Sugar Substitutes – Good or Bad?

by Caroline von Fluegge-Chen

Sugar Substitutes – Good or Bad?

Sugar…..personal trainer public enemy #1!  You might recall this enemy as being the catalyst for most of the food journal spats that you have with your trainer.   Individuals who are serious about their training program will take the time to understand the dangers of sugar (especially refined) and how it affects the body’s metabolism.  Through constant counseling and education, you now know that sugar cravings beget more sugar cravings.  The so-called “sweet tooth” is a phenomenon that can easily be avoided or eliminated through the conscientious practice of abstinence.  Personal training guru and master motivator Phil Kaplan challenges his clients and audiences to completely cut out sugar for 3 days and experience a significant decrease or elimination of sugar cravings after that time.  What happens, however, when the “sweet tooth” is eliminated, but you still have a hankering for something sweet?  Enter artificial sweeteners.  Artificial sweeteners have been used in products ranging from soft drinks to meal replacement shakes for quite some time now.  Some examples include saccharin (Sweet-N-Low), aspartame (Equal or NutraSweet), and sucralose (Splenda).  We will take a closer look at each, as well as discuss some other sweetening agents such as sugar alcohols.

Saccharin, the grandfather of all artificial sweeteners, is considered to be 300 times sweeter than table sugar.  Sounds enticing, doesn’t it?  Laboratory rats, however, are not so enticed.  Of all the artificial sweeteners, saccharin has been the most widely studied, partially due to Saccharin’s length of time on the market.  The lab rats “say” that they experienced nausea, diarrhea, headache, irritability, and insomnia, and some even claim they developed bladder cancer.  Proponents claim that saccharin has never been proven to be carcinogenic, though the FDA still labels it as an “anticipated human carcinogen (cancer-causing agent)”.

Aspartame, the most widely used artificial sweetener, is 180 times sweeter than table sugar. Soft drinks account for more than 70 percent of Aspartame’s usage, though it is used in more than 6,000 foods, personal care products, and pharmaceuticals.  Broken down, aspartame consists of the amino acids aspartic acid and phenylalanine.  Detractors of the chemical claim that methanol levels, a by-product and known poison of the breakdown of aspartame, are at a toxic level in diet soft drinks. Proponents claim that the breakdown of aspartame in the body is of little concern, as the methanol levels are not high enough and aspartic acid and phenylalanine are naturally occurring amino acids, making them safe.  Research supports both theories, depending on how you interpret the data.  Please note that producers of aspartame do admit that the product can cause problems with individuals who suffer from the condition known as PKU, or phenylketonuria, which dictates that you must monitor your intake of phenylalanine.  Though aspartame is FDA-approved, research has associated it with a number of side effects including dizziness, visual impairment, pancreatitis, hypertension, depression, and birth defects.   Aspartame can be found on any Starbucks mixing counter in cute, little blue packages.

Sucralose, the virtual baby of artificial sweeteners, is also known by its chemical name as 1, 6-dichloro-1, 6dideoxy-BETA-D-fructofuranosyl-4-chloro-4-deoxy-alpha-D-galactopyranoside.  Be sure to note this, as your trainer will quiz you on the spelling and pronunciation on Monday.  Proponents on television and in the media claim that sucralose is all-natural.  That is true, to a certain extent, as sucralose is basically chlorinated sugar.  The taste and smell are far from that of chlorine, however, as the product is considered to be 600 times sweeter than table sugar.  Unfortunately, being so new to the market, the product is only in the beginning stages of research.
Detractors of the product claim adverse reactions along the lines of reduced red blood cell count, diarrhea, reduced growth rate, gland shrinkage, and kidney and liver enlargement. Sucralose can be found in many of your 21st century’s favorite pastries and cakes, as it is fast becoming a potential replacement for sugar in many baked goods.

Sugar alcohol…sounds like a whirlwind of emotions, doesn’t it; stimulating and depressing at the same time.  If you have ever munched on a low-carb meal replacement bar, or chewed on sugarless gum, you have seen the term sugar alcohol on the label.  To be clear, sugar alcohol is neither a sugar nor an alcohol, so don’t get too excited.  What is sugar alcohol?  “Though they occur naturally, all commercially available forms are synthesized by the hydrogenation of sugars from various sources.  Hydrogenation of fats and oils is certainly detrimental to the nutritive qualities of these items, and the same might be true for sugar alcohol.  The research at this time, however, does not back up this theory”.  Sugar alcohols, like artificial sweeteners, are used to sweeten various food products and toothpaste.  You can easily identify sugar alcohol on a food label by the suffix -ITOL.  Sugar alcohols occur naturally in foods and provide fewer calories than regular sugar.  This is because they are converted to glucose more slowly, require little or no insulin to be metabolized and don’t cause sudden increases in blood sugar. Having a clear understanding of the effect of insulin on the body’s metabolism goes a long way toward understanding why this slow conversion to glucose (simple sugar) is essential to maintaining a lean body composition.  This doesn’t mean, however, that one should go out and eat low-carb meal replacement bars for all meals, for bloating and diarrhea are common side effects with sugar alcohols.

To conclude, it should be noted that there is currently no conclusive evidence that artificial sweeteners are harmful or carcinogenic to humans, as very few studies have been performed on humans.  Therein is the problem because there is no telling what future research will show.  Many lab rats have firsthand experience of the potentially lethal effects of some of these substances.  If you believe that the lab rat is in any way akin to the human in structure and function, then you might want to think twice before utilizing these products on a regular basis.  Ultimately, the choice is up to you.  Champions for the cause of sugar substitutes claim that these products offer a low-calorie, weight-controlling, non-tooth decaying, FDA-approved alternative to sugar.  Detractors claim harmful reactions ranging from headaches to cancer.  The use of these products is so widespread that it would be virtually impossible to avoid consuming them, even in small doses, unless you live on a remote island in the South Pacific.  Good advice would be to research each of these products thoroughly, evaluate potential side effects, compare unusual happenings within your own body, and make an educated decision based on that information.  Moving to Fiji would be nice too, so you and your adopted lab rat can live free of all chemical ingestion.