Are sugar substitutes bad for you?

Are sugar substitutes bad for you?

Who does not like the taste of sweets melting in the mouth, especially when one has those after-meal cravings! Those who are conscious about their diet might avoid these irresistible cravings, but most of us end up feeding ourselves with whatever we find sweet and satisfying. But the bitter truth is that this could pave our way to hospital beds in the long run. 

Going into the story of human evolution, humans realised, in-between their adventures and experiments with food, that the intake of something sweet could provide them with instant energy, and thus continued with it, failing to understand that high sugar intake can be as addictive as drugs. It causes our brain to release opioids and dopamine, just as drugs do. When the educated lot became aware of the health problems that it could cause them — increased vulnerability to heart failure, depression, cancer, type 2 diabetes, skin problems like acne, etc. Sugar substitutes in the hope that it could solve the problems to a limit. This is especially true when it came to reducing the calories that we otherwise take in through table sugar or simply desserts.

Sugar substitutes or high-intensity sweeteners are food additives that we use instead of sugar, which are capable of providing sweet taste while ensuring a lesser number of calories. This is what leads us to include them in our diet in place of sugar, and consider them safe to an extent. Sugar substitutes can be broadly classified into natural and artificial. Though the word ‘natural’ would seem reassuring, it is not quite so in this case. 

Also read: Is butter bad for you?

Are They Better Than Traditional Table Sugar? The answer to the above question completely depends upon one’s priority. If your aim is to lose weight, sweeteners could work better. Table sugar and modified sugars could be less safe than sweeteners if you consider that they increase calorie intake and blood sugar levels. It can be certainly argued that the natural sugar in raw varieties like coconut sugar, agave nectar, honey, etc. are better than table sugar because of their natural properties. Yet, they have the same Glycemic Index (GI) as sugar (it is the relative ranking of carbohydrate in foods according to how they affect blood glucose levels). 

HighFructose Corn Syrup (HFCS) is often blamed for converting sugar into fat faster than table sugar since it contains a lot of fructose. Similar properties are also observed in agave nectar, though it has a lower GI. This means it will hike the blood glucose levels slowly. Using some easily available natural substitutes like honey would be healthier. It has a lower GI value than sugar and is sweeter when taken in the same quantity. Though it does not raise the blood glucose levels as fast as sugar, it has to be noticed that it has a higher calorie value. Yet, being sweeter negates this point since we might use it in a lesser quantity. 

Every sugar substitute comes with its own specific properties and generalising them might be misleading. Natural and Artificial Substitutes A variety of whole cane sugar under the brand name Sucanat, stevia derived from the leaves of the plant species Stevia rebaudiana, maple sugar made from the sap of the maple tree, and sweet sorghum from any of the varieties of the sorghum grass, jaggery, etc. are natural sugar substitutes, which are healthier than their artificial counterparts, generated out of chemicals. Artificial sweeteners have no nutrients in them. Sugar alcohols like xylitol, erythritol, maltitol, etc. on the other hand, contain more calories than artificial sweeteners but lesser than table sugar. Most of them cause digestive distress since they are partially resistant to digestion. Aspartame is one of the most common artificial sweeteners or sugar substitutes; it is 200 times sweeter than sugar and is sold under the brand names NutraSweet and Equal. Saccharin in the brand name Sweet’N Low, Acesulfame potassium (Ace-K) in the brand name Sweet One, Sucralose in the brand name Splenda, etc. are some other examples of FDA approved sugar substitutes. Such brand names often blind a lot of consumers into thinking that the diet food they consume does not contain any artificial sweeteners while they are often clearly present. There are more than 60 different names for variants of sugar such as sucrose, HFCS which was mentioned earlier, barley malt, dextrose, rice syrup maltose, etc. 

Adding to our trouble, manufacturers are not required to mention whether the total amount of sugar as mentioned on the label includes both the added sugar as well as the naturally occurring sugar in the ingredients. Concluding from the Yale Journal of Biology and Medicine, artificial sweeteners are linked to better appetite and cravings for sugary food. Thus, sugar substitutes make us eat more, thereby increasing the overall calorie intake. At the same time, there are other researches that contradict this idea and making the topic controversial.

Tips For Reducing Your Everyday Sugar Intake-

  • Start by gradually reducing the amount of sugar that is added to your tea, coffee, cereal etc.
  • Use fruits and berries to sweeten your dishes like cakes instead of adding table sugar. 
  • Cut down on soda and other sugary drinks completely and replace them with water or other healthy drinks.
  • Replace sugar with ingredients like apple sauce, honey, almond or vanilla extract etc. 
  • Read the labels on every packaged food that you use such that you can keep a check on your sugar intake.
  • Even if you use one teaspoon of table sugar for your tea or coffee in the morning, see to it that the rest of the day, you cut down on sugar or that diet food is eaten.
  • Coconut sugar, honey, monk fruit extracts, date paste, jaggery etc. are better options instead of table sugar. 

It can be readily concluded that both sugar substitutes as well as sugar have their own specific pros and cons and choosing which one to use in our day-to-day lives depends upon how conscious we are about our body and its health. The high-intensity sweeteners which are considered safe by various health organizations may cause adverse effects on some consumers, depending upon how their bodies react to them. Thus, it is always recommended to take the advice of your doctor before reaching a conclusion on any product.

Smriti Kumar

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