A Complete Guide To Sweeteners
Dangers Of Artificial Sweeteners, Myths Of Natural Sweetners...
April 8th, 2012
....And Your Best Option If You Have To Sweeten It Up!
Written By Brian Rigby
Sweetness plays an insidious role in our health. We are primed to seek it out, but we are primed from times when sugar was rare and only found packaged within foods which contain many more nutrients in addition to the sugar. It is too easy to find today, and has displaced healthy foods and even the fruits we originally found sugar in.
To counter the caloric load excess sweeteners place upon our body, scientists have discovered and marketed many artificial sweeteners. These substances taste sweet on the tongue, but provide no calories, making them seem like an ideal choice to replace sugar in many beverages and foods. While they may provide no calories, there is a lot of controversy over whether they are actually good for you, or just plain bad.
There are four common artificial sweeteners found today. Sucralose is the artificial sweetener found in Splenda. Equal and Nutrasweet are trade names for aspartame. Saccharin is not found often in food and drink anymore, but can be found in packs of SweetN' Low. Sports drinks and protein powders often contain acesulfame potassium, often shortened to acesulfame-K. All of these sweeteners have been known to cause side effects in certain people, and most have been linked to some form of toxicity as well. None of them should be classified as "healthy".
The artificial sweetener getting the most attention today is Splenda, containing sucralose. Sucralose has been billed as a new generation artificial sweetener, and it desperately wants to avoid the same sort of controversy which surrounds aspartame and saccharin.
Splenda's manufacturer claims that Splenda has no side effects, no toxicity, no danger at all, and that it can be used effectively to lose weight. They also compare Splenda to sugar, stating that the process for making sucralose begins with real sugar, which implies that Splenda has a certain kind of wholesomeness. The question is, are any of these claims really true?
Is Splenda (Sucralose) Really Natural? Not Really...
To be fair, the manufacturer of Splenda is quick to point out that they never claim that it is natural. Nonetheless, they state that the process "starts with sugar and converts it to a no-calorie, non-carbohydrate sweetener."
The implication, despite no claims that it is natural, is that they've made an improvement upon a product which is natural, so we should not worry. The process sucrose goes through to become sucralose involves replacing replacing certain parts of the sugar molecule (three hydroxyl groups) with chlorine atoms, but it is not the process or even the chlorine which is circumspect.
In reality, mentioning sugar serves no purpose beyond marketing. Sucrose and sucralose have completely different molecular formulas (C12H22O11 [sucrose] vs. C12H19Cl3O8 [sucralose]), and are processed in our body in completely different ways. Table sugar, in the form of sucrose (a disaccharide formed of glucose and fructose) is safe, at least so far as general toxicity goes, and is recognized by the enzymes in our body.
Sucralose has a short history, conflicting evidence regarding its toxicity, and is not broken down by enzymes, meaning that whether it is absorbed through our intestine or excreted, it will likely be done so intact.
Sucralose Remains in Our System
The manufacturer of Splenda claims that very little sucralose gets absorbed into our bloodstream, and the amount that is absorbed is excreted through our urine. It's easy to assume from this claim that there is a 100% recovery rate of sucralose, either through urine or feces, but this study found that total recovery rate for a normal dose of sucralose (1mg/kg) was 92.8% and for a high dose (10mg/kg) was 96.7%, which means that approximately 3.3% to 7.2% of the sucralose remained in the body after five days.
If you had Splenda once, chances are that the tiny amount to remain in your system caused no harm and was eventually excreted. However....
Splenda, and other sucralose-containing products aren't marketed for one-time users, however, but for habitual users. Splenda is for people who want to cut sugar calories out of their sweet foods and drinks. Sucralose in small amounts occasionally is not likely to accumulate, but what happens when a small amount is ingested every day?
The Link Between Splenda Liver and Kidney Damage
The FDA is quick to point out that there are over 100 studies attesting to the safety of sucralose for human consumption, but what you won't find on that list are the studies which don't attest to its safety. The subjects of the studies are also important to note; many of them are studies to determine whether sucralose causes tooth decay, which is hardly relevant to the potential toxicity of sucralose.
In reality, all it should take to cast doubt on the safety of a substance is one well-designed study which suggests it might not be safe. The scientific process isn't rule by majority, it must be unanimous. One study might not be enough to throw a whole idea away, but it is enough to warrant further investigation.
Is Splenda Bad For You>
Many more of the studies which found sucralose to be safe were designed to test the genotoxicity of sucralose, meaning they tested to see if sucralose acted upon our DNA. Sucralose, according to the studies, is not carcinogenic or genotoxic, but that doesn't mean it is not toxic in any other regard. In fact, one study found that sucralose at levels of 500 mg/kg was hepatotoxic and nephrotoxic--it accumulated in amounts sufficient enough to cause lesions in the liver and the kidneys.
