Artificial sweeteners and sugar substitutes during pregnancy

Artificial sweeteners and sugar substitutes: Know what is safe during pregnancy

Following the right diet and consuming a balanced mix of essential nutrients are very important during pregnancy. In this regard, artificial sweeteners are a major area of concern for pregnant women. Since a lot of women are habituated to drinking tea, coffee or juices with such sweeteners in a bid to reduce calories, it’s important to know how safe is it to use these sugar substitutes during pregnancy.

So what are artificial sweeteners?

These are ingredients which are used to increase the sweetness of foods. You can find it in soft drinks, desserts, sweets and cakes. Artificial sweeteners can be divided into two categories, i.e. nutritive sweeteners (that contain calories) and non-nutritive sweeteners (that do not contain calories).

Types of artificial sweeteners:

Nutritive sweeteners, for example, sugar, contain only empty calories. They have minimal vitamins or minerals. When used in moderation, nutritive sweeteners do not lead to excessive pregnancy weight gain and thus are considered safe. Women with gestational diabetes, diabetes mellitus or insulin resistance should avoid nutritive sweeteners though. Sugars like sucrose, dextrose, honey, corn sugar, fructose and maltose are some examples of nutritive sweeteners. Sugar alcohols like sorbitol, xylitol, isomalt, mannitol and hydrogenated starch that are found in foods labelled sugar-free are also nutritive sweeteners. These are not technically sugar but have calories in them that can be converted into fat.

Non-nutritive sweeteners, on the other hand, are added in small amounts to foods to sweeten them. They have been approved for use in dietetic or reduced-calorie foods and drinks. But there is very little research about the safety of these sweeteners during pregnancy.

Some sweeteners that are widely used are:

  1. Sucralose: This is a type of sugar that is processed chemically to a form that is not absorbed by the body, hence making it calorie-free. Sucralose is considered safe during pregnancy and can be added to your coffee, tea, yoghurt and smoothies. You can use it during cooking and baking too, unlike aspartame. But remember to not overindulge in foods that are loaded with this sugar alternative during pregnancy.
  2. Aspartame: The usage of aspartame is still controversial. Many consider it to be harmless, while others think it is harmful for all, pregnant or not. An occasional bite or sip of this (for example through diet coke or a chewing gum) won’t cause you any harm. However, if you are pregnant, its best to limit its intake.
  3. Saccharin: Although saccharin is usually considered safe, some studies have shown that saccharin can move through the placenta and reach your baby and leave very slowly from there. These come in pink packets and their occasional usage is fine.
  4. Acesulfame-K: This is 200 times sweeter than regular sugar. Having it moderately in baked goods, gelatin, gum and soft drinks is alright.
  5. Sorbitol: Sorbitol is a nutritive sweetener that can be consumed by pregnant women, although it can give you some unpleasant gastric effects. If you have it in large amounts, it can lead to diarrhoea, interfere with the absorption of vital nutrients, cause dehydration or even lead to excessive pregnancy weight gain. Sorbitol has more calories than any other sweetener and is less sweet than sugar.
  6. Mannitol: Mannitol is also a nutritive sweetener that is safe for pregnant women when used in moderation. But it is poorly absorbed by the body, which can upset your stomach.
  7. Xylitol: This sugar alcohol is derived from plants and is found naturally in fruits and vegetables. Xylitol is added to chewing gum, toothpaste, candies and other such foods. It is 40% less in calories than other sweeteners and helps in preventing tooth decay. Having xylitol in moderate amounts during pregnancy is considered safe.
  8. Stevia: This sugar substitute is the latest to hit the market and is derived from a South American shrub. Steviol glycosides, the chemicals derived from the stevia leaf to make the sweetener, is considered safe during pregnancy.
  9. Fruit juice concentrates: These are not very low in calories but are nutrient-rich, since they have a lot of naturally occurring phytochemicals, vitamin C and calcium. These are liquid in form and it takes a little effort to include these in recipes, but the result can be delicious. There are many commercial products in which they are used too, like cookies, cereals, granola bars, toaster pastries, yogurt and soft drinks.

The above guidelines are provided according to the research done in the field of various sugar substitutes and pregnancy. However, when it comes to using sugar substitutes while pregnant, it is always recommended that you consult your healthcare provider about which sweetener is best for you and which is not.