The Skinny on Artificial Sweeteners

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Americans have developed an extreme sweet tooth. Sugar is added to most processed food, leading to over-consumption of sweets. It is one of the primary issues in this country’s obesity problem.

Those who have have tried to eliminate the sugar in their diets to improve body weight and/or blood sugar levels have turned to artificial sweeteners. Food manufacturers, too, are using these sweeteners to  sell their so-called diet, low carb, and sugar-free products to those who are trying cut their sweet calories.

According to 2004 statistics, as many as 180 million Americans routinely eat and drink sugar-free products such as desserts and artificially sweetened sodas (diet soda). Between 1999 and 2004, more than 6,000 new products containing artificial sweeteners were launched. This number has increased since then with new products on the shelves. Most people don’t know what’s in these sweeteners; some do not even know they are consuming these substances.

Artificial sweeteners, or sugar substitutes, are substances used instead of real sugar — they add virtually zero calories to the food and contain zero healthy nutrients; hence the name non-nutritive sweeteners. The word “artificial” should cause concern right off the bat.

But even with that in mind, there are FDA-approved Acceptable Daily Intakes (ADI) established for artificial sweeteners. Keep in mind many people exceed the ADI due to over consumption of these sugar-free products.

There are a few artificial sweeteners that are approved by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA):

1) Acesulfame potassium (Sunett, Sweet One); approved in 1988 & 2003.

2) Aspartame (Equal, NutraSweet); approved in 1981 & 1996.

3) Neotame; approved in 2002.

4) Saccharin (SugarTwin, Sweet’N Low); termed “generally recognized as safe” in 1958. FDA tried to ban in 1977, but was not successful. Warning label removed in 2000.

5) Sucralose (Splenda); approved in 1999.

The safety of these artificial sweeteners is not clear; there is not enough research on humans over a long period of time to determine the long-term effects of consuming artificial sweeteners; thus, we really do not know what will happen to us after years of chronic intake of artificial sweeteners. And it’s easy to find medical opinions on both sides of the question.

However, some studies have found a positive correlation between artificial sweetener use and weight gain. Furthermore, consensus from interventional studies suggests artificial sweeteners do not help reduce weight when used alone. Weight loss in these studies was attributed to caloric restriction, not the use of artificial sweeteners. Other studies have found subjects will increase their overall energy intake when they knew they were consuming a non-caloric artificial food/beverage.

This suggests people may overcompensate for the expected caloric reduction. This takes us to the example of a typical order at a fast food establishment: “I’d like a #1, with a large Diet Coke.” Justifying the intake of the caloric dense #1 by having a non-caloric beverage. Other findings in research suggest artificial sweeteners may ‘trick’ the body and brain, including increasing appetite and hunger; increasing motivation to eat more; decreasing or stopping activity in ‘food reward pathways’ of the brain; and encouraging sugar craving and sugar dependence.

Artificial sweeteners are not the answer to weight loss or controlling blood sugar levels. We can’t wait around for research to tell us something about these substances to make a decision. By then, it will be too late. American’s need to acknowledge there is not a ‘quick fix’ to weight loss. Unsweeten your diet. Get the added sugars and artificial sweeteners out of your daily food and beverage intake.

 

Becky Freeman is an Albuquerque Registered Dietitian, Strength & Conditioning Coach and owner of  Break-A-Way Fitness & Nutrition, LLC. You can reach her at her website:  www.coachbecky.com

 

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