher BMI, a greater risk of diabetes, high blood pressure, metabolic syndrome, and heart disease, as well as harming probiotic bacteria necessary for healthy human digestion.  
The latest generation of artificial sugar substitutes includes the newly marketed Swerve that is made up of erythretol (a sugar alcohol), oligosaccharides, “natural flavors,” and other non-digestible carbohydrates. The FDA also lists acesulfame potassium (Ace-K), neotame, Siraitia grosvenorii, and advantame as “high intensity sweeteners” approved for use in the general population under certain conditions with an acceptable daily intake (ADI) limit. Adverse reactions to any artificial sugar substitute may be reported to the FDA here: CAERS@cfsan.fda.gov.
An internet search for sugar alternatives will bring out the advertising big guns and research on both sides of the alternative sugar controversy. As with all healthcare research, the results may depend on who is doing the study and what their motivation is. To get to get to the heart of a study, follow the funding. In an excellent slideshow presentation on nonnutritive sweeteners, Dr. Altamash Mahmood reveals that the global sugar alternative market is valued at approximately 10 billion US dollars.
Scientists reporting in the British Journal of Sports Medicine report that sugar, the real thing, is as addictive as heavy drugs and effects the body in much the same way. It is a poison. And sugar substitutes are potentially as bad. Yet, it’s understandable that folks want to live healthier but don’t want to give up their sweet fix. So how can we have our cake and eat it too, as it were? Dr. David Ludwig, a professor in the Department of Nutrition at Harvard University states that “The key public health challenge today is to reduce intake of all highly processed carbohydrates in favor of whole carbohydrates (fruits, vegetables, legumes and minimally processed grains) and healthful fats (like nuts, avocado and olive oil).”  Fruits and vegetables, fresh from the garden, feed the mind and body with vibrant colors, textures, and seasonally sweet flavors balanced with nature.
Beyond the body and mind, cardiologist Cynthia M. Thaik M.D. reveals that “just as fresh fruits and vegetables, whole grains, legumes, seeds and nuts are preferable choices over hamburgers, fried foods, and donuts, so too exist preferable nourishing foods for the soul. It does not matter how physically fit our bodies are if we do not have tranquility, peace, and harmony within our souls.” When we choose the path that nourishes our bodies with whole foods direct from Mother Nature, and feed our souls a daily dose of gratitude, love, appreciation, laughter, joy and faith, life itself becomes ever so much sweeter.
 Jesse Hicks, The Pursuit of Sweet (Science History Institute, 2010), https://www.sciencehistory.org/distillations/the-pursuit-of-sweet
 National Institutes of Health, CMAJ. 2017 Jul 17;189(28):E929-E939. doi: 10.1503/cmaj.161390, Nonnutritive sweeteners and cardiometabolic health: a systematic review and meta-analysis of randomized controlled trials and prospective cohort studies., https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/28716847
 Healthline Editorial Team (2018), medically reviewed by Natalie Butler, RD, LD, The Truth About Aspartame Side Effects https://www.healthline.com/health/aspartame-side-effects
 Dr. Mercola, Aspartame’s Hidden Dangers, https://www.mercola.com/article/aspartame/hidden_dangers.htm
 Doctor’s Health Press, Is Splenda (Sucralose) Bad for You? https://www.doctorshealthpress.com/general-health-articles/is-splenda-bad-for-you/
 Lauren Cox, What is Stevia? (Live Science, 2018), https://www.livescience.com/39601-stevia-facts-safety.html
 Eating Well, Is Stevia Safe? by Laurie S. Herr, http://www.eatingwell.com/article/290579/is-stevia-safe/
 David Leonhardt, (New York Times, 2018), https://www.nytimes.com/2018/03/11/opinion/sugar-industry-health.html
 Dr. Altamash Mahmood, Nonnutritive sweeteners and its effects on health, https://www.slideshare.net/altamashmahmood/non-nutritive-sweeteners-and-its-effects-on-health
 Harvard The Nutrition Source, Dr. David Ludwig clears up carbohydrate confusion, https://www.hsph.harvard.edu/nutritionsource/2015/12/16/dr-david-ludwig-clears-up-carbohydrate-confusion/
 Psychology Today, Foods for the Soul: Find out which healthy foods nourish and energize your mind, body, and soul by Cynthia M. Thaik M.D., From the Heart, https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/the-heart/201304/foods-the-soul