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How Much Sweet?? Jen’s two cents on artificial sweeteners

Artificial sweeteners sure have found their way into many American’s diets. They are everywhere – there are always at least two other choices beyond sugar at every coffee shop. And let’s face it, we are all hard-wired to prefer sweets. Our mother’s milk is sweet, and thus, as infants, this preference keeps us alive and eating. Added sugars are clearly a problem in our food supply (on average we consume a whooping 22 teaspoons per day!), but should we really replace that added sugar with another sugar substitute? Or are we fooling ourselves and maintaining a desire day after day for sweet foods?
A colleague of mine just came back from a tour of the United States in which she had the opportunity to speak with lots of regular people doing regular things but who were on a quest to live a healthier life through wise food choices and exercise. When she came back to Boston, she recounted that one group was so taken with her messages against added sugars, that they had baked and cooked almost all the food items at a group meal with artificial sweeteners! They seriously thought this was the healthy option and were clearly trying to impress her. Seeing that the average American consumes a ton of sugar everyday, bless these people for trying to cut back on their sugar intake. But, are artificial sweeteners the best way to go about cutting back on sugar intake or trying to lose weight?
There are several different artificial sweeteners on the market: saccharin (Sweet N’ Low), aspartame (Equal), acesulfame-K, Sucralose (Splenda), NutraSweet , and Stevia. Each of these sugar substitutes has been approved by the FDA, contains little to no calories, and is several times (up to 13,000 times) sweeter than sugar. Some are chemicals, discovered by accident in science labs, and others are “natural” in that they are extracted from a plant. (A word about anything that claims it is “natural”… the phrase is unregulated by the FDA such that if we were going to package cocaine and sell it in a grocery store, it too could carry the “natural” label).
Do they help with weight loss? Sure, if you go from drinking 3 sodas per day and replace those with diet sodas, it is an easy 400 calorie cut from your diet. However, it is possible that eating foods with artificial sweeteners in them may displace other, more nutrient dense foods. For example, if you are having diet soda at every meal, it may be replacing milk or the occasional glass of juice, which would provide calcium, vitamin D and protein or antioxidants, respectively.
Are they safe? The FDA actually tests each sugar substitute to determine whether it is toxic, causes or increases risk for cancer, or whether it would affect a developing fetus before it approves it for use in food (in animals!). The FDA then sets an ADI (Acceptable Daily Intake) for each artificial sweetener. The ADI is set to one-hundredth of the maximum amount considered to be without any adverse health effects. Oh boy, adverse effects. This equals “to be determined” in my mind. Keep this in mind: there is no ADI for cherries or strawberries, both of which are very sweet and may even be able to satisfy your sweet tooth after a meal. I steer clear. And maybe you should reconsider the diet sodas too.

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Chris Crowley

1 Comment

  1. Jim Graves

    Those artificial sweeteners are too “chemical” for me. We use real sugar at our house, just not much of it. I sweeten my cereal in the morning with apples and berries.

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