It's important to note that 500 mg/kg is far more sucralose than a human would consume in a day, about 34g for a 150 pound adult (or 680 packets of Splenda), but if sucralose accumulates in the liver and kidneys, as this study demonstrates, then a similar effect could build from years of habitual use as opposed to occurring in one month, as happened in the study.
Another study points to evidence that Splenda changes the flora of our intestines and raises the pH of our poop. The study found that these changes occurred at doses between 1.1-11 mg/kg. This means that it is entirely reasonable that such a change could affect a person in the short term. 1.1 mg/kg is about 75 mg sucralose for a 150 pound adult, or 1.5 packs of Splenda a day.
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Both the above studies used rats, and the FDA's reaction is that rats do not serve as an adequate model of human digestive physiology. The interesting part, though, is that the FDA determined the safe intake level for sucralose based off studies done on rats. They found no observable effects in doses of 500 mg/kg in rats and gave it a "100-fold safety factor" by reducing the suggested maximum intake to 5 mg/kg per day. If you measure the safety of sucralose off how it affects rats, including their livers, kidneys, and intestines, then you cannot cry foul when another rat study finds issues with any of these organs.
Sucralose as a Migraine Trigger: Side Effects
There has been at least one report of sucralose causing migraine headaches, and many other people report side effects, such as dizziness, rashes, and intestinal cramping, as a result of Splenda and sucralose consumption. The official word is that sucralose has no allergic potential, and I am inclined to agree with this statement--with an addendum. Sucralose is not a protein, and almost all allergens are proteins, but allergens are not the only compounds capable of producing side-effects. Whether or not sucralose causes an allergy in somebody is irrelevant to whether it causes side effects.
Sucralose certainly does not cause these sorts of issues in everybody who consumes it, or even a sizable amount. It is likely that the people who do have reactions have a sensitivity to this compound. Nonetheless, Splenda claims to have no side effects, which is not exactly true. For most people, it will not cause side effects, but claiming "research does not support that sucralose causes migraines or headaches" (which is on Splenda's website under the FAQs) is simply wrong, as there is one well-designed case report where sucralose did cause a migraine.
Final Word on Sucralose
The long-term safety of sucralose simply has not been studied, and that is really what needs to be done before any conclusions are made about the how safe or bad Splenda and other sucralose-containing products are. Many artificial food additives are found to be dangerous after they get approved by the FDA. Take for example, 4-methylimidazole, the caramel coloring used in cola drinks. This is an FDA-approved food coloring agent which further studies have demonstrated to be toxic, which either means there was not enough research done in the first place or the research that was out was rebuked or ignored--much as is currently being done with sucralose.
For reasons of possible liver and kidney damage and gut flora alteration, avoid Splenda and anything else sweetened with sucralose.
Other Artificial Sweeteners
Sucralose may be the most common artificial sweetener found today, but it is by no means the only one. In addition to Splenda, people may sweeten their drinks with Nutrasweet and Equal (aspartame), SweetN'Low (saccharin), and acesulfame potassium, most frequently shortened to acesulfame-K. These sweeteners have been around for much longer and most have had much more extensive testing done on them.
As with sucralose, there are plenty of studies which suggest these substances are safe, but there are also studies which cast doubt on their safety. To be safe, any artificial substance added to our food should be treated as guilty until proven innocent, not the other way around, and if there is any doubt at all about a substances toxicity, it should not be consumed.
Aspartame and Formaldehyde
Aspartame is an interesting molecule, more closely related to a protein than a sugar. It is formed of two amino acids (phenylalanine and aspartic acid) and a methyl ester. Our body metabolises it completely in the intestinal tract to its amino acid components and methanol, which is reduced by our body to formaldehyde and then formic acid. Because it is easily and fully metabolized, it is unlikely to enter our bloodstream whole.
One issue often raised is that one of the metabolites of aspartame is methanol, which accounts for about 10% of the broken down molecule. Methanol is poisonous to our body, but we are equipped to deal with it in small amounts. Once methanol reaches the liver, it is converted enzymatically to formaldehyde which is then mostly converted to formic acid, the substance to which all aspects of methanol poisoning are attributed. Methanol is found naturally in many fruits and vegetables as well, but it is found in conjunction with higher amounts of ethanol, which utilizes the same enzyme as methanol. When methanol is unsuccessfully converted, it is excreted harmlessly through our urine.
Many notable proponents of aspartame, including groups such as the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics (formerly the American Dietetic Association, or ADA), argue that our body is equipped to rapidly metabolise methanol and formaldehyde, and that formaldehyde is actually a useful building block in small amounts.
