What You Need to Know About Artificial Sweeteners

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Are artificial sweeteners safe? There are some things you should know before bringing them into your diet.

There are so many sweeteners on the market it’s dizzying. Along with aroma, sweetness is the first sense we appreciate from food we eat. Unfortunately, too much sugar is bad for your health and can lead to inflammatory disease, as well as obesity and diabetes. With recommended dietary restrictions on sugar intake, the artificial sweetener industry has developed on the premise that synthetic sugars are a healthier alternative to the real thing.

Refined white sugar, brown sugar, and raw sugar are processed materials derived from the sugar cane plant. Refined white sugars are repeatedly boiled to remove all of the molasses, whereas the raw sugar varieties retain a small amount of residual molasses. Raw sugar has a little more flavor and a coarser texture than refined sugar, with no significant difference in the nutritional value. Now, however, refined sugar is commonly produced by processing sugar beets, a GMO-approved plant. If you prefer refined white sugar, buy a product that is labeled “pure cane sugar” to avoid the GMO variety and any toxic residues they may contain.

If you want to limit your sugar intake, sweeten your food with other natural sweeteners. Honey is sweet, nutritious, and has antibacterial and antiviral properties.4 Other “natural” sweeteners, including agave, maple syrup, and stevia are all processed foods. Agave nectar is marketed as a natural, low-glycemic sweetener, originating from the blue agave plant. However, “raw” agave is a highly processed syrup with the highest concentration of fructose of any of the sweeteners, including high-fructose corn syrup.

A species of leafy green plant called Stevia, native to parts of the American Southwest and South America, contains a naturally sweet compound. Although the stevia plant leaves themselves are not approved by the FDA, a chemical isolated from the plant, called rebaudioside A (Rab A), or stevioside, has been approved as a dietary supplement in the US and is used to create powders such as stevia and Truvia, both zero-calorie sweeteners. Some studies have shown stevioside to have a very low toxicity when used in moderation. However, a few early studies suggested that the stevioside extract can do damage to the male reproductive system, affecting fertility. In addition, a metabolite of stevioside produced in the intestine, known as steviol, has the potential to be genotoxic. Unlike the US, the EU does not permit the use of Stevia.

Artificial sweeteners began with the invention of saccharine in the late 1800s. Since then, the FDA has approved five artificial sweeteners, including saccharin, acesulfame, aspartame, neotame, and sucralose. These chemicals, sold individually in little colorful packets (pink, blue, green, yellow, etc.), can also be found in all kinds of foods labeled zero-calorie, one-calorie, low-calorie, and diet. Synthetic sugars are sweeter than sugar and are addicting. Because the sensation of sweetness is not associated with any intake of energy, the brain doesn’t recognize that the body has taken in nutrition and so it continues to crave food. This is perhaps the reason why artificial sweeteners are associated with weight gain instead of weight loss. Although the National Cancer Institute has stated that there is no clear association between artificial sweeteners and cancer in humans, research studies have shown associations between artificial sweeteners and cancer in animals. A link between cancer development in humans or any other adverse health effects from any of the approved artificial sweeteners in the US has not been proven.

If artificial sweeteners don’t help you lose weight and there is even a small potential for a negative health effect, why use them? What I’ve typically heard from users is that sugar isn’t sweet enough. The good news is that if you have been addicted to these sweeteners and you cut them out of your diet, over time, you will eventually regain a normal sense for sweetness. But be aware that because of increasing public scrutiny, food companies are now using obscure names to hide these chemicals in ingredient lists.

Much of the information written about high-fructose corn syrup (HFCS) is propaganda put out by the Corn Refiners Association, a very politically active and wealthy group which has created an incredible market for itself. It’s absolutely amazing to think about how this one sweetener has dominated the processed food industry. Gone are the days when cola was made with cane sugar, except in other countries.

High-fructose corn syrup isn’t a natural sugar, but rather a chemical extracted from the corn plant. Biochemically, refined sugar is typically 50% glucose and 50% fructose, but HFCS has a much higher percentage of fructose, hence the name “high fructose.”

HFCS is sweeter and cheaper to produce than cane sugar. Fructose is sweet, but isn’t metabolized by the body as easily as glucose. When fructose enters the bloodstream and passes into the liver, it triggers the production of fat. Too much dietary fructose therefore can lead to metabolic disturbance, and has been implicated as causing chronic health conditions, including obesity, diabetes, heart disease, and cancer of the pancreas, liver, and colon. Some researchers speculate that the ingestion of HFCS may cause energy depletion in the intestinal cells that absorb them, leading to inflammation and other immune reactions, contributing to leaky gut syndrome. HFCS may now be derived from GMO corn, introducing a whole new level of potential contamination, including pesticide and herbicide residue. As if that weren’t enough, the toxic heavy metal mercury has also been documented as a contaminant in the production of HFCS.16 Read packaging labels and try to limit the ingestion of foods containing HFCS as much as possible.

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Photo by Sharon McCutcheon.