Chuck, I’ve really enjoyed your series on sugars. So hit me with it: Anything wrong with sugar substitutes? Any one better than the others? –”Substituting” in Sugar Land, Texas
In Part 1, I began to explain the pros and cons of sugars and the effects of too little or too much glucose in the body. I then proceeded to define some of the most common sugars you’ll find hiding in foods and drinks, starting with table sugar, “natural” sugars (raw, brown, etc.) and evaporated cane juice.
In Part 2, I discussed fructose and high-fructose corn syrup, which are pervading the market and processed foods on nearly every shelf in the grocery. (Even some of the “natural sweeteners” below, such as agave nectar, are nothing more than lots of fructose – up to 97 percent! Agave nectar is to fructose as evaporated cane juice is to sucrose.)
The Food and Drug Administration has approved six, calorie-free sweeteners that are much sweeter than sugar: sucralose (Splenda), neotame, saccharin (SugarTwin, Sweet’N Low), acesulfame potassium (Sunett, Sweet One), aspartame (Equal, NutraSweet) and stevia.
To be precise, artificial sweeteners are just one type of sugar substitute. The Mayo Clinic classifies the others as sugar alcohols (polyols, such as mannitol, sorbitol, lactitol, maltitol and xylitol), novel sweeteners (such as stevia extracts, tagatose and trehalose) and natural sweeteners (such as agave nectar, date sugar, fruit juice concentrate, honey, maple syrup and molasses).
But be careful when reading articles, as authors erroneously lump all sugar substitutes into the category of artificial sweeteners, but they are not all created equal, either.
All of these often are marketed as “sugar-free,” “diet” and even “natural” and are found in a variety of food and beverages, such as soft drinks, ice cream, yogurt, chewing gum, canned foods, baked goods, jelly, candy and fruit juice.
The American Heart Association and American Diabetes Association have given token blessing to the use of artificial sweeteners, but only because of the epidemic problems added sugars are causing, from obesity to heart disease.
The Mayo Clinic explained that most sugar substitutes are harmless in small amounts: “According to the National Cancer Institute and other health agencies, there’s no sound scientific evidence that any of the artificial sweeteners approved for use in the U.S. cause cancer or other serious health problems. And numerous research studies confirm that artificial sweeteners are generally safe in limited quantities, even for pregnant women.”
Kimber Stanhope, a nutritional biologist at the University of California, Davis, succinctly put it, “Short-term data (suggest) they’re safer than table sugar” because they won’t cause spikes in blood sugar or weight gain.
Stanhope added, “I use them because I can’t afford the extra calories.”
Though having no or few calories and fewer glucose and fructose molecules sounds like a step in the right direction, Holly Strawbridge, executive editor of the Harvard Heart Letter and co-author of a Cleveland Clinic book on coronary artery disease, wrote, “There’s more to the artificial sweetener story than their effect on weight.”
First, the health dilemma lies in the fact that we don’t know what consuming large amounts of artificial sweeteners over a long period of time might do.
For example, now that fructose has permeated the food and beverage market, a few decades down the road, we may discover far greater negative effects that these synthetic sugar substitutes have.
Secondly, Strawbridge pointed to the work of Dr. David Ludwig, an obesity and weight-loss specialist at Harvard-affiliated Boston Children’s Hospital. Ludwig warned that people can be easily tempted to use artificial sweeteners to justify eating other bad foods. The AHA and ADA concur.
“I’m drinking diet soda, so it’s OK to have cake,” Ludwig said as an example.
Dr. Anthony Komaroff, M.D., editor-in-chief of Harvard Health Publications, explained, “The calories removed from the diet by the sugar-for-sweetener swap may sneak back in, in the form of refined carbohydrates and low-quality fats.”
In addition, Dr. Mark Hyman, author of “The UltraMind Solution,” explained that sugar alcohols, which are carbohydrates that occur naturally in certain fruits and vegetables but also can be manufactured, “can cause significant gas and bloating.”
Thirdly, Strawbridge added, “In the Multiethnic Study of Atherosclerosis, daily consumption of diet drinks was associated with a 36 percent greater risk for metabolic syndrome and a 67 percent increased risk for type 2 diabetes.”
According to Strawbridge, because artificial sweeteners are far more potent than table sugar and high-fructose corn syrup, overstimulation of sugar receptors could desensitize your ability to taste naturally sweet foods, such as fruit, and make them “less appealing and unsweet foods, such as vegetables, downright unpalatable.” Hence, you opt to consume artificially colored, nonnutritive synthetic foods in lieu of more natural nutritional foods.
Also, citing the San Antonio Heart Study – in which participants who drank more than 21 diet drinks per week were twice as likely to become overweight or obese as people who didn’t drink diet soda – Strawbridge noted that artificial sweeteners may trick us from associating sweetness with caloric intake. So in the end, we actually crave more sweets, eat calories we wouldn’t have eaten and end up gaining weight after all. Health and neuroscience research from Yale University supports the same conclusions.
Lastly, artificial sweeteners may be as addictive as natural forms of sugar for the very reason that they are much sweeter. In studies examining the behavior of rats that were exposed to cocaine, when given a choice between intravenous cocaine and oral saccharin, most chose saccharin.
Next week, I will discuss which sugar substitute that my wife, Gena, and I prefer, as well as give you 10 tips for overcoming your sugar cravings and reducing their tyranny over your life and diet.
Write to Chuck Norris with your questions about health and fitness. Follow Chuck Norris through his official social media sites, on Twitter @chucknorris and Facebook’s “Official Chuck Norris Page.” He blogs at ChuckNorrisNews.blogspot.com.