To argue that formaldehyde is a useful building block in small amounts is like saying arsenic can be a useful building block--both formaldehyde and arsenic are used by our body in extremely small amounts, but they're also both toxic when those amounts rise. Our body has enough formaldehyde naturally present to build anything it might need, consuming more will not provide any benefit.
Studies of smokers, who inhale formaldehyde directly into their system, demonstrate the potential dangers of even a very small amount of excess formaldehyde. A cigarette contains roughly 20 micrograms of formaldehyde, which once inhaled will be completely metabolised within 1-2 minutes. The problem is that the formaldehyde also very rapidly forms compounds known as formaldehyde-DNA adducts, which basically means the formaldehyde attaches itself irreversibly to our DNA.
In a healthy individual, these compounds would form rarely and be destroyed by safety measures built into our system, such as apoptosis (programmed cell death). In individuals who form a lot of these compounds, due to increased exposure to formaldehyde, they may end up building up and could play a role in the onset of certain cancers.
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How Nutrasweet Can Damage Our DNA
The amount of methanol in a pack of Nutrasweet, once metabolized by our gut, is 3.5 milligrams, which is 3500 micrograms. Processed in our the liver, the vast majority of this methanol will end up as formic acid, but first the methanol is converted to formaldehyde. Once converted from methanol, formaldehyde is very rapidly turned into formic acid. Remember in the case of the cigarettes, though, that these formaldehyde-DNA adducts formed in less than a minute! We may not have a very long exposure to formaldehyde, but research suggests it doesn't take very long or very much to damage the DNA!
One study demonstrated that this does indeed happen with ingestion of aspartame. The methanol portion of the molecule was labeled, so it could be tracked. This label is designed to remain even after the methanol is converted to formaldehyde or formic acid. In amounts of 20 mg/kg, 5% of the label remained after five hours, half of that in the liver. When the dose was increased to 200 mg/kg, even more was found, so the effect is thought to be dose-dependent and a contributor to the amounts of formaldehyde-DNA adducts formed.
20 mg/kg is a lot of aspartame, equivalent to 9-10 cans of diet soda a day for an average-weight female, but the formaldehyde-DNA adducts are formed irreversibly--once formaldehyde binds to the DNA of a cell, the only way to get rid of it is for the cell to die. If aspartame can cause the formation of these compounds, then even a small amount daily could contribute to a growing effect. 5% of 3500 micrograms (the methanol content of one pack of Nutrasweet) is 175 micrograms, which suggests that when all the metabolizing is done, 175 micrograms of formaldehyde might have remained behind, bound to your DNA. Donâ€™t forget, the cigarettes mentioned earlier only contained 20 micrograms!
Aspartame and Phenylalanine
Another worry is whether loading our blood with higher concentrations of phenylalanine (or its metabolite, tyrosine) is good thing. People who don't believe there is any danger argue that we get significantly more phenylalanine from most of the foods we eat, so it shouldn't be a problem in the low doses which come from aspartame. The issue with that argument is that we also get a significant amount of other amino acids as well.
When our blood is loaded with only phenylalanine, and to a lesser extent tyrosine, it is documented to cause depletion of essential amino acids in our brain. For people suffering from phenylketonuria, this issue is of the utmost seriousness as their body cannot effectively metabolise the phenylalanine, causing it to accumulate and be converted to phenylpyruvate. The disease has serious repercussions, especially on brain development, if not treated and controlled through low dietary intake of phenylalanine.
Phenylketonuria is rare, and most people will probably not intake enough phenylalanine from aspartame to load their blood, especially since most people will metabolise it to tyrosine which is much less harmful. Nonetheless, for habitual users the risk is greater than for those who only consume Nutrasweet, Equal, or other aspartame-containing products every now and then.
Bottom line, aspartame carries a risk. As with sucralose, there is evidence that in at least a small amount of people, side-effects such as headaches and gastric upset could occur. There is also the risk that it could contribute to carcinogenic formaldehyde-DNA adduct formation. Definitely do not give aspartame-containing products to children, as it requires far less aspartame to be considered a high dose, and the risk is far greater with phenylalanine in the developing brain.
UPDATE 4/24/2015 I [Brian Rigby, MS, CISSN] am updating this article because in the time since I've written it, I've reevaluated my stance on the hypothetical dangers of aspartame. At the time of writing, I focused with overly narrow vision upon the potential for harm such as through DNA damage; however, over the couple years since I wrote this piece, I have become more adept at interpreting the significance of research, even research that appears at first glance to be damning.
