We humans have an innate preference for sweet things. Even animals will choose a ripened piece of fruit over unripe fruit. A ripe piece of fruit will have a naturally higher sugar and water content. Anthropology studies show early humans enjoyed honey and extracted sugars from beets and corn. Historians can demonstrate that early Arabs spread the production of sugar cane as their territories grew.
There are many names for sugar. An easy way to spot sugar as an ingredient is to look for any of these words: corn syrup, white or brown sugar, syrup, honey, any word ending in “ose” such as sucrose, dextrose, fructose, maltose, lactose, fruit juice, agave juice, and these are just a few of the words that mean sugar.
Much has been written about the prevalence of sugar and the hidden sources in our foods. As a dietitian, I think it is important to be aware of what is in the foods we eat including how much sugar – real sugar or artificial sugar. Much has also been written and researched about artificial sweeteners. Occasionally social media campaigns will appear on Facebook and Twitter demonizing artificial sweeteners and spreading ongoing urban myths that do more to cause food scares than to educate.
Artificial sweeteners have been studied by the government, universities and industries for years. The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) regulates artificial sweeteners and has determined they may be ingested by humans and are generally recommended as safe. (GRAS) The GRAS determination means there is a reasonable certainty of no harm will come from ingesting this GRAS approved product. The Food and Drug Administration’s approval process includes a determination of probable intake, cumulative effect form used, and toxicology studies in animals. There are seven non-nutritive sweeteners (artificial sweeteners) that have been approved for use in the United States: acesulfame K (Sweet One®), aspartame (Equal®), luo han guo fruit extract (Swingle fruit extract or monk fruit extract), neotame (NutraSweet®), saccharin (Sweet & Low®), Stevia®, and sucralose (Spenda®).* The tests conducted by the FDA are typically testing for large quantities to find what is safe or unsafe. The amounts they use to test are more than a consumer would consume in a day or a lifetime.
As a dietitian, I come across folks that use artificial sweeteners and enjoy the benefits of tasting sweet foods or drinks and I also come across folks that are passionate that real sugar is better than artificial sweeteners. It is common knowledge that most Americans consume too much sugar and this has most likely contributed to our national obesity crisis. I recommend all of us limiting the amount of sugar (real or artificial) in our diets. The American Heart Association and the World Health Organization join with our FDA in recommending all persons limit the intake of free or added sugars to less than 10% of caloric content of their diets.
Whenever I discuss artificial sweeteners with a person, they usually have a preconceived idea of what is acceptable or not acceptable. Sometimes their decision has been science based and sometimes the opinion has been based on innuendos or false myths. And while I respect another person’s opinion and feel we all should feel empowered to make our own food selections, I caution against exclusion of sugar and sugar substitutes from our diets. The large amount of research does not support banning or eliminating sugar or artificial sweeteners from our diets. Consumers have a number of ways to satisfy their innate desire for sweet things whether sugar or artificial sugar sweeteners are used, you should feel comfortable choosing the ingredient that you feel most comfortable using.
The effects of artificial sweeteners and sugars on human behavior are not conclusive at this time. More research needs to be conducted to help us better understand how what we eat affects our bodies.
A good rule of thumb and a simple way to live is to eat mostly plant foods, not too much and not too little, cook most of your meals and get in daily doses of physical activity. If we all prescribed to this advice we wouldn’t need to worry about sugar and artificial sweeteners.
*Source: Journal of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. 2012; 112: 739-758