Your Body on Sweeteners: The Good, The Bad, and The Really Ugly
I like my coffee to taste not so much like coffee, but a sweet milky coffee-like brew. I’ve been told that this is a heinous adulteration of a classic beverage, but it’s my personal preference, and I love it. But to get sweet coffee I have to add a sweetener.
The sweetener controversy (and confusion) has been around for decades, and continues to evolve with the addition of supposedly “better” sweeteners. You may be wondering how to safely navigate the choppy and often perilous waters of the sweetener market. Not only does ingesting certain sweeteners comprise a potential health risk, many are also surprisingly harsh on the environment.
Honey, chock full of anti-inflammatory and anti-oxidant compounds, is as natural a sweetener as you’ll find. Honey won’t cause major blood sugar spikes, and although it has a higher calorie content than table sugar, it also packs a nutritive punch – which makes sense when you remember that it’s meant to feed baby bees.
Maple syrup is also packed with anti-inflammatory and anti-oxidant compounds, and boasts fewer calories than honey. It’s only minimally processed – it must be heated to concentrate sugars found in tree sap. Stevia is another plant-based product and is a healthy “zero-calorie” (less than 5 calories/gram) sweetener choice; it’s been around for centuries. Research on stevia’s health benefits is inconclusive, although it may benefit patients with hypertension and diabetes. You can actually grow sweet stevia plants in your garden, and production of sweetener is as easy as crushing dried leaves.
Blackstrap molasses is a healthy and tasty option for sweetening baked goods. Molasses is the product left over after sugar cane juice processing. Black strap molasses contains iron, potassium, magnesium and other vital minerals, and is an excellent dietary staple for vegetarians.
With obesity now an American epidemic, it’s no surprise that overconsumption of table sugar (sucrose) has earned a well-deserved negative rap. The US Department of Agriculture estimated that Americans annually eat up to 156 pounds per person of added sugar, including traditional table sugar and high fructose corn syrup (HFCS). Added sugar consumption a century ago was at less than one third of today’s levels.
Agave nectar, marketed as a healthy sugar alternative, contains more fructose than HFCS. It’s really just concentrated sugar, and is produced from starch of the agave plant in a similar manner as HFCS is made from corn. While the fructose in fruit is a healthy way to get a sweet kick, the human body is less able to quickly process the isolated fructose in agave nectar and instead converts it to triglycerides, or fat in the blood.
The Really Ugly
The artificial sweetener saccharin, marketed as Sweet and Low, was discovered as a coal tar derivative (gross) in the late 1800s, and was linked to cancer in rats in the 1970s, after which an attempted ban by the FDA failed. As a food additive, saccharin leaves a metallic aftertaste, so when aspartame entered the scene in 1981 it quickly took over the market. Aspartame, in Equal and NutraSweet, consists of the amino acids phenylalanine and aspartic acid, and is used in soft drinks in combination with saccharin to mask the older sweetener’s aftertaste. No conclusive evidence has linked aspartame to health problems except in individuals with phenylketonuria. However, allergic reactions to artificial sweeteners can cause headaches, and sweeteners can induce migraines. Zero-calorie sweeteners may increase sugar cravings in some people, but aspartame is still considered a viable option for diabetics. But all artificial sweeteners sold in grocery stores include bulking agents made from sugar; most testing for the effects of a sweetener on blood sugar levels is done using the sweetener alone.
Sucralose, marketed as Splenda, is made by chlorinating sugar molecules in a multi-step, energetically intensive process. Sucralose is a relatively new product, so no long-term studies have been done in humans with this sweetener. Most ingested sucralose is excreted from the body in urine and ends up in waste water facilities where it isn’t broken down. Sucralose has been found in ground and surface water in the US and Europe. Researchers have suggested that this may not be so bad, since the resistance of the molecule to digestion means that it may not form the chlorinated intermediates that are exceedingly toxic to humans. Great.
High fructose corn syrup has nearly replaced table sugar as a processed foods sweetener in the US. It’s made from corn, which has been highly over-farmed in America since WWII, and it’s only getting worse. The US (read: taxpayers) spends tens of billions of dollars per year on corn subsidies. Overconsumption of concentrated free fructose products can quickly lead to obesity and metabolic problems, and a recent UCLA study in rats showed that a diet continually high in free fructose, as in HFCS and agave nectar, hampers memory and learning functions. A more health-conscious nation would have no need for a product like HFCS.
Most foods made with artificial sweeteners and HFCS, including sodas and a plethora of other processed foods, aren’t good for you anyway. The abundance of these sweeteners emphasizes the need to read food nutrition labels, and better yet, to cook more of your own meals at home. Next time you reach for the sweeteners at your local café or grocery store, take a moment to consider your options, choose for optimal personal and environmental health, and indulge in moderation.
Bonus: Sugar Alcohols
Another relatively benign class of sweetener is the sugar alcohols, including xylitol, sorbitol, and erythritol. These are either extracted from plants or are fermentation products of plant materials. They’re found in “sugar-free” foods, and xylitol is added to chewing gum due to its anti-cavity properties and the cooling sensation it produces. Aside from gastrointestinal distress caused by overconsumption, sugar alcohols have no toxicity in humans, but can be deadly if your dog gets her paws on them. While sugar-free foods are often highly processed and not particularly healthful, sugar alcohols are still an acceptable sweetener option for diabetics.
But while many of the “good guys” discussed here have extra added health benefits, including anti-oxidants in honey and maple syrup, we as Americans are unfortunately getting very accustomed – addicted? – to the sweet and salty flavors of the processed foods that assault our brains in commercials and grocery store aisles every day. In fact, sugar meets the criteria for an addictive substance, including: stimulation of the release of dopamine, serotonin, and other neurotransmitters in a manner similar to drugs such as cocaine and alcohol, compulsive continued use despite intentions to quit, development of tolerance in individuals following continued use, and symptoms of withdrawal when consumption is stopped.