By Janet Fontana
The Skinny on Sweeteners
We’ve all heard countless warnings about how sugar rots our teeth, makes us gain weight, causes hyperactivity and hypertension, and is linked to cardiovascular disease and an array of cancers. However, if you’ve browsed through the sweetener aisle at the store recently, you may have noticed that sweeteners (both natural and artificial) have been snatching up more and more shelf space. From powders to syrups, and brands ranging from Imperial to Nutrasweet, the number of sugar products and their substitutes seems endless (not to mention quite overwhelming).
Sometimes I wonder why, with all of the health warnings and controversy surrounding sugar, we are exposed to such a magnitude of sweetener options. And furthermore, with all these options of sweeteners at our disposal, how do we best discern which ones are the best choice?
According to the U.S. Census Bureau’s Statistical Abstract of the United States, the per capita sugar consumption dropped from 83.6 pounds in 1980 to 61.1 pounds in 2003. While the decline of sugar intake is undoubtedly a positive thing, the total consumption of caloric sweeteners (which include cane sweetener, corn sweeteners, and beet sweeteners) rose from 120.2 pounds in 1980 to 141.7 pounds in 2003.
So, why such an influx in artificial sweetener consumption? The fact is, while most of us are aware of the health risks caused by sugar; we just can’t seem to kick our unrelenting sweet tooth. In addition, we’ve become increasingly weight-conscious, and as a result have turned to low-calorie synthetics like Aspartame, Saccharin, Neotame, and Sucralose to get that touch of sweetness we crave.
While many of us can admit that we love (and sometimes crave) the taste of something sweet, manufacturers, advertisers, and marketers alike understand this reality on a much higher level. Today, FDA approved artificial sweeteners like Sweet-N-Low, NutraSweet, and Splenda are marketed as being “sugar-free” with “zero calories”- which are appealing buzzwords for the diet-conscious. However, while these types of sweeteners may be lower in calories, they don’t offer the same nutritional value as some natural sugar substitutes.
On the contrary, studies show that many of the artificial sweeteners on the market can cause horrible side effects. For example, the relatively new additive, Sucralose (Splenda), contains chlorocarbon, a compound that is incompatible with normal human metabolic functioning. According to a 2008 DukeUniversity study, researchers found evidence suggesting that Splenda may even reduce the amount of good bacteria in the intestines by up to 50%. A significant reduction of good bacteria can impact a person’s overall immune system and affect the absorption of medications. ) The safety of synthetic sweeteners like Splenda is still widely debated.
If you are looking to add a bit of sweetness into your diet, below is a summary of the pros and cons of artificial and natural sweeteners. I hope this information will help you in decide which product is best for you. Regardless of the sweetener you choose, remember to keep your intake to a minimum to avoid cravings, weight gain and potential health risks.
- Contains maltodextrin (a bulking agent)
- Has zero calories- however, the bulking agents typically add 12 calories per tbsp (nutritional facts don’t report this)
- 600 times sweeter than natural sugar
- Easy to bake with
- Over 100 studies completed - FDA finds it has no toxic or carcinogenic effects, and no neurological/reproductive risks
- Some critics claim that preliminary animal research has linked Splenda to organ damage.
- Has an artificial taste, particularly when used in baking
Saccharin (SWEET N’ LOW)
- 300 times sweeter than sugar
- Bladder cancer had been found in rats that were given large doses of Saccharin. In 1977, the FDA proposed a ban, though nothing ever materialized.
- Suspected to be a human carcinogen
- May effect reproductive function. Women are often warned about saccharin intake as it may impact pregnancy.
Aspartame (NUTRASWEET & EQUAL)
- 180-200 times sweeter than sugar
- Each gram contains approximately 4 calories, yet a very small amount is needed for the same desired sweetness
- FDA claims it’s safe for pregnant women
- Some people have reported a sensitivity to aspartame, including headaches, dizziness, skin irritations, and respiratory problems. However, the CDC has concluded that a small group of individuals are extremely sensitive to aspartame.
- Great immunity builder – antioxidant and anti-bacterial properties
- Prevents fatigue (especially during exercise) - The glucose in the honey is quickly absorbed into the body, giving you an almost immediate energy boost
- Cancer preventative properties - caffeic acid methyl caffeate, phenylethyl caffeate, and phenylethyl dimethylcaffeate are cancer-preventing.
- Cough suppressant- Honey has been shown to be an effective cough suppressant for children between the ages of 2-18
- Glycemic index value- better than sugar or honey for those with diabetes because of its significantly low glycemic index.
- Less likely to raise blood sugar levels- he lower glycemic index helps maintain a more stable blood sugar
- Made up of fructose and some glucose
- Could contain steroids- some Agave Nectar brands contain steroids such as Anordin and Dinordin which have been linked to contraceptive side effects and miscarriages
- About one and a half times sweeter than sugar
- Has same calories as sugar- Agave contains 4 calories per gram just like sugar, though because it’s sweeter than sugar you would typically consume less.
- Vegan – there is no animal processing needed for Agave
- Not all brands are created equal- low quality agave nectar forms are extensively processed and alter the chemical structure of the nectar
- According to Mayo Clinic, Agave Nectar, has essentially the same vitamin and mineral content as sugar and honey
- Good source of energy - blackstrap molasses is high in iron which helps boost energy
- High in other minerals such as calcium, copper, potassium, maganese, and magnesium
- High in antioxidants- blackstrap molasses has a higher antioxidant capacity than honey or agave.
- Has somewhat of a bitter taste.
- Anti-oxidant and potential cancer fighter - maple syrup contains polyphenol compounds
- Immune booster - high levels of zinc and manganese help immune cells function.
- Good for digestion - compared to sugar and other processed sweeteners, maple syrup is less likely to cause indigestion, bloating, and gas.
- Can be used as a facial - the antioxidants in maple syrup help repair environmental and free radical damage to the skin. Try an at-home facial consisting of 1 tbsp of warm milk, 1 tbsp of warm maple syrup, and 3 tbsp of ground oats. Mix all the ingredients together, massage onto your face and leave on for 15 minutes before washing off and applying moisturizer. You will instantly see the anti-aging effects of this recipe, and your skin will feel incredibly smooth.
- Stevia is an herb that is 200-300 times sweeter than sugar
- Derived from stevia plant leaves and contains no artificial additives
- Has been used for hundreds of years in South America and widely used inJapan
- Research in the1980s revealed DNA changes occurring when tested with certain forms of bacteria
- Extensively tested by the FDA for use as a sweetener
- Typically does not raise blood sugar levels
- Some evidence that stevia lowers blood pressure
All sweeteners come with drawbacks. No matter which sweetener you choose to use, limit your intake. The higher your sweetener intake is, the more your brain receptors will be stimulated to crave sweets. And when you do crave something sweet, reach for that bowl of fruit instead. Fruit is always tasty, refreshing, and good for you!