Monday, March 4, 2013

The Truth About Artificial Sweeteners

What your parents or grandparents taught you about eating healthfully might be right … but it might not.  With so much conflicting data on what is good for you or not, the sad truth is that more Americans today feel that is is easier to figure out how to do their own taxes than it is to figure out what they should or should not eat to be healthy, according to the International Food Information Council Foundation’s 2012 survey.

Is it any wonder?  It shouldn't be, when you consider that what we eat, and how much, has changed significantly in the last 50 to 80 years.  As well, what we know about what we eat is continually evolving, thanks to medical and scientific advancement. Here are some things you need to know about using surgar alternatives for health and weight loss.

Sugar cubes

Put a little sugar on it, honey

One of the biggest dietary changes over the past few decades is the choices we have to reduce the sugars in our diet.  In the past, just about the only way to reduce sugars in your diet was to reduce the sweetness altogether.  But today, we are inundated with choices in sugar substitutes.
With more than half of Americans surveyed trying to lose weight – and with no foreseeable change in the number of us with a sweet tooth – the proliferation and consumption of low-calorie sugar alternatives is likely to continue. 

Why do we consume artificial sweeteners?

Survey says:
  • To reduce calorie intake: 73 percent – presumably to achieve weight loss, or to avoid weight gain
  • To prevent health issues: 37 percent
  • To manage existing health issues:  29 percent
With such high numbers of us (95 percent of those surveyed!) swapping natural sugars for artificial sweeteners to lose weight and to be healthier, we’d better be certain that artificial sugars actually do improve health or facilitate weight loss. 
It turns out that this is one thing we cannot count on.  Mounting evidence indicates that some artificial sweeteners previously thought to be healthy sugar alternatives may actually pose serious health risks.  More shocking is the new evidence suggesting that some sugar alternatives are resulting in weight gain, not weight loss!

Artificial Sweeteners: The good, the Bad, the Ugly

Soda can
An earlier FamilyWize article Is There Danger in Your Diet Soda? focused on diet soda risks – an important subject if you consume diet soft drinks.  But there are many artificial sweeteners available for cooking and food preparation that you aren't likely to find in your diet soft drink.  Here, we’ll take a look at the usual suspects in the wider sugar substitute market – aspartame, saccharin, sucralose, sugar alcohols, and stevia – all  food additives that imitate the taste of sugar.

Are they good for you or bad?
Let’s start with a universally acknowledged scientific truth; obesity is bad for us: often blamed for many of our most common and dangerous health issues, such as high blood pressure, heart disease, and cancer.  If reducing calories by switching from sugar to a sugar substitute can help reduce obesity, it’s all good, right?  Mostly, yes; just be aware of the following sugar substitute risks and balance that with the benefits.

Another widely accepted (and FDA-stated) sugar substitutes benefit is that – with the exception of sugar alcohols – they do not affect your blood sugar, which makes them safe to use if you have diabetes.
One overarching concern though is the common tendency we have to justify eating more food because we are using artificial sweeteners.  When I was a teen, working at a Wendy’s restaurant, I lost count of the numbers of people who would order the largest burger, the largest order of fries, a Frosty for dessert … and a diet soda!  Net weight loss with such dietary habits as this will be nil, no matter which sugar substitute you use.

Other risks associated with sugar substitutes in general:
  • In one study, daily consumption of diet drinks showed a 36 percent greater risk for metabolic syndrome and nearly 70 percent for type 2 diabetes. 
  • Another study seems to indicate that artificial sweeteners may be addictive, at least in rats.
  • A San Antonio heart study showed that those who drank more than 21 diet drinks per week were twice as likely to become overweight as those who didn’t drink diet soda.
What you should know about certain sugar substitutes:
Saccharin, the original artificial sweetener, first synthesized in the late 1800s, is considered much safer than previously thought.  A 1960 study created a cancer scare associated with Saccharin, until it was later discovered that saccharin’s cancer risk only occurred in male rats by a process that does not occur in humans. The World Health Organization has consequently ruled that saccharin is not consider carcinogenic to humans, stating that, “despite sufficient evidence of carcinogenicity to animals … saccharin is no longer considered a potential hazard to human health.”  Nonetheless, the stigma persists. That, combined with its reputation for a bitter aftertaste, compared to many of the newer alternative sweeteners, has kept Saccharin low in the selection of sugar substitutes.
Aspartame, is the most common sweetener found in diet sodas on the market.  It’s also used as a sugar bowl sweetener alternatives, and in frozen desserts, gelatins, and chewing gum.  Some aspartame risks:
  • Do not cook with aspartame, and store it at cool temperatures; aspartame breaks down under heat. 
  • A bigger risk: a 2012 study linked aspartame to a heightened risk of Lymphoma and Leukemia. 
  • A separate study indicated that aspartame can cause brain damage by leaving traces of methanol in the blood.
Sucralose (Splenda)
Until recently sucralose was thought to be the safest alternative to sugar.  But a 2002 study showed sucralose presenting gastrointestinal risks. A 2006 study indicated that it may be a trigger for migraines.  

Sugar alcohols
Sugar alcohols include sorbitol and xylitol, produced by catalytic hydrogenation of natural sugars.  On the good side: studies indicate the xylitol has positive benefits to teeth, reducing cavities.  But be aware that many individuals find that sugar alcohols cause gastrointestinal issues.
The plant-based stevia is a natural sugar substitute (i.e. not classified as an artificial sugar) that has been in use in other countries for centuries, and is rapidly gaining in popularity in the U.S., especially since modern processing techniques have helped to reduce the bitter aftertaste.  There are no known studies that indicate any known risks in the use of stevia to humans. It’s available in a concentrated liquid form and also in a powdered form.

Ric Moxley
Contributing Writer

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