Aspartame is a conjugate of two amino acids (aspartic acid and phenylalanine), both of which we get from a normal diet in incredibly larger amounts. A packet of aspartame is about 35 milligrams and will be metabolised into approximately 16 milligrams aspartic acid and 19 milligrams phenylalanine; by contrast, our daily minimum requirement for phenylalanine is at least 2,500 milligrams, or about 1,250 times greater (aspartic acid intake will be similar). That's just minimum intake to remain healthy—most people will probably consume far more. Thus, any "dangerous byproducts" of aspartame metabolism are almost certainly generated in far, far greater amounts whenever you eat anything at all.
Furthermore, a typical healthy diet contains these "dangerous byproducts" in vastly greater amounts even than what we normally metabolise. General estimates of the formaldehyde content of our diet ranges from 10 to 20 milligrams a day, which is again about 1,000 times greater than the formaldehyde that could be metabolised from a packet of aspartame. In short, everything that we can point out as "bad" that comes from aspartame comes prepackaged in amounts that are thousands of times greater in a healthy diet; avoiding their intake is impossible.
But what about the studies of DNA damage I linked to, you may wonder. Here, too, let me assuage any fears I irresponsibly instilled in you; there are (at least) two possibilities for why these studies should not be intepreted as evidence against aspartame.
The first is that they are just statistical noise. Let's say you had a 100-sided die that were going to roll 100 times, but would only count the roll as "successful" when you got a 95 or lower. If you rolled it 100 times, it's probable that you'll get 5 or so "failures". When we perform studies, there is probability too—what we call the "p-value". The lower the p-value, the less likely the results are just due to chance—but we can never entirely eliminate the chance. Anytime you perform an experiment enough times, you're likely to get a few failures, and those are a sort of statistical noise. So the DNA damage could just be noise, too—not symptomatic of the real nature of the problem, but a chance result.
The second (and more likely) possibility is that the study was framed (or interpreted by me) incorrectly. We suffer "DNA damage" everyday, even if we avoid known carcinogens perfectly and do everything right. Everyone dies eventually, right? We can't avoid it. So when a study points to a substance and says it causes DNA damage (or gut damage, or whatever), we need to cast that in the proper frame, which is "How much damage compared to what we experience everyday?". Perhaps aspartame causes extremely small amounts of "damage", but if that's the case then we need to know whether that damage is greater or lesser than the damage you'd get just from eating an apple, or taking three breaths, or exercising for an hour. As much as we want to avoid things that are "harmful", few things in health or nutrition are so clear cut and we need to evaluate risk not only based on "absolute values" but on relatives. In this light, we find the relative risk of aspartame to be zero—it causes no more harm than any other activity, including healthy ones, would.
I hope you consider what I've written in light of this update; I don't want to erase the original text and pretend it never happened, but I do want you to ignore it. I made a mistake when writing about aspartame and I'm terribly sorry about it, but now I want to be sure no one else is misled. Aspartame is as safe as any other normal food or ingredient.
Saccharin: Potentially Safe
Saccharin, despite once being required to carry cancer warnings on the label, was in 2000 decided not to be carcinogenic in humans. The resolution came about via a discovered difference in the way male rats process saccharin in their bladder, the rats having certain factors present which humans do not have. Thus, the warning was removed.
Saccharin has an over one hundred year history, and of all the artificial sweeteners seems to, at this point, carry the least risk. It is not metabolised by the body, accumulates to a far lesser extent than sucralose, and seems to accumulate primarily in the bladder, where it is far less likely to cause harm and far more likely to be excreted than in the liver or kidneys. Saccharin has not been found to bind to the DNA, as aspartame can, and the toxicity which has been reported in high amounts seems to be related to its sodium component, not the saccharin part. Sodium is consumed in much higher amounts regularly in the form of table salt, and saccharin is not a significant source of sodium.
For reasons associated with all artificial sweeteners, the use of saccharin is not a suggested method for calorie reduction. These reasons are extensively discussed below.
Acesulfame-K: The Great Unknown
Acesulfame potassium was discovered in 1967, but has only been approved for use in the US in soft drinks since 1998. There is not a lot of literature attesting to its toxicity, but that is precisely the problem: there is simply not a lot of literature on this substance. This is stated in an article from 2006, where the author points out that the research the FDA based its approval on was carried out by the scientist and company who marketed acesulfame-K, and that the research had a number of flaws.
It may turn out that there is no problem with acesulfame-K, but at this time there really is not enough research to determine whether or not it is safe. Acesulfame-K is relatively unused, and most often is used in conjunction with other artificial sweeteners in order to mask its bitter aftertaste, but it turns up in sports-oriented drinks, including protein powders, so be aware of your ingredients!
Do Artificial Sweeteners Promote Weight Gain?
