Sugar Substitutes: A Sweet Alternative?

If you read my last article on sugar, you know that added sugar is everywhere! You may also be aware that excessive sugar intake is not only wreaking havoc on our waistlines, but our overall health as well. In an effort to cut calories and make healthier food choices, many consumers turn to “diet” products like fat-free yogurt, diet soda, sugar-free ice cream, etc. These low-calorie products may seem like a smart alternative, but are they?

Taking a Look at Sugar Substitutes

A sugar substitute is a food additive that duplicates the effect of sugar in taste, but it usually has less food energy (calories). Synthetic sugar substitutes are referred to as artificial sweeteners.

The US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) regulate artificial sweeteners as food additives. The FDA routinely publishes a list of “Generally Recognized as Safe” food additives, which currently include five approved artificial sweeteners:

  • Saccharin
  • Aspartame
  • Sucralose
  • Neotame
  • Acesulfame potassium

While the FDA has not been presented with enough scientific information that would support a change in conclusions about the safety of these artificial sweeteners, current research suggests that artificial sweeteners may contribute to weight gain and other health problems. There are a variety of proposed mechanisms for the detrimental effects of artificial sweeteners on health.

Case Study: Aspartame and Calorie Intake

One study showed that when sugar was secretly switched to aspartame, subjects ate 25 percent fewer calories. However, when people knowingly consumed aspartame, it was associated with an increased calorie intake. This suggests that the subjects ate more overall because they expected their calories to be lower since they were using an artificial sweetener instead of sugar. Have you ever seen someone at a fast food restaurant order a huge greasy burger with a diet soda?

Case Study: Developing a Taste for Sweets

Other studies have found that sweet taste, whether from sugar or artificial sweeteners, increased people’s appetites. This is especially interesting because artificial sweeteners are hundreds to thousands of times more sweet than sugar. Therefore, individuals who frequently consume artificial sweeteners may eventually find healthier but less intensely sweet foods (ex: fruit) less appealing and non-sweet foods (ex: vegetables) less palatable.

Case Study: Responses to Diet Soda

In yet another research study, daily diet soda intake was associated with the development of high fasting glucose and increased waist circumference – components of metabolic syndrome and risk factors for Type 2 Diabetes. A sweet taste induces an insulin response, but since artificial sweeteners do not increase blood sugar, this results in hypoglycemia and subsequent increased calorie intake, which leads to weight gain and increased body fat.Sugar

If all of that research doesn’t make you think twice about using artificial sweeteners, maybe this will: our bodies have to work very hard to break down the less than desirable chemical by-products of artificial sweeteners. At the Avera Heart Hospital, we encourage people to eat foods that are less processed and “closer to nature.” In other words, if you are going to indulge in a sweet treat, do it only once in a while, have a small amount (made with real sugar), and enjoy it!

By Jocelyn Johnson, MS, RD, LN

Clinical Dietitian at Avera Heart Hospital

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