Myths and Facts about Sugar Alternatives

GreenLite Artificial Sweeteners

Written By Michal Yaron, Nutritionist & Health Educator

Research shows that humans have an inborn desire for sweetness. While historically essential for survival, being naturally drawn to sweetness isn’t helpful when people are trying to lose weight in this modern age. This is why more and more consumers and manufacturers seek no or low-calorie alternatives to white table sugar, without sacrificing sweetness. Yet this welcomed trend raises misconceptions and confusion over which sugar alternatives are the best.

Sweeteners can be divided into three basic categories:

  • sugars that have 4 calories per gram (nutritive)
  • sugar alcohols (lower calorie)
  • those that are have no calories (nonnutritive).

Full calorie sweeteners

Many so-called natural sweeteners such as honey, maple syrup, molasses or agave nectar, are often promoted as healthier options than processed table sugar. Yet, nutritionally speaking, they aren’t significantly different. They contain the same amount of calories as regular table sugar (4 calories per gram), and can raise blood sugar just as table sugar can. Though some proponents of agave nectar say that it doesn’t cause blood sugar spikes, scientific evidence doesn’t support such claims. Simply put, sugar is sugar is sugar, and there’s no health advantage to consuming added sugar of any type.

Many products labeled “no sugar added” actually contain one or more of those nutritive sweeteners. Check labels carefully and watch out for products listing any of the followings: Fructose, brown rice syrup, honey, raw honey, agave nectar, coconut palm sugar (or coconut nectar sugar), date sugar, grape juice concentrate, apple juice concentrate, barley malt syrup, sugar cane juice, brown sugar, turbinado sugar, evaporated cane juice, maple syrup, maple sugar, corn syrup, high fructose corn syrup, glucose, sucrose, dextrose, maltodextrin.

Sugar Alcohols

Sugar alcohols are carbohydrates that occur naturally in certain fruits and vegetables, but can also be manufactured. Despite their name, they aren’t alcoholic (they don’t contain ethanol). Sugar alcohols are often combined with artificial sweeteners in products to enhance sweetness. The most common include: sorbitol, xylitol, maltitol, lactitol, mannitol, isomalt, and erythritol.

Sugar alcohols contain calories, but less than regular sugar. Much controversy has developed surrounding their bioavailable calories. To be on the safe side, consider them as about 2 to 3 calories per gram. Keep in mind that unlike artificial sweeteners, sugar alcohols are carbohydrates and can raise blood sugar levels. But because your body doesn’t completely absorb sugar alcohols, their effect on blood sugar is less than that of other sugars. This is especially true for xylitol and erythritol, but watch out for others like maltitol and sorbitol which behaves almost like sugar in the body.

Sugar alcohols are not without side effects, though. Because they are not completely digested and absorbed, eaten in large amounts (usually more than 50 grams but sometimes as little as 10 grams) they can have a laxative effect, causing bloating, gas and diarrhea. Lately erythritol is gaining momentum as a replacement for other sugar alcohols in food, as it is much less likely to produce gastrointestinal distress.

Non-calorie sweeteners

Non-calorie sweeteners provide a sweet taste without calories or carbohydrates. This category also includes low-calorie sweeteners which are much sweeter than table sugar (thus used in such small amounts that they are considered virtually non-caloric). Additionally, this category includes other non-nutritive sweeteners which are not metabolized for energy and pass through the body unchanged. These sweeteners include the artificial sweeteners acesulfame potassium/acesulfame K (Sunett, Sweet One), aspartame (Equal, NutraSweet), neotame (NutraSweet), saccharin (SugarTwin, Sweet’N Low) and sucralose (Splenda & altern).

Artificial sweeteners have been the subject of intense scrutiny for decades. Critics say that they cause a variety of health problems. However, there’s no sound scientific evidence that any of them cause cancer or other serious health problems. And numerous studies confirm that they are generally safe in limited quantities.

A new type of sugar substitute recently introduced to the market is rebaudioside A, which is derived from the stevia leaf. Stevia is not a sugar and is calorie free. Unlike artificial sweeteners, it’s from a natural (though still highly refined) plant source. Due to its unique characteristics, stevia is fast becoming popular in the US. It’s often blended with erythritol to improve palatability (Truvia and PureVia brands).

When looking for low-sugar and low-carb foods, keep in mind that while artificial sweeteners and sugar substitutes can help with weight management, they aren’t a magic bullet and should be used only in moderation. Just because a food is marketed as sugar-free doesn’t mean it’s free of calories and carbs, manufacturers often increase fat content of sugar-free foods to make food more palatable. Always read the Nutrition Facts label, paying special attention to calorie and carbohydrate content. And remember that processed foods, which often contain sugar substitutes, generally don’t offer the same health benefits as whole foods, such as fruits and vegetables. While artificial, it is still possible for artificial sweetners to trigger sugar cravings and some people. The best solution to combat our body’s biological desire for sugar is to try and avoid sugar completely and satisfy our natural sweet tooth with fruits and vegetables. Furthermore, try to keep in mind that the less sugar you eat, the less sugar you crave.

Sugar: What Every Parent Should Know

Sugar has an impact

Health authorities have said for years that approximately 70% of disease is directly related to what we eat and drink. The US Surgeon General ranks being overweight and obesity as the #1 public health concern because of the disease consequences of obesity are greater than those of any infectious disease epidemic. Remember our children are not an exception here! Dr. David Katz, named one of 25 most influential people in children’s lives, is saying that, “This generation of kids growing up today will be the first generation to have a shorter life span than their parents.” He also states that “Children today will experience more chronic degenerative disease as a result of their poor eating habits than from cigarettes, alcohol and drugs combined.” This is not very promising news.