The biggest reason to avoid artificial sweeteners is not related to their potential toxicity, but is rather related to their purpose. The only reason to use a zero-calorie sweetener is to avoid the excess calories one would ingest through the use of a real sugar, in an effort to reduce total daily caloric intake. While this goal is achieved in the very short-term, all evidence suggests the use of artificial sweeteners perpetually leads to increased daily caloric intake.
Research shows that when we consume an artificial sweetener, it triggers the first food reward pathway (sensory) but not the second (postingestive). Because we only partially trigger the food reward pathway, we are left feeling unsatisfied with the neurological result of increased hunger, particularly for the sweet food our body thought it was going to receive. Glucose, on the other hand, triggers both food-reward pathways and suppresses hunger signals in our hypothalamus.
The danger associated with partially triggering our food reward pathways goes even further. When the brain is habitually tricked, it changes its expectations to match the new information, which says that sometimes food is not as satisfying as our mouth thought it would be. This leads to a diminished sense of reward from eating, which means it takes more food or drink to reach the same level of neurological satiety, or fullness. Furthermore, because the artificial sweeteners are so sweet, they influence our taste for food and we begin to crave sugar more than normal.
Different than the neurological response to artificial sweeteners is the psychological one. When we consume foods and drinks with artificial sweeteners, we are less likely to make healthy choices with the rest of our meal because we feel we can 'splurge' a little. More often than not, the result of this splurging is more calories than would have been ingested had we consumed sugar but made otherwise healthy choices.
When combined with the neurological effects, consumption of artificial sweeteners consistently leads to increased caloric intake, not reduced. It is not a statistical fallacy that the body mass index (BMI) of habitual drinkers of artificially sweetened beverages raises more over time, and is consistently higher, than those who do not.
There is also evidence that certain artificial sweeteners, such as saccharin, induce cephalic phase insulin response, meaning that they cause the insulin level in our blood rises. The theory goes that when insulin rises but glucose does not, the result is actually a falling level of blood glucose which would then stimulate hunger.
This is not very likely to produce increased appetite, however, as other hormones are primarily responsible for our hunger signals and the effect insulin does have on hunger is depressive, not stimulative. More likely the increased hunger is due to the neurological and psychological reasons mentioned above. That being said, it is never a good idea to mess with hormones, and there very well may be other deleterious effects to raising insulin, such as increased risk of diabetes or metabolic syndrome.
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Best Choice for Non-Caloric Sweeteners: Stevia
Stevia is tropical herb well-known for its intensely sweet leaves. Whereas the compounds which form the artificial sweeteners are man-made and never found in nature, the compounds which result in the sweet flavor of stevia are natural, and may even be beneficial.
The specific sweet compounds in stevia are diterpenes known as steviol glycosides. Terpenes are found in many plants and are often responsible for their colors or odors. Some types of terpenes include the carotenoids, which are tetraterpenes, and ursolic acid, a triterpene and one of the powerful compounds in holy basil. The diterpenes and other compounds in stevia have been found to be anti-microbial, anti-fungal, and to have antioxidant activity.
Another benefit of stevia is that it actually improves glucose tolerance! In one study, extracts of stevia were shown to significantly lower blood glucose levels through increased glucose tolerance. This has even more significance to diabetics, as the use of stevia could lead to increased insulin sensitivity. In fact, stevia is being researched as a potential treatment for type II diabetes.
Furthermore, stevia was demonstrated to also slow the development of insulin resistance in rats fed a high-fructose diet, making it potentially beneficial as a protective measure against diabetes.
When stevia is found packaged, usually only one steviol glycoside is present: rebaudioside A. Rebaudioside A is the sweetest of the compounds, and also the least bitter, so it is the best choice for isolation of sweetness, but that does not imply it carries all of the above benefits with it. Like all plants, stevia has a number of compounds which may work alone or together to benefit our health. All the above studies used aqueous infusions of stevia, the whole leaf, not just one glycoside. While there is certain to be some benefit rebaudioside A can claim on its own, the whole leaf will most likely have more benefits.
It can be challenging to find a stevia plant, but they are easy to raise, tolerant of abuse, and grow quite fast. You can pluck some leaves and crush them in your tea for the same sweet effect a packet of stevia powder will have, but with increased antioxidant activity. A good place to find a plant is a local gardening center, where they are usually located with the herbs. Stevia is a tropical plant, and better suited for indoor life in most locations.
If growing a plant is not for you, don't fret. Even if packaged stevia doesn't contain all of its benefits, it will still not have any of the toxic side-effects the artificial sweeteners have, which makes it the best bet for sweetening your drinks or food without adding calories.
