Zero calories. Zero relinquishing of taste. Zero hesitation.
Sugar substitutes and alternative sweeteners abound! They line supermarket shelves, are packed in to chewing gum, are in your favorite diet soda, and can replace regular sugar in virtually any form.
How well do you know your sweeteners?
Aspartame. Saccharin. Sucralose.
Ring any bells? That’s because we know them better as:
Equal. Sweet’N Low. Splenda. (respectively)
Sugar substitues, or artificial sweeteners, have been used in food production since the late 1800s, and are all the rage in our American, body-conscious, flavor-hoarding culture. Sugar has about 4 calories per gram, whereas many artificial sweeteners have zero. We don’t want to sacrifice taste and flavor, but we also don’t want to consume the extra calories, which puts us in a sugar substitute downward spiral. This conundrum procured the need to create artificial sweeteners to replace natural ones.
Less calories = less weight gain.
Not necessarily. Studies show, for example, those who drink diet soda are more likely to gain weight than those who do not. Why? Zero calorie sweeteners have been known to negatively impact metabolism. Artificial sweeteners can be anywhere from 30 to 8,000 times sweeter than sugar, and, although they may be void of calories, they trick your brain. As humans, our brain responds positively any time we eat sugar, salt, and foods high in fat. This has trickled down from the days where we were forced to hunt and gather food; foods such as these were meant to sustain the body, and were very coveted. Foods high in sugar, salt, and fat produce a strong chemical response, which, in turn, causes the body and the mind to crave more of them. Although an individual may be drinking diet soda, their brains are triggered to seek those calories, and more of them, somewhere else. Additionally, those who use sugar substitutes tend to eat more calories than those who don’t, because they have the mindset of ‘saving’ calories on those drinks, so they’ll make up for it somewhere else. Maybe without even knowing it.
These sugar substitutes and artificial sweeteners are designed to replace, well, sugar substitues. Sugar goes through a refining process to purify, bleach, and filter out any unwanted particles. It has gradually been replaced with many other products, including high-fructose corn syrup, honey, agave nectar, molasses, brown sugar, and maple syrup. While many of these tend to go through a refining process of their own, they are not necessarily chemically produced. Because these all have calories as well, these sugar substitutes were given a backseat to zero calorie artificial sweeteners.
This is the skinny on the more popular forms of artificial sweeteners.
Aspartame: Created from aspartic acid and phenylalanine and is about 200 times sweeter than sugar. This sweetener is found in thousands of food products including gum, many diet drinks and those labeled “sugar free.” It is not heat stable and therefore is not used in foods that require cooking. Approved in 1981, aspartame remains highly controversial. Opposition stems from concerns of conflict of interest in the FDA the approval process, flaws in the submitted studies, and they way the chemicals break down in the body (including the formation of methanol, formaldehyde and formic acid). Many assert that aspartame might cause brain damage along with other health symptoms. The FDA and European Food Safety Authority maintain aspartame’s safety. In the 1990’s, many companies, especially in Europe, chose to remove aspartame from their private label products. Other countries have considered banning aspartame entirely.
- Equal, NutraSweet
- Found in soft drinks, yogurt, chewing gum, frozen desserts, cereal, pudding, breath mints and is used as a table top sweetener.
- Possible health effects: Purported health effects include everything from brain tumors, lymphoma, and cancer, fibromyalgia, to headaches, dizziness and insomnia. Aspartame contains phenylalanine and must be avoided by people with phenylketonuria (PKU), a rare genetic condition.
Saccharin: A substance used as an artificial sweetener that has a long history in the United States. It was discovered by the chemist, Constantin Fahlberg, when he tasted a very sweet compound on his hands after working with a coal tar derivative in his lab. Saccharin is between three hundred and five hundred times sweeter than table sugar. Due to its bitter aftertaste, it is often blended with other artificial sweeteners. It is widely used in diet foods and beverages as it provides no calories and passes through into urine. During the first World War, saccharin became widely used and in 1907, studies on the health effects of saccharin began. There have been many back and forth exchanges among the FDA, USDA and commercial producers of artificial sweeteners about the possible carcinogenic effects of saccharin consumption. These debates have continued all the way through 2008 and still no consensus has been reached.
- Sweet’N Low
- Used as a tabletop sweetener (brand name Sweet’N Low), diet beverages, soft drinks, diet candies/foods, foods marketed to diabetics.
- Possible health effects: In 1977 the FDA stated that the use of saccharin should be banned as it had been found to cause bladder tumors in laboratory animals according to a Canadian study. There was a huge outcry from the commercial producers of artificial sweeteners and so they delayed the ban but required that a warning label be placed on all items containing saccharin. This label was subsequently removed in 2000 due to findings that the rodent studies performed could not be carried over to humans. Numerous other tests have been performed, both in a clinical setting and in population studies and as of 2008 no clear decisions have been made.
Sucralose: An artificial sweetener made from sucrose (sugar) and chlorine molecules. It is often mixed with a bulking agent such as maltodextrin or dextrose to give it the granularity and appearance of table sugar. The most common brand name is Splenda. It is over 500 times sweeter than sugar and does not affect blood sugar or insulin levels. It is extremely common in processed foods and is marketed as diet friendly, “sugar-free” and “safe for diabetics.”
- Found in baked goods, beverages, juice, soda, ice cream, Splenda packets in restaurants, processed foods.
- Possible health effects: A recent study from Duke University found that the consumption of Splenda in rats over a 12-week period caused “numerous adverse effects” including: a 50% reduction in beneficial bacteria in intestines, increased pH levels of intestines, and increases in body weight. In addition, it affects the P-glycoprotein in the body in such a way that prescription drugs could be rejected instead of absorbed as they were intended.
There are additional artificial sweeteners out there, and most likely more to come. As for me, I’ll stick to the more natural sources.