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Sugar-coating the Truth about Artificial Sweeteners?

Posted Jul 12 2010 7:52am

If you are counting calories or are trying to limit your sugar and fat intake, chances are you have come across, and perhaps have even purchased, food products sweetened with artificial sweeteners.  Touted as a healthy alernative to sugar-laden beverages and foods, sugar substitutes are commonly found in products targeted to diabetics and those interested in weight management.  But, by consuming artificially sweetened products, are you just replacing one health risk for another?  It depends on who you ask.  Here is what you should know about sugar substitutes:

What are artificial sweeteners?

  • Chemicals and/or natural compounds that are sweet in taste but contain little or no calories.  Because they are several times sweeter than table sugar (sucrose), a smaller quantity can be used to provide the same level of sweetness.

What are the proposed benefits of artificial sweeetners?

  • A suitable sugar alternative for diabetics because they do not raise blood sugar levels.
  • They do not promote the risk of tooth decay. 
  • They can help with weight loss and/or management because they contain little or no calories.

What are some of the more common types of sugar substitutes?

  • Aspartame (NutraSweet and Equal) is a combination of aspartic acid and phenylalanine (both are amino acids).  It contains 4 calories per gram; however, because it is 200 times sweeter than table sugar, only a small amount needs to be used and so its calorie contribution to products is negligible.
  • Saccharin (Sweet’N Low, Sweet 10) is a natural compound found in grapes.  Your body is unable to digest it, therefore it contributes no calories to the foods to which it is added.  It has a sweetness that is 300-500 times that of regular table sugar.
  • Sucralose (Splenda) is made from sugar; however, because of its chemical structure it cannot be absorbed by your body and so it does not contribute any calories.  It is 600 times sweeter than table sugar.
  • Acesulfame Potassium (Sweet One, Swiss Sweet, and Sunett) is 200 times sweeter than table sugar and cannot be metabolized by the body; therefore, it contributes no calories to the products in which  it is present.
  • Stevia, a sweet South American herb that is calorie-free, is a natural alternative for adding sweetness to beverages and foods.  It is 300 times sweeter than table sugar.

Are there health risks associated with consuming sugar substitutes?

  • Aspartame contains phenylalanine; therefore, it should be avoided by individuals who have phenylketonuria (PKU) – a genetic disorder in which the body is unable to properly metabolize phenylalanine.
  • The FDA deems aspartame, saccharin, sucralose, acesulfame potassium, and stevia to be safe, with no “clear evidence” linking them with an increased risk for developing cancer after conducting numerous studies. 
  • A recent study conducted by researchers from Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston found that women participating in the Nurse’s Health Study who drank two or more servings per day of artificially sweetened soda had a two-fold increase in risk for kidney function decline.
  • A review of the literature published online June 2010 in the Yale Journal of Biology and Medicine indicates that there is a positive correlation between artificial sweetener consumption and weight gain.

Concerns about artificial sweetener use and an increased risk for cancer stem from initial studies conducted on rats which indicated a link; however, according to the National Cancer Institute (an agency of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services) there is no “clear evidence” of a causal relationship.  Still, there are opponents to artificial sweetener use who state that research findings are falsified and that by consuming these sugar substitutes, you are increasing your risk for cancer and other health concerns.  They suggest that safe, natural alternatives, such as Stevia, should be used instead.

As you try to discern for yourself as to whether you should include artificial sweeteners in your diet, consider these points:

  • Artificially sweetened products can still add calories and affect blood sugar levels due to the presence of other ingredients (e.g., white flour).
  • Artificial sugar substitutes add no nutritive value (e.g., vitamins and minerals) to foods.
  • Naturally sweet foods, such as fruits and some vegetables, contain important vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants that are needed to promote health.
  • Overconsumption is overconsumption, regardless of whether it is a sugar substitute or not, and care should be taken to eat in moderation and from various food sources. 
  • Sugar content of foods can be reduced by using spices to enhance flavors or other natural sugars, such as honey, that are sweeter than table sugar so you can use a smaller quantity to obtain the desired level of sweetness.

What is your opinion?  Do you think artificial sweeteners are safe?  Share with us, we want to know!

Sources for more information:

MayoClinic.com

National Cancer Institute

NaturalNews.com

NPR.org

Yale Journal of Biology and Medicine, 2010 June; 83(2): 101-108 “Gain weight by “going diet?” Artificial sweeteners and the neurobiology of sugar cravings,” Yand, Q.


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