A Sweet Decision: Artificial Sweetener or Sugar?

“I would feel more optimistic about a bright future for man

if he spent less time proving that he can outwit Nature

and more time tasting her sweetness and respecting her seniority.E. B. White

         Little packets of faux sugar sit beside all convenience store coffee pots. Grocery store shelves are lined with lo-cal, no-cal, and no-sugar foods.  Authorities assure us that these staples of modern life are safe. Nevertheless, unease persists.  Should millions of people, including children, be engaged in an attempt to “outwit Nature?”  In deciding whether or not to participate in this vast modern experiment, there are two questions to answer:

1. Are artificial sweeteners necessary for me?

The first question has an easy answer. Artificial sweeteners are not necessary for anyone at any time. But for someone struggling with weight problems or diabetes, artificial sweeteners can add some “better living through chemistry.”  Bear in mind, though, that the only studies showing any positive effects on weight loss by the addition of artificial sweeteners are those involving serious attempts at long term dieting – the kind that involves lifestyle change. Casual, habitual users of sweeteners typically weigh more and gain more than non-users.  In addition, frequent consumption of sweetened foods and beverages aggravates the sugar addiction that drives so many poor food choices. Artificial sweeteners also contribute to elevated insulin levels.  As soon as the tongue perceives sweetness, a quick burst of insulin begins the body’s preparation for an influx of sugar (the “cephalic insulin repsonse”). When no real sugar appears, insulin falls back quickly, stimulating hunger. Or if food  accompanies the diet drink, the insulin helps make any excess calories into fat.

2. What is the likely harm if I choose to use them?

The question of potential harm is difficult to answer. Wading through the contradictory literature on safety studies of non-nutritive sweeteners is a confusing trek that exposes the influences of politics, power, money and fear on science. FDA approval of food additives, or designation of them as “GRAS”  – generally recognized as safe – does not make safety questions disappear. Saccharin (Sweet’N Low) for instance, is known to produce bladder cancer in rats, but human population studies show only “a trend” toward more bladder cancer if more than 6 packs a day are used.

Widespread use of any substance is very hard to tie to small changes in physiology or upticks in disease processes for which there are no clear, single causes. For instance, one of the worries about aspartame (NutraSweet, Equal) was its ability to cause brain tumors in rats. There was a  rise in human brain tumor rate that coincided with the introduction of aspartame in the early 1980s. But the increase may well have reflected better diagnosis due to the introduction of the CAT scan.  A more recent increase in brain tumors of high malignancy prompted some scientists in 1996 to call for a reevaluation of aspartame’s role, but other opinions prevailed.

Safety testing

Safety testing of individual sweeteners in bacteria and laboratory animals involves huge doses over months to years.  But only when the products reach the market does the most important test begin – long term consumption under varying circumstances by large numbers of people who have not been prescreened for other problems.  To make sweeteners more palatable, manufacturers often combine them in foods, exposing the consumer to chemical mixes never tested in the lab.  Anyone using artificial sweeteners regularly is a volunteer in long term safety experimentation, so wisdom dictates having at least a rudimentary understanding of the most common ones.

Saccharin

Saccharin, a petroleum derivative, is one of the oldest sweeteners. Time on the market has given it an aura of safety, but it has been used sparingly in soft drinks, making it less used than aspartame. A persistent group of scientists still rings the warning bell about saccharin’s carcinogenic potential and about its unstudied effects on fetuses and children. Even a weak carcinogen, they say is of concern over a lifetime of use.

Aspartame

Aspartame is dogged by the most complaints, including legitimate ones like headache and mood disorders and skin rashes, and unproven ones like links to Alzheimer’s disease and brain tumors.  Rare people with an inherited condition called phenylketonuria cannot tolerate one of the amino acids from which it is made. In 2002, a new version of aspartame without that that amino acid (Neotame) was approved but is not yet widely used.

Splenda

Sucralose (Splenda) has the shortest track record. Better taste, heat stability that enables it to be used in cooking, and masterful marketing as “made from sugar” and “not absorbed”  gave Splenda 60% of the sweetener market by 2006. Eleven per cent of prepared foods on the grocery shelves are now sucralose sweetened. The additive does start out as sugar.  Chemical alteration replaces three parts of the sugar molecule with chlorine atoms, making a “chlorocarbon” that is structurally most similar to insecticides – but still called “natural.” On average, about 15% of Splenda is absorbed into the body. (The legal definition of “unabsorbed” applies if at least 80% of the product passes through the intestine unchanged.)  Test rats wound up with enlarged kidneys and livers, but so far, the large pool of human subjects seems to be tolerating the sweetener. Splenda is also not quite free of calories. While the chlorocarbon compound at the heart the sweetness has no calories, the added bulk needed to stabilize it is a mixture of carbohydrates – which contain about 12 cal/ teaspoon or 96 calories per cup.

Acesulfame

Acesulfame-K(Sunette) is bitter tasting sugar substitute seldom used alone. It has undergone safety evaluation multiple times since the 1980s and is considered by some to have a poor test record

    Before you make your decision, consider one more thing. Eating real, whole fresh food rather than artificially flavored processed versions revives dormant taste buds. Smaller amounts are more satisfying,  allowing room for a few extra calories from naturally sweetsources.

Addendum: What about the “natural” sugar substitutes?

      Stevia, a no-calorie sweetener chemically extracted from plant leaves was in exile in health food stores since an anonymous complaint to the FDA in the early 1990s. Some say this was political exile since Stevia requires no patent. The beverage industry subsequently developed Stevia flavored products and the FDA changed its stance in Dec. 2008. There is already a long history of Stevia use in Japan and China, but expect to see it combined with other sweeteners to improve its vaguely licorice-like flavor.

Nectresse is the Splenda manufacturer’s entry into the natural market. It is derived from the monk plant and is 300 times sweeter than sugar, but must be combined with molasses and a sugar alcohol to make it work. It interferes with sugar absorption and the alcohol can ferment in the gut causing gas production. And yes, these plant derived substances have some calories – the FDA allows up to 5 cal/.5 tsp. in its definition of “no-cal.”

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