Sorbitol, Erythritol, Xylitol, and other Sugar Alcohols
Sugar alcohols are carbohydrates which are very similar to sugar, but slightly less caloric at about 2.4 calories per gram. They taste very similar to sucrose, though slightly less sweet, and some (such as sorbitol) are found naturally in certain fruits. Most of the sugar alcohol we consume will not be digested, so we don't even absorb the 2.4 calories per gram advertised. Rather, the sugar alcohol is food for our gut flora, which while good, can cause gastric upset.
Xylitol and sorbitol are the two most popular sugar alcohols, but due to their laxative effect in high doses are usually only found in small items, such as chewing gum or mints. They are also found in oral care products because they will not cause tooth decay, so they may safely sweeten toothpaste and mouthwash.
Erythritol is the only common sugar alcohol actually to be absorbed by the small intestine, but it is passed intact through the urine. There is always the potential for accumulation when compounds are retained in our body, but studies have not reported any toxic effects in regards to its use. It is most commonly used in conjunction with stevia, and unlikely to cause problems at the levels present.
Due to the laxative effect most sugar alcohols have in moderate to large doses, they will probably not form a new generation of general-use low-calorie food sweeteners. While repeated use of sugar alcohols has been demonstrated to lessen the laxative effect, it is unlikely anybody would wish to go through the acclimation phase! In the small amounts found in mints and gum, they are effective as a sweetener and in prevention of tooth decay, and in the fruits they are found naturally in, they may contribute to the health of our gut.
The erythritol found in conjunction with some stevia-based sweeteners is unlikely to be of any issue, but is also unnecessary. For these reasons, sugar alcohols are safe sweeteners but of limited use. If you are willing to go through the gastric discomfort necessary to adapt to moderate intake, they may be a good way to sweeten food without adding calories. Elsewise, stick with stevia or don't sweeten at all!
Are Real Sugars Healthier?
When we talk of sugars, the best place to start is with the monosaccharides. There are three total: glucose, fructose, and galactose. These are the simplest forms of sugar found naturally in food, and the only sugars which get absorbed through the intestine. All other carbohydrates, whether complex or simple, are made up of links of one or more of these three monosaccharides.
Glucose is the most important sugar our body uses. It is the primary fuel for our brain and is capable of running every organ in our body. In addition, our body can store glucose away in the muscles and liver in the form of glycogen, which is similar to the starch found in a potato. Glycogen is a long, branched chain of glucose molecules which is readily broken back down into glucose to supply a steady stream of energy for our brain and body. We store about 80-100 grams of glucose in our liver, in the form of glycogen.
Galactose is slightly less sweet than glucose, and the least common simple sugar. It is found primarily in dairy products, as a part of lactose (galactose + glucose), and is readily converted to glucose by the body.
Fructose is a monosaccharide found most abundantly in fruits. Unlike galactose, it cannot be converted into glucose by our body, and it also cannot fuel our brain. While our muscles can utilize fructose for energy in situations where it is the only fuel available, they vastly prefer to use glucose. As a result, the most common fate for fructose is processing by the liver. If the liver is not at full glycogen capacity, fructose will rapidly be converted into glycogen. If the amount of fructose consumed is too high for the liver to process into glycogen (if it overloads the enzymes, for example), or if the liver has enough glycogen, then fructose will be converted to fat for either immediate use or, more likely, storage.
Fructose, as found in whole fruits, is not bad. The absorption is slowed down by the digestive process and fiber, and even a large piece of fruit only has limited fructose in it, not nearly enough to overwhelm your liver. In addition, fructose increases the oxidation rate of glucose, meaning that your body uses more glucose for energy (as opposed to storage) when fructose is present as well. This makes fructose a great sugar to consume alongside glucose when exercising.
Times have changed significantly since fructose, and sugar in general, were found primarily in fruits and sweet vegetables, and the addition of excess sugar in our diet has contributed to many afflictions of lifestyle, from obesity to tooth decay. Though glucose, fructose, and galactose are metabolized differently, the truth is that sugar is sugar, and excess sugar in the form of syrups and crystals are not and will never be "healthy."
That being said, the different ways we metabolize sugars do make some better choices than others, if still less than healthy choices. Table sugar (sucrose), high fructose corn syrup (HFCS), agave nectar, honey, and brown rice syrup are the five most common caloric sweeteners, and they each have different percentages of glucose and fructose.
Table sugar is formed of sucrose, which comes from sugar canes or sugar beets primarily. It is a disaccharide (a double sugar) formed of glucose and fructose, and is thus 50% glucose, 50% fructose. Our body splits it rapidly in the small intestine into its constituent sugars, which are then absorbed into the hepatic portal vein, which travels from the small intestine to the liver. The glucose is released near instantly from the liver into our bloodstream, the fructose gets metabolized by the liver into either glycogen or fat.
