There are many sugar substitutes on the market, some natural, some man made. Some are safe, some we are not so sure about. This article will give you the low down on which are safe and of which you should be wary, of which can help you lose weight, and which can actually be harmful to you.
The taste sensation of sweetness occurs at the front of the tongue. It occurs as a reaction happens between certain chemicals and receptors in the taste buds. The currently accepted model is called multi point attachment theory.
In the multi point attachment theory there are many potential receptors that can bind to a sweet molecule. The receptors are species specific. For example, cats have no sense of sweet; the receptors simply do not exist in the feline species. In humans there may be a genetically inherited expression of sweet receptors allowing for variation in sweet perception between people. Some people prefer coffee without sweetener while others use many teaspoons of sugar.
Substances each have a sweetness component. This component has been set at “1” for sucrose. All other compounds are relative to the sweetness of sucrose. Lactose, the dairy sugar is rated at 0.16 which is why we also add sugar to our morning bowl of corn flakes and milk. The fruit sugar fructose is 1.7; so dipping strawberries in chocolate is just decadent.
Granulated or white sugar is sucrose. It is a disaccharide molecule meaning it has two halves. It is not a simple sugar like glucose, a monosaccharide. Sucrose is a complex sugar and is the essential energy source in the body. Sucrose contributes significantly to body weight as it is stored in excess.
There are several naturally occurring substances as well as chemical compounds commercially available and commonly used as sugar substitutes.
Honey is a food substance made by bees. The sweetness of honey comes from the combination of the two monosaccharide’s or simple sugars fructose and glucose. The sweetness factor is the same as sucrose.
Molasses is a byproduct of sugar production. It is most commonly derived from sugar cane or sugar beets but can come from grapes or other fruits and vegetables. It is comprised of 50% sucrose, 25% fructose and 25% glucose.
Brown sugar is simply sucrose with retained molasses during processing or white sugar with molasses added.
The liquid product made from corn starch is corn syrup. It contains maltose and other more complex saccharides. When it undergoes an enzymatic process to increase the fructose content it is called high fructose corn syrup. It has a sweetness factor of 1.5-2.
The chemical benzoic sulfilimine is known as saccharin. It has a minimum sweetness rating of 200. It is marketed under such brand names as Sweet and Low, Sweet’N Low, and Necta Sweet. During the 1970’s it was thought that saccharin caused bladder cancer in mice and the FDA required a warning label on all saccharin products. It was later determined that the reaction within the rodent bladder was species specific, that it did not occur in man; and the warning was removed. Saccharin was discovered in the 1800’s and advertisers like to state that it is the most studied artificial sweetener.
On the positive side of saccharin is that it has no substantive food value. It passes through the gastrointestinal tract unmetabolized. It doesn’t contribute to calories and is an effective and safer means for diabetics to enjoy sweet tastes.
Saccharine has been around for a long time. If a significant health issue was caused by its use, it probably would have been evident by now.
Use of saccharin has been shown to stimulate insulin release. This reaction to the stimulation of taste bud receptors in anticipation of a substance that requires metabolism by insulin is common to all sugar substitutes. In type 2 diabetics, the use of saccharin may contribute to hypoglycemic reactions or difficulty controlling blood sugars.
Saccharin belongs in a class of compounds called sulfonamides. There may exist a cross allergy within the class of chemicals. Those with known or unknown sulfa allergy may experience hives or other rash, wheezing or shortness of breath, swelling of the hands, feet, lips or eye lids, nausea, fatigue, malaise or anxiety and depression.
There remains a prevalent undercurrent of concern about the possible cancer causing potential of saccharin, particularly in its use in baby formula and in childhood. There have been no studies to suggest an adverse long term use effect from saccharin.
Some people experience a bitter aftertaste. This seems to increase with amount ingested.
Saccharin is banned in Canada.
Aspartame is a molecule containing two different amino acids. It has a sweetness coefficient of 200. While in large quantities, aspartame can engage in energy synthesis and metabolism, at the amount required to provide the sweetness desired it is negligible in terms of overall metabolic contribution. Aspartame is marketed under such names as Nutrasweet, Equal, and Sugar Twin.
In 2002 the European Scientific Committee on Food reviewed more than 500 scholarly reports on aspartame and came to the conclusion there were no significant risks at recommended amounts. The British Medical Journal reported no association with commonly reported symptoms. Aspartame is legally used in over 100 countries.
Persons born with an inborn error of metabolism called PKU cannot use aspartame.
There is a large community of people who believe that aspartame can produce a clinical syndrome that mimics multiple sclerosis and other chronic disease states. Complaints that include every organ system have been attributed to “aspartame disease.” There are many internet postings, books, and personal articles concerning the negative effects of ingesting aspartame.
Individuals with recurrent headaches, particularly migraine, have been advised to avoid the use of aspartame. Aspartame has been linked with increased frequency and severity of chronic headaches.
Some people experience a bitter aftertaste. This seems to increase with amount ingested.
The amounts required for use to sweeten foods results in a negligible caloric intake. It also is safer for diabetic use.
Marketing of Splenda suggests it is related to, but superior to sugar. In reality is not a natural substance in any way. Even the name sucralose may be confused with sucrose to a consumer.
Sucralose has been shown to inhibit absorption of certain prescription drugs in test animals. Studies are ongoing to evaluate the effect in humans, but there have been no conclusive results to date.
The presence of a chloride molecule on the sucralose molecule has concerned some of the health conscious. The chloride free ion has been associated with cancer and other negative conditions in humans. Ongoing evaluation continues to evaluate the potential outcomes from this aspect of the sugar substitute sucralose.