Dr. William Sears, a well known pediatrician and father of eight sums it up very nicely, “We are eating factory processed nutrition which is genetically unknown food to our bodies.” These foods are not just the typical cookies, cakes and do-nuts but they also include foods made from highly refined carbs like chips, crackers, energy bars, energy drinks and bars, cereals, and numerous other “white” foods.) In a nutshell it boils down to bad carbohydrates and usually in the form of sugar, high fructose corn syrup and highly refined flours.

Here are some more alarming facts:

*1 out of 2 children will develop heart disease.
*Cancer kills more children than any other disease. Gale encyclopedia of Children & adolescents, 1998
*1 in 3 children born in the year 2000 will develop diabetes
*Children at the age of 3 have fatty deposits in their arteries. Bogalusa Heart Study
*By age 12, 70% of all American children have developed beginning stages of hardening of the arteries. Bogalusa Heart Study
*Less than 7% of children and adolescents consume the recommended 2 servings of fruit and 3 servings of vegetables per day. Archives of Pediatric & Adolescent Medicine 1996. (New studies by health authorities are stating we need closer to nine to eleven servings of fruits and vegetables daily not just the five..)

So How does Sugar Harm Us
(Excerpts taken from The Family Nutrition Book by William Sears, M.D.)

The complex carbohydrates found in vegetables, grains and fruits are good for you; the simple sugars found in sodas, candies, frostings, and packaged white refined foods do harm. Here’s why:

Sugar depresses immunity. Studies have shown that consuming 75 to 100 grams of simple sugar solution (two average 12-ounce sodas) can suppress the body’s immune responses.)

Sugar affects behavior, attention, and learning. Studies of the effects of sugar on children’s behavior are certainly contradictory, but the general consensus is that some children and adults are sugar sensitive, meaning their behavior, attention span, and learning ability deteriorate in proportion to the amount of junk sugar they consume. And this trend is increasing and not just with children.

Sugar promotes sugar “highs.” Some people are more sugar sensitive than others, and it been suggested children may be more sensitive to sugar than adults are. A study comparing the sugar response in children and adults showed that the adrenaline levels in children remained ten times higher than normal for up to five hours after a test dose of sugar. Studies have also shown that some children with Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (A.D.H.D.) react to glucose-tolerance tests with a dip to low blood-sugar levels producing abnormal behavior. High adrenaline levels or low blood-sugar levels produce abnormal behavior.

Sugar promotes cravings. The more sugar you eat, the more sugar you want! A high-sugar meal raises the blood-glucose level, which triggers the outpouring of insulin. This excess insulin lingers in the system, triggering a craving for more sugar, thus adding another hill to the roller coaster ride.

Sugar promotes heart disease. When you eat excess carbohydrates, your body may turn these sugars into fat. The body stores excesses of most nutrients as a safeguard against starvation. If you eat more carbohydrates than you can burn off, the excess is stored as fats. People who eat too much sugar tend to have higher blood triglycerides, and this increases the risk of cardiovascular disease.

Soft Drinks: Many soft drinks provide a double-whammy of sugar and caffeine, a combination that sends most bodies (and minds) on an uncomfortable biochemical roller-coaster ride. The junk sugars (including high fructose corn syrup) in soft drinks also take good things out of the body. High doses of sugar and excess artificial sweeteners increase the urinary excretion of calcium, leading to weaker bones, or osteoporosis, and to deposits of calcium in the kidneys (i.e., kidney stones.). The phosphoric acid present in many soft drinks further robs the body of calcium by increasing the loss of magnesium and calcium in the urine.

Packaged bakery goods: The combination of white sugar, white flour, and hydrogenated shortening makes packaged baked goods nutritionally empty (i.e., crackers, chips, cookies, etc). Most sweet snacks, such as cupcakes and doughnuts, contain all three of these factory-made foods. Look for baked goods that are made with whole grains, contain no hydrogenated oils, and are sweetened with real fruit or agave and lower amounts of sugar. (A serving should not exceed six grams of sugar.)

What about Artificial Sweeteners?
Artificial additives in moderation are fine but it’s when they are consumed in excesses they may become problematic. The problem is they are in almost everything, without you even being aware of it. Look for it in medications, vaccines and especially over the counter medications for children.
Here are just 90 documented symptoms from the Department of Health and Human Services just from 1994, mostly from aspartame (now being renamed AminoSweet and called “natural” even though it is chemically made.)

rapid heart rate
slurred speech
loss of hearing loss of taste
muscle spasms
anxiety attacks
ringing in the ears
visual disturbances
memory loss
joint pain
shortness of breath

And here are some illnesses that may be triggered or worsened by ingesting aspartame:
brain tumors
multiple sclerosis
chronic fatigue
mental retardation
birth defects

Other names for artificial sweeteners: Aspartame is also neotame, Sucralose is Splenda, Acesufame-K (this is a combination of chemical sweeteners) is Sunette or Sweet One.

So whether it’s sugar or artificial sweeteners use them in moderation, for you and your children, ideally no more than 10% of your total dietary intake and less if possible.

Written by Elaine, certified nutritionist and Greenlite Medicine Health Educator.