In the effort to cut down on the sugar in their diet many people turn to artificial sweeteners. Trying to lose weight, control diabetes, or just eat healthier, are these sweeteners the answer? Understanding the terminology and different types of sweeteners is challenging, as there are quite a number of types and brands. Sorting out health pros and cons is even more difficult for the consumer.
The Real Sweeteners
Sugar refers to various sweet tasting chemicals, which are classified as carbohydrates or saccharides. They are made up of a carbon skeleton hydrated with hydrogen and oxygen molecules (Carbon + H2O), thus “carbohydrates”.
Monosaccharides are the simplest carbohydrates as they are singular and cannot be broken down to smaller carbohydrates. Glucose, fructose, and galactose are the main monosaccharides found in food with glucose being the most essential as it is the body’s preferred energy source. Also known as dextrose, glucose is found in all kinds of sweet foods but when used commercially it tends to be made from corn. Fructose is the sugar found in fruit and is the main sugar in honey, while galactose is the less-sweet sugar occurring naturally in milk and sugar beets.
Disaccharides are made up of two monosaccharides bound together. The three best-known disaccharides are sucrose, lactose, and maltose. Sucrose (glucose + fructose) is obtained from the sugar cane or sugar beet plant and sold as table sugar, refined to produce brown sugar, powdered sugar, or molasses, or used to sweeten a large variety of foods from beverages to baked goods. Lactose (glucose + galactose) is the sugar in milk-based products, found in yogurt, cheese, and ice cream. Maltose (glucose + glucose) is less sweet than the previous two and is best known as the carbohydrate found in beer, although it is also found in breads and other grains.
Polysaccharides are long, sometimes very long, chains of three or more monosaccharides. The main storage form of glucose in the body is a polysaccharide called glycogen, made up of many repeated units of glucose, which can be broken down for a ready fuel supply. In plants the equivalent is called starch and is found mostly in grains such as rice and wheat, root crops such as potatoes, and beans. Uncooked starch is not well digested by humans and prior to using heat for cooking humans did not eat starchy foods. Heat will break starch down into smaller fragments which taste sweeter and can be broken down and absorbed by humans.
Starch is used in modern food industry to produce sweeteners and thickeners. After applying acids or various enzymes starch is broken down into “dextrins” which are varying length chains of glucose. Examples include maltodextrin, corn syrup, and dextrose. High fructose corn syrup is a dextrin in which some of the native glucose has been converted to fructose – the result is a very stable and easy to use sweetener. Sugar alcohols, such as sorbitol and mannitol are made from starches. Modifying the natural sugar called xylose, which is found in wood and corn, makes Xylitol.
Artificial sweeteners are synthetic sugar substitutes, although they may be derived from naturally occurring substances, including herbs or sugar. Artificial sweeteners have virtually no calories and are also known as intense sweeteners because they are many times sweeter than regular sugar. Artificial sweeteners currently approved by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) include Aspartame (Equal, NutraSweet), Saccharin (Sweet’N Low) and Sucralose (Splenda).
Sugar alcohols can occur naturally or be manufactured, have about half the calories as sucrose, and are not as intense as artificial sweeteners. These include Erythritol, Mannitol, Sorbitol, Xylitol and Stevia preparations that are highly refined (Pure Via, Truvia). These are mostly found in processed foods and products such as chewing gum and are not used as much in home cooking.
Natural sweeteners are promoted as a healthy “low calorie” alternative to sugar, which is mostly marketing hype, as the truth is they contain the same amount of calories. These include grape juice concentrate, honey, maple sugar, molasses and agave nectar. Use these products based on taste but don’t be fooled by claims of less calories.
Artificial sweeteners – are they too good to be true? The idea of no calorie benefits with artificial sweeteners is being challenged. Recent studies show that people drinking artificially sweetened beverages actually gain more weight than those who do not. The science is suggesting that the artificial sweeteners may lack calories, but the sweetness still provokes the brain, and the subsequent cravings that are stimulated will promote an increased appetite later. It may be the old economics axiom is true in that “there is no such thing as a free lunch”.
Numerous studies have suggested a worrisome link to cancer with most all the artificial sweeteners. And, I worry about the as yet unstudied effect on the immune system. With the work we are doing on reversing autoimmune diseases and uncovering the culprits that provoke the immune system, I fear we’ll discover many “safe” chemicals in our food chain are provoking an abnormal immune response, which might lead to autoimmune diseases such as rheumatoid arthritis or lupus.
I suggest you get your sweeteners naturally. Use fruits to sweeten salads and side dishes. Try a little honey when sweetening a dish. Even use plain ole’ sugar, in moderation. The key is to avoid the plethora of processed foods that are stuffed with natural or artificial sweeteners. Stay away from sugar packed drinks, candies, pastries and packaged foods. Consider what our ancestors were designed to eat and enjoy the bounty of sweetness that comes naturally in fresh fruits and veggies.
Scott Rollins, MD, is Board Certified with the American Board of Family Practice and the American Board of Anti-Aging and Regenerative Medicine. He specializes in bioidentical hormone replacement for men and women, thyroid and adrenal disorders, fibromyalgia and other complex medical conditions. He is founder and medical director of the Integrative Medicine Center of Western Colorado (www.imcwc.com) and Bellezza Laser Aesthetics (www.bellezzalaser.com). Call (970) 245-6911 for an appointment or more information.