We all know that refined sugars are a verified cause of obesity, tooth decay, high triglycerides, and low HDL cholesterol levels.
So there’s no way you are going to see refined sugar in a pre-workout.
However, you’d have to be crazy to release a Pre-Workout with no sweeteners in it. It’d taste ghastly and the reviews would be terrible.
So … manufacturers are left with a choice. Do they pony up the extra dough and use natural sweeteners, or do the accountants get their way and they use artificial sweeteners? Which leaves us, the consumer, with a question on our lips;
Artificial sweeteners are man-made products designed to mimic sugar. They are described as synthetic because they do not occur in nature at all, and have to be produced in a lab. The sweetness means that only relatively small amounts are usually needed, with many synthetic additives being several hundred times sweeter than table sugar.
Artificial sweeteners are much cheaper than natural sweeteners, and because of the low quantities required, manufacturers that use them save a lot of money in production outlay.
Let’s look at the most prominent.
Known in the European Union as E (additive) number 954, Saccharin is one of the first artificial sugar substitutes, dating to the late 1800’s.
Up to seven hundred times sweeter than sugar, like most artificial additives, it doesn’t bind or react with other ingredients, meaning it won’t spoil easily. This in turn improves the shelf life of foodstuffs containing it.
Saccharine was discovered as a by-product of coal tar, long established as a carcinogen. It’s hardly surprising, then, that people have questioned its use as a food additive for more than a hundred years, around which time it began gaining popularity as the result of war-time sugar shortages.
Until 2000, food containing Saccharine had carried an FDA health warning for some decades because of cancer links.
Although these links have since been discredited, reported side effects of its ingestion include headaches and breathing difficulties.
Whilst Saccharin has been around for some time, food technologists continue to develop new artificial sweeteners up to the present day. Known to its friends as ‘Ace K,’ (anything which sounds that much like the handle of a particularly nefarious NASCAR driver just CAN’T be good for you,) Acesulfame Potassium was FDA-approved as recently as 1998.
Sometimes found labelled under the brand names ‘Sweet One’ and ‘Sunnet,’ Acesulfame Potassium, like Saccharine, has been associated with a cocktail of health risks. Research from the 1970’s that concluded it caused cancer in lab rats was later discredited, but the consumer advocacy group the Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI,) remains unconvinced.
They refer to studies indicating links to thyroid damage and long term alterations in the brain function of test animals. And, whilst admitting that early research into its possibly carcinogenic nature was flawed, they maintain that a causative relationship between Ace K and cancer does exist.
Despite its sweet characteristic, Acesulfame Potassium possesses a bitter aftertaste, especially in larger quantities. For this reason it is often found in products combined with another common, yet no less controversial additive, Aspartame.
Despite being up to two hundred times sweeter than sugar, Aspartame has been described as the closest to it in terms of taste. Perhaps because of this, aspartame is found in many products, from sugar-free gum and soda to reduced-sugar fruit juice. It was first marketed under the trade name ‘NutraSweet’ in the US, and was only approved for use in the EU as late as the 1980’s.
Dubbed by some ‘the original sweetener scare story,’ Aspartame has been linked with various cancers and brain tumours, even being the subject of US Congressional hearings.
Although no conclusive evidence has ever been found for the aforementioned health risks, some studies have concluded that it carries risks of weight gain and heart disease.
The majority of FDA complaints to this day involve adverse reactions to Aspartame.
Because of its phenylalanine content, Aspartame also carries a severe risk of birth defects in the children of phenylketonuria (PKU) sufferers, and foodstuffs containing it must carry a warning. The most commonly reported side effect, however, is migraines.
If you thought the first three additives were sweeter than a hamper full of honey-glazed kittens, you ain’t seen nothing yet; enter Sucralose, or E number 955, up to 1,000 times sweeter than table sugar, or, if you prefer, three times sweeter than Ace K and Aspartame.
FDA approved around the turn of this century, probably the most widely-known store item featuring Sucralose is ‘Splenda.’
Possibly the most commonly found artificial sweetener in pre-workout products, this new kid on the additive block is already controversial. Various studies have reported links with migraines, possible negative effects on the immune system, and, in spite of its non-nutritive nature, weight gain.
In 2013, after claiming it caused leukaemia in lab rats, the CSPI downgraded its status from ‘Safe’ to ‘Caution’.
Last but not least, Neotame has to take top prize in terms of eye-wateringly unnatural sweetness – up to 13,000 times sweeter than table sugar.
Because it is so sweet, its proponents note that very little of it is actually required in food products. And that’s probably for the best; for as well as leading the table in sweetness, Neotame would appear to repeat the trick in toxicity.
Chemically similar to our old friend Aspartame, Neotame includes a 3,3-dimethylbutyl group, seemingly explicitly to impede the Aspartame-like production of phenylalanine during metabolism.
Unfortunately, 3,3-dimethylbutyl is such a potent irritant to the skin, eyes, and lungs that it carries a risk statement. You know the ones: big orange and black stickers with WARNING: DO NOT HANDLE daubed on them.
Despite concerns about possible links to liver problems and a toxic effect on growth noted in test animals, Neotame was approved by the FDA in 2002, a full nine years before its European counterpart the EFSA did the same.
These are naturally occurring sweeteners which have not been made synthetically, and have not been extracted using chemicals.
Monk fruit is around 200 times sweeter than sugar, and comes from a green plant which grows in south east asia.
The fruit is dried and then mixed with dextrose. It does not alter blood sugar or insulin levels and there is no evidence to suggest it causes side effects.
It contains zero calories or carbs.
Xylitol is naturally occurring sugar alcohol found in various fruit and vegetables, including plums, cauliflower and strawberries. It has virtually no aftertaste, and is recognized as being safe for diabetics and individuals with hyperglycemia.
It is often used in dental products such as toothpaste and chewing gum. Unlike Monk Fruit it contains calories (2.k kcal/g)so tends to be used sparingly in diet products.
Like Xylitol, Erythritol is a low calorie sugar alcohol approved as a food additive.
Like Monk Fruit, it has a zero glycemic index and does not affect blood sugar and insulin levels. It is also similar to Xylitol in that it is not harmful to your teeth – it cannot be metabolized by the bacteria found in your mouth.
90% of it is excreted via urine.
Why isn’t Stevia on our list of natural sweeteners? Many companies which produce products containing Stevia will go to great lengths to tout it as a natural sweetener as it is derived from the Stevia plant, but it is actually extracted using an industrial chemical process.
As a result we don’t truly classify Stevia a ‘natural’ sweetener at all, and wouldn’t consider products made from it. However it is very difficult to find preworkouts without artificial sweeteners and Stevia so we’ve included a few in our table and flagged them.
So … we’ve covered sweeteners. The good, the bad, the natural and the frankly toxic.
Let’s round off the article by providing a list of Pre-Workouts products contain some of the better sweeteners listed above;