June 27, 2012:
Sugar Substitutes: Are They Safe?
Those little pink,
yellow and blue packets have become so ingrained in the American diet that they’re practically their own food group. In fact, current global sales of
artificial sweeteners are 1.2 billion dollars. And these colorful, calorie-free pouches don’t just
represent different brands — they’re entirely different chemical
compounds that imitate the taste of real, sweet sugar.
are three main compounds you’ve probably heard studies and scandals about: saccharin
(found in Sweet’N
(found in Equal and Nutrasweet), and sucralose
Splenda). By the way, since stevia
doesn’t fall under the “artificial sweetener” category, I’ll be addressing that sugar
sub separately in a future What The Heck Are You Eating?
episode, so stay tuned! As for the artificial posse, before we jump
into the health pros and cons, let’s start with why they’re so popular.
With two out of three Americans now considered overweight
or obese, everyone’s looking for a way to curb calories. And because sugar
substitutes give us the sweet flavor we crave without adding any calories to
foods and drinks, it feels like a slam dunk solution. Plus, they don’t spike
your blood sugar, which is good news for people living with type 2 diabetes.
Sounds too good to be true — and maybe it is.
The Not-So-Sweet Side of Saccharin
Sweet’N Low is the most recognizable form of saccharin, a manmade
compound that’s 200 to 700 times sweeter than sugar. It tastes like sugar in your coffee, but
you can’t always substitute it for the real McCoy. For example, it’s not a good
replacement in baked goods because it doesn’t have the same volume or texture
as sugar once it’s heated up.
1977, scientists tested large amounts of saccharin on rats and it was shown to
cause bladder tumors. However, when
additional studies were conducted in humans, researchers found that the
original animal studies did not translate. In other words, there was no link
between saccharin intake and bladder cancer rates in humans, so the FDA removed
saccharin from its list of potential carcinogens and currently considers these
pink packets safe for sprinkling.
Controversial Sweetener: Aspartame
was approved by the FDA for general use in all foods and beverages in 1996 and
is currently sold under the names NutraSweet and Equal. There’s a laundry list of diseases,
conditions, and symptoms that have been tied to aspartame over the years —
anecdotally or otherwise — including headaches, migraines, dizziness,
vomiting, nausea, abdominal pain, diarrhea, fatigue, and various cancers. The condition with the most credible scientific
backing is migraines. A few studies with adult migraine sufferers
showed that headaches were more frequent and more severe in the group that
consumed aspartame, although other studies have found no relationship. The FDA continues to affirm
aspartame’s safety, stating their conclusions are based on a detailed scientific
review of more than 100 toxicological and clinical studies.
The Truth About Sucralose
was FDA-approved in 1999, and has been gaining on aspartame ever since because
you can bake with it and it has a longer shelf life. And many people think it
tastes more like real sugar. But here comes more controversy: In 2007, the
makers of Equal (aspartame) sued the makers of Splenda over their ads, which
said "Splenda is made from sugar, so it tastes like sugar." They
ended up settling, but Splenda changed their campaign.
Do Artificial Sweeteners Actually
Promote Weight Gain?
counterintuitive for something that’s calorie-free to contribute to weight gain
— but some recent scientific findings have forced us to look at these
zero-calorie sweeteners a lot more closely. Some studies have found that
switching to “diet” drinks made with artificial sweeteners can help you shed
pounds, but others have found that people who drink more diet beverages are
more likely to GAIN weight over time. On top of that, some researchers have observed
that people who regularly drink diet soda have a greater risk of developing
metabolic syndrome, type 2 diabetes, and heart disease, although these studies
do not prove that diet soda causes
these conditions. There’s also some interesting preliminary evidence from
animal studies that artificial sweeteners may interfere with normal metabolic
responses — including blood sugar control and insulin levels
— all mechanisms that could theoretically contribute to weight gain.
Plus, in my personal experience, I’ve found that artificial sweeteners keep the
taste of sweet on your tastebuds and on your mind, which may actually make it
more difficult for you to kick sugar cravings.
The long and short of it is
this: There’s just not enough evidence at this time to
draw any definitive conclusions about how artificial sweeteners impact weight
— but what we’ve seen so far definitely makes me question their
effectiveness for weight
Artificial Sweeteners the Sweet Way to Go?
I’d prefer it if people cut
back on all added sweeteners — natural and
artificial. And with questions about
artificial sweeteners swirling about, I’d much rather people use a small amount
of real sugar in their food and beverages than the fake stuff. But If you
really can’t give up the sugar substitutes, at least limit yourself to no more
than 2 items per day — that could be a diet soda or diet iced tea, or
a packet of your favorite sweetener in your coffee, or a “light” yogurt made
with fake stuff.
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