Many people turn to artificial sweeteners or sugar substitutes as a way to reduce their caloric intake. You’ve heard their “great taste with zero calories” advertisements. They have become more and more popular as people look for lower-calorie products. Even dentists recommend them for help with cavity control because they do not contribute to tooth decay. But, do you know the effect of these artificial sweeteners and sugar substitutes on your body? If not, read more…
I started using Equal when I was in my late teens. Our family dentist recommended it to my Mom, who had problems with cavities (much like I do) as a way to reduce sugar intake and lessen tooth decay. Maybe he should’ve recommended we eat less candy … now, there’s a novel idea. Anyway, the switch from white sugar to Equal wasn’t a difficult one. I used it in my tea, on fruit (grapefruit, strawberries — why? I do not know) and later, in my coffee.
In my 20s, I switched to Splenda, but only because a friend of mine took her coffee with skim milk and splenda and it tasted pretty darn good. Nice and sweet! It wasn’t until I read the book “Skinny Bitch” that I started to question whether these sugar substitutes were actually healthy for my body. There was an entire section devoted to them in that book and it was pretty scary stuff.
I apologize in advance if I get a little too scientific on you. It’s necessary to explain some of the effects that these sugar substitutes have on our bodies. Here’s a rundown of artificial sweeteners according to MayoClinic.com:
Regular Sugar = Sucrose
Sugar from Fruit = Fructose
Artificial sweeteners are synthetic sugar substitutes, though that doesn’t mean they aren’t derived from naturally-occurring substances. Something of importance, though, is the intensity of these sweeteners when compared to the sweetness of fruit or regular sugar. I’ll explain more about that in moment.
Artificial sweeteners currently approved by the FDA:
- Acesulfame potassium (Sunett, Sweet One)
- Aspartame (Equal, NutraSweet)
- Saccharin (SugarTwin, Sweet’N Low)
- Sucralose (Splenda)
Now, there are some benefits to artificial sweeteners. They are, for the most part, zero-caloric products, so you would think they would be good for weight loss. They may be a better substitute for sugar to someone suffering from diabetes. They also do not contribute to tooth decay. According to the FDA, these sweeteners are “generally recognized as safe” and can be found in a wide variety of products on grocery stores today.
Here is my problem with artificial sweeteners … let’s revisit the word “intensity” for a second.
Aspartame or Equal is reportedly 200x sweeter than sugar. Saccharin, found in Sweet N Low is 300-500x sweeter than sugar. Sucralose or Splenda is 600x sweeter than sugar. Yeah, 600 times sweeter!
The problem with the intensity of these sugar substitutes is that they reset your taste buds and program them to crave sweeter tasting foods. Your body builds up a tolerance to super-sweet tasting foods and it creates a sort of addictive behavior where you crave sweeter and sweeter foods to satisfy your super-sweet tooth — or tongue, in this case. This makes you crave more food because your sugar receptors are being fooled by these sugar substitutes. Hello, food addiction and hello, binge/over-eating.
So, a major problem is that these sugar substitutes can actually contribute to over-eating and therefore weight GAIN instead of weight LOSS.
If you, like me, have a problem with portion control, take a look at the number of items in your refrigerator and pantry that say “diet, lite, low fat, no fat” and check the ingredients. I bet the majority of those items contain some sort of sugar substitute. Coincidence?
The best way to get yourself eating healthy is not by dieting, per se, but by eating whole grains (and not those that claim to be whole grain, but are actually “enriched”), lots of veggies and fruits as close to their natural state as possible, legumes and lean meats. Everything else in moderation — which, to me, means once in a blue moon.
My feeling on sugar substitutes is that because they are chemically modified and adding more and more chemicals to our bodies, they probably are not the best thing for our health. That’s just MY feeling and so I try to limit my foods to natural or organic, and I buy foods that have as few ingredients as possible. If I read a label and it includes 20+ ingredients, I look for a similar product with less.
Read labels! I cannot emphasize how important that is. I mean, let’s face it. Fruit-sweetened water — and I don’t mean fruit-flavored water with sucralose, either — is a much better substitute for regular soda than diet soda, which contains aspartame. Most of the time, naturally occurring ingredients are going to be more easily absorbed by your body than chemically enhanced.
Honey is naturally occurring and has a number of health benefits. Plus, it keeps those bees working.
Stevia is a plant-based extract, but it is also chemically modified and is 300x sweeter than table sugar. I would recommend this as a step down from Splenda if you were trying to limit your Splenda or Aspartame intake.
Agave nectar comes from the plant from which tequila is made. Cool! It is also naturally occurring and I use it in my oatmeal and tea.
I also learned that there are claims that agave nectar, stevia and even honey are said to be linked to cancer cells that “like” sugar. I read that on a personal blog, but didn’t find any real studies backing that statement up. Still, and with full disclosure, it just goes to show that, when it comes to sugar, it’s probably best to steer clear completely. Even naturally occurring sugars have potential downsides.
It never hurts to know more about what you’re putting in your body so you can make informed decisions. And, no one says you have to be perfect. I ate a hand full of skittles today. But, I am not oblivious when it comes to the ingredients I bring into my home.
When I cook for my son, who is almost 13 months, I give him fruit-sweetened foods if I’m baking. Most often, he gets fruits and veggies with no sugar added whatsoever. Never underestimate the power of cinnamon! My goal is to limit his sugar intake for as long as I possibly can so he doesn’t grow up with the sweet tooth I seem to have inherited.
Hands down, the best sugar substitute is no sugar at all. And, that’s a battle I’m still fighting. In the mean time, less is more!