Sucrose is very rapidly absorbed, requiring almost no digestive effort. The only limiting factor is how long it takes the food or drink you've consumed to reach your small intestine, as no sugar is absorbed through the stomach. Once in the small intestine, the sugars will be absorbed at a rate of around 30 calories per minute. If your sugar is in the form of a soda, you will have completely absorbed 100% of the sugar in about five minutes. Food forms may take slightly longer to digest, solely due to transit time from stomach to small intestine. These absorption times hold true for the rest of the sugars listed below as well.
High-Fructose Corn Syrup
High-fructose corn syrup is very similar to fructose, but 55% fructose, 45% glucose. Because of its higher fructose content, there is the possibility more will be stored as fat (remember that fructose is normally only used for glycogen storage or fat storage). While our muscles may use the glucose as energy, fructose will never be used instantly as energy. This makes high-fructose corn syrup worse than sucrose, but only by the smallest amount. A better reason to avoid it is its relationship to foods which contain it--it is only found in highly-processed products which likely will contain other ingredients you should avoid, like trans fats, excess omega-6 fatty acids, and artificial flavors and colorings.
Why Agave Nectar
Agave nectar is even higher in fructose than high fructose corn syrup. A lot higher, usually. Agave nectar can run at 85-90% fructose, which means that only about 1 gram out of 10 can actually supply your body with energy usable right now! The other 9 grams out of 10 will be stored either as glycogen or fat. One teaspoon of agave nectar contains 7 grams of sugar, so for every teaspoon used, a little more than 6 grams are destined for storage.
Agave nectar is heralded as a "low-glycemic sweetener", but that is solely because it has so little glucose in it. Only glucose affects our glycemic response--fructose does not promote the secretion of insulin. This doesn't make it any healthier, and the fact is that it may be worse in the majority of cases. Glucose, once in the blood, at least has some chance to be oxidized for energy instead of being packed straight into storage!
The sugars in honey are about 50% fructose, 41% glucose, and 9% maltose, which is a disaccharide formed of two glucose molecules. When completely broken down, it is about 50% fructose and 50% glucose, which makes it similar in composition to table sugar and high fructose corn syrup. Honey has the benefit of containing trace amounts of plant pollen, which offer trace amounts of some minerals and possibly some relief from allergies. Despite this, honey is still not "healthy". It is a better choice than the previous sweeteners in many cases, but your body will utilize the sugars in it the exact same as it will from any other sweetener.
Brown Rice Syrup
This sweetener is unusual. Rice contains no fructose, as it is not a fruit. All of its carbohydrates are formed of glucose. In whole-grain rice, that glucose is bound within starch and fiber. To make syrup out of it, rice is cultured in enzymes which break apart the complex carbohydrates into simple sugars. The resulting syrup is slightly less sweet than sugar.
Brown rice syrup is around 3% glucose, 45% maltose, and 52% maltotriose, which is a trisaccharide (three sugars) formed of three glucose molecules. Proponents of brown rice syrup argue that maltotriose is digested and absorbed more slowly than glucose or maltose, so brown rice syrup can sustain you longer. While it may not be digested at 30 calories per minute, it will almost certainly be completely absorbed within 20 minutes, so this is not the same sort of energy buffer as would be supplied by eating a meal of whole grain brown rice.
Because brown rice syrup is 100% glucose when broken down, all of the sugar consumed will be absorbed into the bloodstream, where it is possible it will be completely used for energy. Don't forget, however, that fructose increases the energy utilization rate of glucose, so even if the fructose itself gets stored, more glucose will get used for energy. Since brown rice syrup has no fructose, the rate of energy usage will be slightly lower, making this a poor choice for resupplying energy while exercising, and only of possible benefit at any other time.
Coconut sugar is primarily sucrose. Sucrose is the sugar most commonly referred to as "table sugar", and is formed of a glucose unit bonded to a fructose unit. Thus, like table sugar, coconut sugar is roughly 50% glucose and 50% fructose. Unlike table sugar, however, coconut sugar is far less refined and retains some additional benefits.
Coconut sugar is considered low-glycemic, despite its sugar content. There isn't a lot of research to suggest why coconut sugar affects our blood sugar differently than honey or cane sugar, but it consistently rates on a scale of 35-55. This is compared to table sugar which has a GI of 60.
Coconut sugar also retains some vitamins and minerals, although it's unlikely to contribute significant amounts. There are much better foods out there to get your daily nutrients from!
It should also be noted that coconut sugar is less sweet than regular table sugar. If you add extra sugar to make up for the sweetness, you will find that much of the benefit erodes away under the higher glycemic LOAD of the amount you are consuming.
Ultimately, it's important to remember that coconut sugar is still added sugar, and should be used sparingly. If you rarely consume added sugar, perhaps only stirring a teaspoon-full into your tea every now and again, then coconut sugar may be a better choice. If you're eating multiple teaspoons daily, however, it will still take its toll on your health, low-glycemic index or not.
