Thursday, 20 November 2014

Sweeteners? Sugar? Or Are You Sweet Enough?

In 1879, Ira Remsen, a researcher from Johns Hopkins University noticed that a derivative of coal tar he accidentally spilled on his hand tasted sweet.  (My question being … why would he ever assume to taste it?) While he did not morph into a slim, but obnoxious Buddy Love like Jerry Lewis did in The Nutty Professor, his spill did set the stage for the development of saccharin – an artificial sweetener known today to many seasoned dieters as Sweet-n-Low.  This is the most recognized name brand of the saccharin based sugar substitutes.

It’s now more than 125 years since that fateful lick of coal tar derivative and saccharin has been joined by a growing list of artificial sweeteners.  Reportedly there is a long list of more on the way.

These products substitute for sugar.  They can replace corn syrup, used in many soda and sweetened drinks, and table sugars.  The substitute allows the sweet taste to remain in anything and everything from chocolate and ketchup to gum, ice cream, and soft drinks.

At every restaurant or coffee shop table, between the salt shaker and the A1 Steak Sauce there sits a box jammed with pastel packets.  If you are trying to reduce the sugar and calories in your diet, you may be turning to artificial sweeteners or other sugar substitutes.  You are not alone.  Hoping to dodge a few calories people use them in their coffee or tea.  According to a 2006 survey, 61 percent of U.S. women use artificial sweeteners daily, and 50 percent drink diet soda.

But …

What exactly is in those packets?

Are they safe?

Can they help people shed extra weight?

What part should they play in a healthy eating program?

Let’s start with the real deal – Sucrose aka Sugar.  We know sugar contributes to tooth decay and obesity, yet we still spoon it onto cereal and into coffee (and the food industry puts heaps – known as added sugar – into other products).  North Americans eat 165 pounds of added sugar each year.  Sugar contains 16 calories per teaspoon.  It is found naturally in fruit, added to baked goods, jams and everything else from marinades to salad dressings.

Sugar offers energy but no nutritional benefits.  In 2003 it was recommended that sugar make up no more that 10% of your diet, or about 12 teaspoons (50 grams) for a 2,000 calories diet.  In 2009 the Heart Association slashed that even further suggesting women consume no more than 6 teaspoons (25 grams) of added sugar and men no more than 9 (37.5 grams)

Check your food labels folks … those numbers are not difficult to surpass in one sitting!

Another natural sweetener is – Honey.  Honey contains 21 calories per teaspoon and is found in cereals, baked goods and commonly used in tea.  Honey contains trace amounts of vitamins and minerals and studies suggest it may not raise blood sugar as fast as other sweet products.  It is generally better for the body to have a slow and steady rise in blood sugar after eating, rather than a drastic spike.

Honey does, however, contain calories and should be used as sparingly as any other full-calories sweetener.

Something that has been around for a long time is – High-Fructose Corn Syrup.  It contains 17 calories per teaspoon and is most often found in sodas, desserts and cereals.  It contains the sugars fructose and glucose from processed corn syrup has become a hot topic of debate lately.  Because it is less expensive that sucrose and gives products a longer shelf life, more packaged foods – especially soda, cereal, and yogurt – contain HFCS as added sugar instead of sucrose.  I always question how good anything can be for your body if it gives products "a longer shelf life"?

Some studies say beverages sweetened with HFCS contribute to obesity more than sucrose, but others show it’s no worse for health.  Like any sugar or sweetener, it’s best to limit your consumption.

The new kid on the block is – Agave Nectar.  This contains 20 calories per teaspoon and is found in cereals, yogurt and added to tea.  The nectar is a product of the agave cactus, and its taste and texture are similar to honey.  It does not contain as many antioxidants as honey, but it contains approximately the same amount of calories.  Agave, however, is sweeter than sugar, so proponents argue that you can use less to get similar sweetness.

Agave nectar contains more fructose than table sugar, which, according to a recent study, means it is less likely to cause a spike in blood sugar but could be more likely to reduce your metabolism and insulin sensitivity.


Sugar substitutes are loosely considered any sweetener that you use instead of regular table sugar.  Artificial sweeteners are the most common type of sugar substitute.

So let’s look at the grand-daddy of artificial sweeteners – Saccharine.  I remember the days when saccharine was a little white tablet my mom and aunt put in their coffee.  It would fizz up when it was added.  And you can forget the bitter-sweet after-taste of the original Fresca or Tab diet drinks (sweetened with saccharine).  These days saccharine is known as Sweet-n-Low.  It has 0 calories and is commonly found in drinks, canned goods and candy.

Saccharin got a bad rep because rat studies in the early 1970’s found a link between consuming saccharin and bladder cancer.  This prompted the U.S. Congress to mandate in 1981 that all foods containing it bear a warning label.  Later studies showed that these results occurred in MALE rats (not humans) and further research has shown that male rats have a particular predisposition to bladder cancers.  The Centre for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI) states “the cancer risks are not something that an individual person should worry about”.

Nutrasweet and Equal are examples of products containing – Aspartame.  Aspartame has 0 calories and is most commonly found in drinks, gum, yogurt and cough drops.  One of the most studied artificial sweeteners is aspartame.  It has been accused of causing everything from weight gain to cancer.  Howver, since being approved in 1981, studies have found no convincing evidence and the World Health Organization as well as the American Diabetic Association say aspartame poses no threats.  The CSPI says “the only caveat is aspartame in people with a rare disorder known as phenylketonuria (PKU), who are unable to metabolize phenylalanine.  This is an inherited, genetic disorder and PKU is detected at birth through a mandatory screening process.  Some people, particularly those prone to migraines may develop headaches after consuming foods sweetened with aspartame.

