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How healthy are your Sugar Substitutes?

Posted Nov 17 2009 10:00pm

Faking It with Sugar Substitutes
Artificial sweeteners may be safe, but are they healthy?
Written by RealAge, Inc., peer-reviewed by Dr. Axel Goetz, October 2004

When you're on a diet, the "no-sugar" label on many packaged foods can be tempting. Sometimes no sugar means not sweetened. And sometimes it means the food has been sweetened artificially. As many as 75% of us in the U.S. consume artificial sweeteners. Sugar substitutes may be safe, but are they a healthy choice?

Not if they are causing you to 1) overeat; 2) consume too many empty calories; or 3) neglect nutrients. And that's not considering that we don't yet know the long-term effects of consuming these artificial sweeteners. How can these sweet substances possibly cause unhealthy habits? Read on to find out.

Artificial sweeteners currently on the market
Sweetener Sweetness (compared to sugar) Links to manufacturer
Aspartame 200x sweeter Marketed as Equal ® or Nutrasweet ®.
Saccharin 200x sweeter Marketed as Sweet'N Low ® or SugarTwin ® (in the U.S.)
Sucralose 600x sweeter Marketed as Splenda ®.
Acesulfame–K 200x sweeter Marketed as Sunette® or Sweet One ®; used mainly as a food additive.
Tagatose same sweetness Marketed as Sugaree® or Naturlose ; used mainly as a food and product additive.
Neotame 7,000 to 13,000x sweeter Used mainly as a food additive. More about neotame ®.

Commercially available sugar substitutes products have been clinically tested and deemed safe for consumption for most, but not all, people . They may even be helpful for people on special diets . However, a federal stamp of safety does not indicate that something is your healthiest option, especially when it comes to nutrition. Although sugar substitutes can safely be included in your food and beverage choices, there are healthy and unhealthy ways to approach these sweeteners.

Here are a few points to consider when deciding the best way to incorporate them into your diet.

You'll have to guard against overeating
Substituting artificial sweeteners for sugar is an easy way to cut back on calories and thus lose weight, right? Not really. Although sugar substitutes may help you maintain your weight after shedding pounds, they generally will not help you lose weight.
Consuming sugar substitutes on a regular basis may cause you to develop an exaggerated craving for sweetness.
In fact, some studies show they may do the opposite. The latest research on sugar substitutes has led some researchers to believe that consuming products that contain artificial sweeteners may actually encourage
you to eat more servings than you would if the food or drinks were sweetened with real sugar. Animal studies have revealed behaviors that suggest sugar substitutes may interfere with the body's natural ability to count calories based on a food's sweetness. When this calorie-counting ability is skewed, you may consume excess calories.

It's still too early to say that there is a definite link between artificial sweeteners and skewed appetite control. However, there is no question that regardless of the sweetener you choose, you need to be conscious of the total number of calories you consume whenever you eat or drink sweet things.

Artificial sweeteners may make it easy to overdo it because you might think "no sugar" means "low-calorie." However, many artificially sweetened foods still contain fat and calories. If you're trying to lose weight, don't count on simply substituting fake sugar for the real stuff to help you shed pounds. Instead, focus on controlling calorie intake and exercising regularly.

You may need to work harder to get needed nurtrients
It's normal to crave sweets. Humans naturally have an appetite for sugary things. However, if the foods you typically reach for are candy and cookies, even if they are sugar-free, you're getting mostly empty calories and few, if any, beneficial nutrients. By filling your menu with sugar-free versions of muffins, ice cream, or desserts, you may still be getting too many calories and not enough vital nutrients.

Instead of:
* Sugar-free gelatin
* Diet powdered punch
* Sugar-free ice cream
Try:
* A bowl of strawberries
* Freshly blended whole fruits sweetened with orange or apple juice
* A banana dipped in milk then rolled in crushed nuts and frozen

Rather than seeking out sugar-free versions of your favorite
indulgences, try replacing a few of them with whole foods that offer much more than a satisfied sweet tooth. Whole fruits and berries are great examples of naturally sweet treats that also provide many of the vitamins and nutrients your body needs to fight off illness and needless aging.

Plus, with a sweet treat such as blueberries or raspberries you will get a serving of fiber instead of the empty calories that come from many processed, artificially sweetened treats. Fiber-rich fruits can help satiate your hunger and assist with weight loss.

If your favorite indulgence is soda, it's certainly better for your waistline to grab a diet soda than a regular soda that is full of sugar and empty calories. Just be sure your diet sodas don't elbow out healthier, more nutritious choices such as pure fruit juice, skim milk, water, or herbal tea.

You'll have to wait to see if there are any long-term consequences
Because most artificial sweeteners are relatively new to the food scene—especially sucralose—the long-term effects of regular consumption are still unknown. Current studies show that consuming these products in moderation won't hurt you. However, more time is needed to determine whether there are any problems with these sweeteners when used long term.

Currently, there is still a great deal of public controversy surrounding the safety of several sugar-substitutes. For example, even though there is no dependable evidence that aspartame has toxic effects at doses that would be expected in normal consumption, some people who are sensitive to aspartame have reported headache, fatigue, gastrointestinal problems, and more pronounced symptoms of premenstrual syndrome (PMS).

Researchers are continuing to look for any signs that aspartame, or any other artificial sweetener, may be harmful for human health.

An herbal alternative to sweeteners
Stevia is a popular natural sweetener extracted from the Stevia rebaudiana plant. This herb has been used in South America for centuries, is about 300 times sweeter than sugar, and is calorie-free. Although it has not been approved as a safe food additive or been classified as a sweetener by the FDA, it is sold as a dietary supplement in some health/natural food stores. It has been approved for use in food in more than a dozen countries, including Japan, Ukraine, and Thailand.

Focus less on sweets and more on diversity
It's fine to treat yourself to something sweet from time to time. In fact, denying yourself sweet foods may increase their appeal and cause you to overeat when you finally satisfy the craving. But because many artificially sweetened foods still contain calories (and some tend to be nutritionally weak), you should think of artificially sweetened foods the same way you think about sugar-sweetened ones and practice moderation with them. Otherwise, a healthy diet could quickly be transformed into a calorie-dense or nutrient-poor one.  RA

Other sweeteners not available in the U.S.
Sweetener Sweetness (compared to sugar) Links to manufacturer
Alitame 2,000x sweeter A petition has been filed in the U.S. for use in a broad range of food and beverages. Approved for use in a variety of food and beverage products in several other countries. More on alitame from an association that represents low-calorie and reduced-fat food and beverage manufacturers.
Cyclamate 30x sweeter At the moment, cyclamate is banned in the United States, but a petition for re-approval is currently under review by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. It is approved for use in more than 50 countries worldwide.
Natural alternatives to sugar
Stevia 300x sweeter A sweet herbal extract marketed as a supplement in health/natural food stores.
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