More than one third of American adults are obese, and the number of American adults with diabetes has tripled over the past 30 years to over 20 million. Another trend over the past 30 years is the introduction of artificial sweeteners and an attempt to minimize cane/table sugar use. Could these trends be related? Find out what you need to know about sugar substitutes to help you make the soundest decision.
7. High Fructose Corn Syrup (HFCS): Even though this sweetener is rarely used in home cooking, it is found in almost every packaged item we buy. In fact, American’s consume around 60 pounds of HFCS per person per year! HFCS companies have been trying to convince us that consuming HFCS is harmless, but the truth is, consuming any sugar in this quantity can lead to detrimental health effects. One of the campaigns for HFCS states that it is biochemically identical to cane sugar, but it is NOT. Cane sugar (sucrose) is composed of tightly bound glucose and fructose sugar molecules in equal distribution. HFCS is made of both glucose and fructose as well, but not in equal distribution, and not tightly bound to each other. HFCS contains 55% fructose and 45% glucose. Since these molecules are not tightly bound, they do not require digestion before the body absorbs them, leading to high rates of absorption. The glucose will cause a drastic spike in blood sugar, leading the body to over produce insulin, and over time, this can possibly lead to diabetes and other serious diseases. The fructose will travel to the liver, where it will be converted to triglycerides and cholesterol, and over time, this can possibly lead to fatty liver disease. Free fructose absorption has also been seen to literally punch holes in the intestinal lining, which can lead to microorganisms entering freely into the body. The best way to avoid HFCS is to eat fresh, unprocessed and unpackaged foods! (Dr. Mark Hyman) (photo credit)
6. Aspartame: Diet soda drinks were originally created for those suffering with diabetes, but slowly became a dieters dream because they contain fewer calories. As a child, I remember my father’s pick-up truck filled to the brim with empty Diet Coke bottles, and I was terrified to open the door in public because all of them would come spilling out. He’s tidied up and cut back, but now I am terrified for his health. Not only have diet soda products been found to decrease weight loss efforts, but it has surprisingly been shown to increase chances of diabetes. Scientists agree this may be due to the lifestyle many diet soda drinkers follow, but there are other health concerns associated with diet drinks. Aspartame, more commonly known as NutriSweet or Equal, is found in hundreds of diet products in the United States. With a sugar index 200 times as sweet as sucrose, using less allows companies to provide the same sugar taste without all the calories (Aspartame.org). Seems great, right? Unfortunately, since it’s discovery in 1965 and it’s approval for use in food in the 80’s, aspartame has been the cause of more controversy within the FDA than any other food additive. When ingested, aspartame is broken down into three products, one of which is methanol. The loose methanol travels to different tissues in the body and is converted to formaldehyde, a chemical most commonly known as an embalming agent. Not only is methanol classified as a metabolic poison, but it also affects dopamine levels in the brain, making it addictive. (Huffington Post). After its discovery, aspartame was studied thoroughly, and the information gathered by the FDA has allowed approval of aspartame use in consumer goods; but over 92 side effects of aspartame have been listed, including headaches, seizures, cancer and even death (Huffington Post). Many people believe lab results were fudged and employees were hired or fired at the FDA to get aspartame approved prematurely (Mercola). And since there are almost 100 side effects reported, it may be a good idea to believe them.
5. Sucralose: More commonly known as Splenda, this artificial sweetener was approved by the FDA after only two studies were completed and published. Splenda rose to fame between 2000 and 2004 with the “its made from sugar, so it tastes like sugar” motto. Sucralose is made by adding chlorine to a sugar molecule, creating a sugar that is not found in nature, and therefore marketed as indigestible. The newly formed molecule is most similar to a chemical named DDT, a pesticide banned in many countries due to its negative long term health effects (Mercola). The truth is every body is different, and some studies have shown that humans can absorb and store up to 15% of ingested sucralose (Mercola). The attraction to this artificial sweetener is due to the claim that it contains zero calories, but this is only if the sweetener is not digested or absorbed. Therefore, since 15% is absorbed, you are actually consuming calories, and since these molecules are most similar to a pesticide, I doubt they are calories you want. (photo credit)
4. Saccharin: Saccharin, the oldest artificial sweetener, has a sweetness index 300 times that of sugar. Several early studies resulted in formation of bladder cancer in lab rats, but no data has followed this trend in humans. Regardless of long-term effects, saccharin may have more serious immediate repercussions. Saccharin is a common allergen to many, so it’s a wonder these little pink packs of sweetener weren’t taken from the tabletops of restaurants a long time ago. Before using saccharin in the diet on a regular basis, test your body’s reaction to the sweetener. Omit artificial sweeteners from your diet for one month. After that one month, add saccharin back in for one week, and see if you notice any health differences. Some reported side effects are nausea, diarrhea, and skin (FitDay). (photo credit)
3. Agave Nectar: Agave nectar, or honey water, originates in South America from the agave plant. Many people associate this sweet syrup with tequila, but its popularity as a sugar substitute has been booming. Agave actually has more calories than table sugar, but because it is so sweet, you can use less of it. The “natural” label on agave nectar has led many to believe it poses more health benefits than many of the other sugar substitutes, but the label may be misleading. The U.S. has no regulation on using “natural” on labels, and many forms of agave have been more processed than high fructose corn syrup. According to WebMD, some of the most processed can contain up to 90% fructose and studies have shown that high consumption of fructose can lead to increased risk of heart disease and diabetes.
2. Stevia: Stevia is a newer sweetener on the market that is derived from a plant native to South America, where it is commonly known as the sweet leaf. The sweetness comes from a molecule in the plant called stevioside, and it is 200 to 300 times sweeter than (Whole Foods Market). Some evidence has shown that stevia can actually help lower blood pressure and blood sugar levels (caution if you have hypotension or hypoglycemia). Thus far, the only negative side effects are allergic reactions from those people that are allergic to related plants, such as daisies or ragweed (WebMD). Stevia is available in several forms, has zero calories, and has a glycemic index of zero. It is heat stable, but still cannot caramelize and brown our baked goods the same way our beloved sugar does. If that’s the only problem with this sweetener, I’d say it’s a keeper!
1. Honey: It is common knowledge that honey is produced by bees, but did you know there are several different forms of honey depending on what the bee was pollinating? Clover honey is the most common, but there is also orange blossom (my favorite), alfalfa and blueberry honey among others. Choosing a darker honey tends to be the best way to receive the most nutrients. Honey is 82% sugar by weight and half of that is fructose (~40%), but unlike high fructose corn syrup or agave nectar, studies have shown blood sugar levels are lower after consumption of honey than they are after consumption of table sugar (Authority Nutrition). Many scientists contribute this to the natural, unprocessed state of honey, that for some reason leads to easier digestion and use by our body. Honey also lowers LDL cholesterol and raises HDL cholesterol while helping decrease inflammation. On top of all that, honey contains antioxidants that are not found in other sugar substitutes. If you do not enjoy honey, replace sugar with fruit juices for the same benefits. Remember your body NEEDS glucose to function; it is in fact the only fuel source for the brain! Eating a strict carbohydrate free diet can cause severe side effects, so it is smarter to minimize simple sugar intake while being sure to balance carbohydrates with protein and fat. Sugar is not the only form of carbohydrates, and is not the only natural sweetener. You will be surprised how easy it is to live without table sugar!