Another fairly recent addition to the artificial sweetener shelf is Truvia that contains – Rebiana.  It also contains 0 calories and is found in diet drinks, yogurts, and sold in individual packets.  Derived from the stevia plant, rebiana is deemed the natural alternative to artificial sweeteners.  Although crude stevia extracts are not approved by the FDA, refined stevia products such as Truvia are generally regarded as safe.

However – a group of UCLA toxicologists wrote a letter to the FDA stating several (but not all) of their lab tests showed the sweetener to cause mutations and DNA damage and urged further testing.  Until further testing, be mindful of the amount you’re consuming.

And we move on to – Stevia.  A shrub native to Paraguay and a member of the sunflower family, Stevia is a herb that is 300 times sweeter than sugar.  In North America, the safety, efficacy and acceptability of Stevia as an ingredient in natural health products or as a sweetener food additive are currently the subject of much debate.  Evidence suggests that Stevia and its isolates may be present a risk to pregnant women, children and those who have low blood pressure.  As a result, the labels of Stevia-containing natural health products are required to carry warnings.

Rapidly becoming the most popular sweetener on the market is Splenda that contains – Sucralose.  It contains 0 calories.  As it says on the label, sucralose – which has been around since 1998 and is used in ice cream, sauces, and jellies – is made from sugar and tastes closest to the real thing.  To create it, food chemists substitute chlorine atoms for three hydrogen-oxygen groups on the sucrose molecule.  The switch makes Splenda a tongue-tingling 600 times sweeter than sugar.  Splenda is not affected by heat and retains its sweetness in hot beverages, baked goods, and processed foods.  This has some advantages. 

As the obesity epidemic continues, chemists continue to search the perfect sugar substitue.  Next up for FDA approval is a product called Alitame, which is similar to aspartame but 10 times sweeter, with no aftertaste.

Can you overdose of sweeteners?

According to WebMD as far as nonsugar sweeteners there is not a tremendous potential for overdose.  Even if a person binges on low-calorie Fudgesicles or Creamsicles, as long as the rest of their diet is healthy, there is no downside because they would otherwise probably be bingeing on something a lot worse.


“Artificial sweeteners can serve a definite purpose in weight loss and diabetes control.  It enables people that are either carb, sugar, or calorie conscious to take in a wider range of foods that they would either not be allowed to eat or could only eat in such teeny amounts that they were not satisfying.  Artifical sweeteners allow people to stick to a good diet for a longer period of time.  In a diet, artificial sweeteners are considered “free foods”.  The sugar substitutes do not count as a carbohydrate, a fat, or any other exchange.

These products can be useful when used appropriately for people like diabetics who need to control their sugar intake and in overweight people who need to control their calorie intake.

Artificial sweeteners do not affect blood sugar levels, but some foods containing them can still affect blood sugar because of the other carbohydrates or proteins in those foods.  In other words, while foods that contain artificial sweeteners may be sugar-free, they may not be carbohydrate free.

Just because a food contains artificial sweeteners instead of sugar is not carte blanche for grazing!

The real key to weight loss is calories.  If you substitute a diet soda for a sugar soda, you save 100 calories, but if you eat 15 sugar free cookies (which have calories) instead of two regular cookies, you may not be helping yourself at all.”  (Ruth Kava, Phd, RD, director of nutrition for the American Council on Science and Health in New York City)


Okay … so faux sugars won’t do you any serious harm.  And they look even better when you consider the problems that sugar can cause.  But remember … if you get more than 15 percent of your calories from foods and drinks with added sugar vs. naturally sweet foods like fruit, you increase your chances of mood swings, cavities, even grogginess.  And of course excess sugar can result in excess pounds.


You’d think that artificial sweeteners, which don’t cause blood sugar spikes would lead to slimmer middles.  Alas, not necessarily so.  One Harvard Medical School study did show that aspartame helped women maintain weight loss over time by helping them cut calories.  But another study in the International Journal of Obesity suggests that when we offer our bodies sweet tasting foods and beverages but give them no calories, they crave real sugar even more.  Substitutes may not signal the same satiety hormones as sugar, making it easier to overeat.

There are some guidelines for “maximum intakes for sugar substitutes”.  The FDA has established the amount you can ingest every 24 hours with no adverse effects.  The rule?  A 150-pound adult can have 8 and a half packets of Sweet-n-Low, 87 packets of Equal or NutraSweet, or 25 packets of Splenda daily. 

If you need more than those quantities, again, you need to be re-evaluating your overall diet!

Still confused?  Me too!

The bottom line (according to “Health” magazine):  Most nutritionists agree that you’ll end up healthier and more satisfied eating a few squares of chocolate after lunch than feasting on artificially sweetened foods all day.  And when you face your morning coffee, remember that sugar delivers just 15 calories per teaspoon – which you can burn by sleeping for 13 minutes.

The bottom line for me:  I cannot stop at “a few squares” of chocolate … so that’s a bad suggestions for me!  I don’t “feast” on artificially sweetened foods all day … if I snack in the afternoon I try to make it fruit.  I like using sweetener in my coffee, but use sugar or honey in my tea.  Why?  For me – it’s based on taste.  I like having diet Pepsi with my dinner, but very rarely even finish a 355 ml can.  I do not overindulge in other “diet products”.  I know I don’t indulge in 25 packets per day!  So, I’m going to stick with Splenda in my coffee. 

Personally, I am glad I looked into this topic (suggested by one of my TOPS group members) because it does lay to rest some of the health concerns.  But, as with everything else, I guess everyone has to decide what is the best for themselves.

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