With the last of the holiday sweets eaten and Valentines Day on the horizon, now is the perfect time to think about sugar. We all know that too much sugar is bad. It is addictive, causes weight gain, and lurks in almost every food we eat. Natural sugars, like the sugars in fruit, are usually not the problem; it’s the added sugar that adds up. With the current obesity crisis and soaring rates of Type II Diabetes, controlling simple sugar intake has become even more critical. It seems like the obvious solution is to eat less sugar. But that’s the hard way, and we Americans are always searching for an easier way to do things. So, rather than trying to curb our intake of sweets by reducing sugar consumption, the food industry has invested billions of dollars over the past decades to find sugar substitutes. Nearly every sugar substitute has its cheerleaders and detractors, and the research as to the benefits and side effects of each sweetener is divided at best and contradictory at worst.
Take Splenda, for example. Splenda was marketed at its introduction in 1998 as a more “natural” artificial sweetener because it is “made like sugar.” Early research showed that sucralose passed through the stomach and intestines undigested, so it had no effect on the body, which meant no negative side effects. Sounds too good to be true? It is.
In 2008, a Duke University study found that Sucralose contributes to obesity, destroys helpful bacteria in the gut, alters the pH of the body, and can reduce the absorption of some medications.1 More recently, a 2013 study by the Italian Ramazzini Institute showed that, when lab rats consumed Splenda on a daily basis, they developed Leukemia and other blood cancers. While the amount of Splenda consumed by the mice was the equivalent of drinking ten diet sodas per day, the study, published in the International Journal of Toxicology and Environmental Health Part B: Critical Reviews serves to remind us that simply substituting an artificial sweetener for sugar is not the answer2.
If you’re not quite ready to embrace black coffee, however, there’s hope. A better option than Splenda is Stevia. Stevia comes from an extract of the Stevia plant, which makes it actually natural. It has been used as a sweetener in teas and traditional medicine for centuries in Paraguay, Brazil, and Bolivia.3 Compared to Splenda, which is 600 times sweeter than sugar, Stevia is only 300 times sweeter.4 Stevia has no calories and is non-nutritive, although there is no evidence that it is more effective than Splenda or other sugar substitutes when it comes to weight loss. While some people have reported nausea and a feeling of fullness when using stevia, it has not been credibly linked to significant side effects.
In addition, reaserchers at the University of New Haven in Connecticut have discovered that Stevia can act as an anti-microbial that is more effective than antibiotics in treating drug-resistant forms of the pathogen that causes Lyme disease.5 With the CDC estimating that 300,000 people are diagnosed with Lyme disease each year, Stevia is an excellent alternative to toxic and increasingly ineffective conventional antibiotics.6 It is important to note, however, that the Stevia used in the study is extracted from the whole Stevia Rebaudiana plant and, while it is available in this form, it is not necessarily the same extract found in commercial products like such as soda. Even so, for now, Stevia seems like the better sweet choice, at least compared to Splenda.
While there is a lot of conflicting information about artificial sweeteners out there, a few things do hold true:
- All artificial sweeteners are, well, artificial. As in—fake. As in—someone in a lab somewehere made it.
- All artificial sweeteners are not created equal. The more processed a sweetener is, the farther away from natural. Not to mention all bodies react differently to different substances, which means side effects will vary unpredictably from person to person.
- If you have to feed your sugar demons, avoid refined sugar and substitutes. Treat them to natural products like Stevia, honey or maple syrup instead.
- Above all, the best way to reduce the effects of sugar is to consume less sugar, no matter what the form. Pay attention to labels. Be wary of hidden sugars in food that really does not need sugar, or much sugar anyway, like bread, commercial sauces and dressings, and crackers—even products marketed as “healthy” or “organic” can contain added sweetener.
American culture is a culture of consumption and convenience and our taste for sugar is no exception. We demand instant access to everything and avoid inconvenience like an overly chatty neighbor. It only makes sense that our food is high in sugar content. The temporary energy rush sugar provides fuels the Faster! Easier! More! mindset, which requires more and more sugar to sustain.
Realistically, cutting sugar out completely is a Herculean task. But cutting back on sugar is fairly simple. Look for products without high fructose corn syrup. Use measured quantities of sugar (and less of it!) in your morning coffee rather than pouring sugar from a jar. And remember, a sugar substitute is just a substitute, not a solution.