The perception by some of a bitter aftertaste is common.
The stability of acesulfame potassium at higher temperatures and in a range of pH’s. This allows for expanded use in baking and extended shelf lives. It also acts as a flavor enhancer separate from the sweet properties.
While the chemical has been approved by the FDA for over twenty years, there have been few studies to confirm its safety. The compound contains methylene chloride, a known carcinogen. Methylene chloride has been shown to cause a variety of symptoms with human exposure. It is unsure how this molecule affects humans as part of the acesulfame potassium compound.
Studies in pregnant and lactating mice show that acesulfame potassium is transferred to a developing fetus in amniotic fluid. It is also delivered to nursing young via breast milk. Both of these exposures have demonstrated altered sweet preferences in the offspring as a result of the exposure.
The newest artificial sweetener on the market is chemically related to aspartame.
Neotame has all of the pros associated with aspartame plus it is safe for individuals with PKU to ingest.
All of the cons associated with aspartame apply except for the danger in people with PKU.
All of the studies reported concerning the safety of use have been done by the manufacturer and are not readily available for public review. There have been no independent studies and no long term studies supporting its safe use.
Stevia based Sweeteners
Stevia plants are in the species of plants that include sunflowers. Specifically the species Stevia rebaudiana produces sweet leaves with a sweetness factor of 300. The sweet taste has a slower onset on binding to receptors, but has a longer duration of taste than sugar. Brand names of stevia based sweeteners include Truvia or Stevia Extract In The Raw.
Stevia has zero calories. It has negligible effect on blood sugar levels making it a popular choice for diabetics. It is a naturally occurring plant compound. It has been used for centuries in Asia and South America without known problems.
There has been some evidence that Stevia may cause fertility impairment in both men and women. Some people have reported mild systemic effects such as muscle pain, weakness and dizziness after ingesting Stevia, however; no long term studies support these complaints.
Cyclamates are currently banned in the United States but are readily available in Canada and other parts of the world. Cyclamate in combination with saccharine was available and popular in the U.S. until a study suggested that a chemical reaction with intestinal bacteria could chemically alter the compound into a substance with known negative health impact. The sweetness coefficient for cyclamates is 50-70.
Cyclamates were also implicated in the saccharin study involving bladder cancer in rodents. Those studies were later refuted and saccharin restored but despite attempts by cyclamate manufacturers, it has not been cleared for use in America.
Sugar Substitute Combinations
A common practice to offset the bitter after taste from artificial sweeteners is by combining compounds. While in combination these chemical sweeteners cover one another’s aftertaste, the potential side effect risk profile is also increased.
Class Effect/Weight Gain
Some concern exists about a class effect that causes weight gain. Considering that most use sugar substitutes as a method of weight loss or weight stabilization. The prospect that they actually can increase weight is important.
Many reputable studies over the past four decades have shown a correlation between artificial sweetener use and weight gain. It has been suggested that stimulation of the sweet receptors by these compounds that are hundreds of times stronger than sugar can increase sweet cravings and increase appetite. The initial positive intension to replace higher caloric sweet substances with artificial sweeteners ironically may cause the opposite occurrence through other, nonmetabolic pathways.
A subculture infatuation with the potential of artificial sweeteners to cause cancer is pervasive. Studies citing data to support and dispute carcinogenic claims exist. The governmental regulatory agencies resolve the issue by advising that within recommended daily intake, the substances approved are considered “safe” for consumption by the general population. A specific warning is posted concerning pregnant and lactating women.
Class Effect/Other Health Related Issues
In addition to the potential for cancer, many other health concerns have been evidenced by use of sugar substitutes. Multisystem complaints have been noted including headache, mood change, fatigue, rash, nausea and others. Infertility has been suspected. Alteration of taste perception in neonates and breast fed babies of mothers ingesting these chemicals has been documented. Ongoing investigation will clarify the risks and benefits over time.
Sweet perception is an ancient sense. The location of sweet sensing taste buds in front of the tongue allowed quick identification of substances that could provide an energy source in primordial man. As early humans foraged, identification of sweet translated into a positive dietary source of energy. Today, overstimulation of the ancient receptors may have unforeseen effects; particularly with substances that are hundreds of times sweeter than natural, organic compounds.
Adaptation and Choice
Adaptation is a central concept in human physiology. As it applies to sweet perception, consider the effect of the stronger stimulation of the sweet receptors by artificial sweeteners in relation to the calorie reduction benefits. It would seem that the more stimulated the receptors are, the more craving for sweet would be generated.
Conversely, limiting the amount of receptor saturation could decrease sugar cravings. Simply limiting the amount of sucrose ingested may be a better personal choice than using artificial sweeteners.
A simple means to determine the best choice is to start with a food log. For a period of time, note the kinds and amounts of sweeteners consumed. It must be thorough and may require an education to become aware of the pervasive use of chemical sweeteners in the daily diet.
Eliminate all artificial sweeteners for a week and see how you feel. If you notice a positive difference, an alternative tact may be to reduce the amounts of sucrose consumed in lieu of replacing with artificial sugar.
Consumption of sugar substitutes as part of a wellness and fitness plan should be individualized and based on many variables. Given the relative risks and benefits of both sugar and its substitutes as they apply to an individual’s lifestyle and personality will determine the best choice. Experiment with sugar reduction and perhaps your taste buds will adapt and cravings diminish. Consider alternatives and exercise a choice.
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