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Sugar Substitutes: A Sweet Alternative?

02.14.2012 / Blog Posts Health and Wellness

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By Jane Jakubczak MPH, RD, CSSD, LDN; Redskins Team Dietitian

Last week we discussed the controversy surrounding sugar in our diet. We looked at the difference between ADDED sugar and NATURAL sugar (click here to read last week's post). This week I’d like to address the category of sugar known as artificial sweeteners and sugar substitutes.

I would like to preface this discussion with the fact that as a dietitian, I promote and encourage a diet filled with minimally processed, whole foods eaten in their most natural state. I believe Mother Nature provides an abundance of delicious foods and that we can meet all our nutritional needs by enjoying a variety of these foods.

However, as a dietitian I also appreciate and respect the dietary trends and practices of the general public and take into consideration what the food industry has to offer. Sugar substitutes are one of these offerings that are very popular in our food supply and generate lots of controversy. I’d like to clarify some of the reasons people are confused and hopefully provide you the information you need to make the decision whether these substitutes are right for you.

Sugar Substitutes

Sugar substitutes are loosely defined as anything used in place of regular sugar. Artificial sweeteners are a sub-category of sugar substitutes and are synthetic sugar alternates that are often made from natural substances such as herbs or regular sugar. They are referred to as non-nutritive sweeteners, because the molecules are manipulated into a form that is not absorbed by the body as energy, which is why they are calorie free. The molecules are also altered in a way to make the substance taste sweeter, for instance Splenda is 600 times, Sweet n’ Low is 300 times and Equal is 200 times sweeter than regular sugar.

Artificial Sweetners

Artificial sweeteners were originally created in the 1800s during a time when the world was experiencing a shortage of sugar. At that time, these substitutes were less expensive than regular sugar. As a bonus, it was discovered that these substitutes did not affect blood sugar and were then used as an important tool in the diabetic diet.

These were the original purposes of artificial sweeteners, however the dieting community quickly discovered the benefit of the sugar substitutes in sweetening foods without adding calories. A “You can have your cake and eat it too!” message was quickly spread and the food industry jumped on the bandwagon by offering everything from diet sodas to sugar free desserts to the dieter.

There are currently five artificial sweeteners approved by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) including:
• Acesulfame potassium (Sunett, Sweet One)
• Aspartame (Equal, NutraSweet)
• Neotame
• Saccharin (SugarTwin, Sweet'N Low)
• Sucralose (Splenda)

Since artificial sweeteners are considered a food additive the FDA puts artificial sweeteners through a rigorous approval process before allowing them to hit the market for consumer consumption. To learn more about the approval process visit: http://www.fda.gov

There is much controversy surrounding artificial sweeteners, which was sparked by a famous research study in 1977 that found bladder cancer in lab rats that were fed enormous amounts of saccharin. Subsequent studies revealed the mechanism that cause the cancer in rats does not apply to humans. To learn more about the cancer connection, click here.

I hope you feel more comfortable about the artificial sweeteners in our food supply once you read the rigorous process they are put through however, as you have heard me say many times before, everything is ok in moderation!  

Cutting Down Artificial Sweetners 

I personally did an “artificial sweetener” inventory of my diet several years ago because I had the feeling that lots of the stuff had creeped into foods I consumed on a daily basis. I soon realized how quickly it could add up. This was the list of artificial sweetener containing foods I came up with that I was consuming almost daily:

1. 1 packet in coffee each morning x 2 cups of coffee
2. The cereal I had for breakfast
3. My yogurt I had at lunch each day
4. My afternoon tea (“diet”) or can of diet soda
5. Some of my “go to treats,” for example the brand of Kettle Corn and Ice Cream I eat

I reviewed the list to see where I could cut out some of the artificial sweetener consumption and made some changes:

1. I decided I really needed it in my coffee because I like my coffee very sweet and it would take many, many spoonfuls of regular sugar to get to that level of sweetness.

2. I didn’t need to choose that particular cereal, I have a very long list of cereals I enjoy that don’t add artificial sweeteners and I can put my own brown sugar in my oatmeal.

3. I had no problem switching my yogurt to a non-artificial sweetener type. I purchased my yogurt more out of habit than anything and soon discovered I liked the taste of the versions that don’t use artificial sweetener better anyway.

4. I decided to keep the diet tea or soda, however I decided to become more conscious of how often I reach for one. I realized it had become an unconscious habit more than a need. I’ve since replaced many of these beverages with a glass of cold water with lemon or cucumber slices instead.

5. Finally, I reviewed my snack choices. I compared the sugar content of my Kettle Corn with the regular version and I realized I am saving quite a bit of calories. Since I don’t consume this daily I decided to continue to choose the version with artificial sweeteners. I applied the same logic to my ice cream but came up with the opposite conclusion. Since I only consume ice cream occasionally, it is not as important for me to avoid the sugar/calorie content, however, when it comes to ice cream the saturated fat content is more of a risk and I continue to choose the lower fat version.

I encourage you to take an “artificial sweetener” inventory and see where you may be able to reduce your consumption without altering enjoyment of your favorite foods. Little changes can go a long way!

The Bottom Line

The bottom line is that sugar substitutes are mostly found in processed foods and if we focus on filling our diets more with whole foods then we don’t have to worry as much about the affects of artificial sweeteners or any other food additive found in our food supply. Next time you need a “sweet fix,” reach for Mother Nature’s perfect candy - a piece of fresh fruit!

In the next couple weeks we will continue our discussion of sugars by touching on another type of sugar substitute known as Sugar Alcohols and the highly controversial High Fructose Corn Syrup.

Make it a healthy week!

- Jane

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