Final Overview of All Sugar
It's easy to get caught up in whether this sugar is good or bad due to the content of each saccharide, whether it be glucose, fructose, maltose, sucrose, or maltotriose. In the end, it really doesnâ€™t matter much to your body--sugar is sugar, and unless you have an energetic use for those calories you are consuming, they will be stored, regardless of what form you take them in as.
If you are in a particular situation, such as an athletic event, one form of sugar may end up giving you an advantage over another one, however small it may be, but in the vast majority of situations, added sugar offers no benefit, no matter what form it comes in, only unnecessary calories. Sugar also diminishes our sensitivity to other, more complex flavors, the same as salt, which can lead to decreased appreciation for food which does actually offer health benefits. In small amounts, every now and then, refined sugar can be an okay treat, but it really should not have a daily place in your diet.
Sweeteners: Simply Unnecessary
Whether artificial or natural, zero or full calorie, sweeteners are a luxury which do not contribute to our health. The best thing you can do for your body is train it to appreciate whole, unsweetened foods, and to find its sugar naturally from fruits and sweet vegetables.
Artificial sweeteners offer absolutely no benefit when it comes to weight loss or weight maintenance, and may even increase weight gain. The majority of them also carry a toxic risk, which is simply not worth it. Even if you do not consume enough to make liver, kidney, or DNA damage likely, there are safer alternatives available, such as stevia.
Stevia is a compelling no-calorie sweetener which may actually carry some of the same benefits associated with herbs and spices. These benefits are most likely found within the complex of the whole leaf, not just from the extracted rebaudioside A, but even in isolated form, stevia should be considered a better choice due to the lack of toxicity it presents.
Related PEERtrainer Article: Why There Is No Such Thing As Healthy Sugar
When it comes to refined sugars, there is no "healthy" choice. No matter which way you spin it, refined sugar is just excess calories, and no form of refined sugar contains enough beneficial compounds to counter its caloric load. Even in the case of exercise, you are better off fueling up on fruits rather than refined sugars, as the energy will be better distributed, not released all at once.
Think about when you crave sugar. If you feel like your sweet tooth is raising an alarm, train yourself to reach for real food first. Oftentimes, it's just hunger, but hunger which has been trained by sugar cravings. If you absolutely must have something sweet, have fruit, which will be digested slowly, will fill you up, and will offer more nutrition than just simple sugar. Allow your body to wean itself off sweet as the primary flavor--you might be amazed by how nice beverages and foods taste without the excess sweetness!
[PEERtrainer Note: One thing that we have observed over the years is that many people struggle with sugar cravings or sugar addiction. It is critical to note that we see many people overcome this situation. And often, they are amazed at how easy it was in hindsight. The key to this shift, is really going cold turkey for a one week period of time.
After this period, it becomes easier than you could ever imagine. PEERtrainer recently created a webinar that outlines a very specific eating strategy to help people through this process. This is not hard, and does not make you hungry- but you do have to follow some very specific instructions and have an open mind. We created this webinar with Phd nutritionist JJ Virgin. To get it, just enter your email below and click enter. You will also be sent a free copy of the PEERtrainer Cheat System, which is our acclaimed healthy weight loss program.]
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Article Summary Notes
The manufacturer of Splenda claims that there are no side effects. However the studies that have been conducted have tested the effects of short term doses. They did not test the effect of long term Splenda usage.
Is Splenda safe? The answer is that we just don't know yet. Not a lot of testing has been done, so we are all guinea pigs.
The Side Effects Of Splenda that have been reported by people include skin rashes/flushing, agitation, dizziness and numbness, diarrhea, panic, swelling, muscle aches, headaches, intestinal cramping, bladder issues, and stomach pain.
There is no question at all that high levels of sugar consumption is bad for you.
Based on all available research, Stevia is considered the best natural sweetener.
Splenda/Sucralose is the most commonly consumed artificial sweetener today.
Many people have reported that they found it easier to lose weight after they quit Splenda.
Dr Oz has said that "he really doesn't see artificial sweeteners helping people lose weight....that artificial sweeteners are basically trying to trick the brain. The brain knows this and reminds your body to eat because it needs nutrients"
Weight Watchers And Splenda:
There are zero weight watchers points in Splenda. Splenda is a corporate partner of Weight Watchers, and as a result, Weight Watchers advocates the use of Splenda calling it "a delicious alternative to sugar that can be one small step to helping you lead a healthy lifestyle."
The health experts that PEERtrainer work with suggest that one remove as many artificial products as possible, especially for those people struggling with weight loss resistance.