Sugar is addictive, and most people crave it without even realising. With obesity and related conditions such as type 2 diabetes on the rise, many people try and cut down their sugar intake, opting for a sugar substitute instead. With less kilojoules yet a similar sweet taste, you'd be forgiven for thinking that these products may be a welcome addition to the diet. Wrong. The problem is, most sweet replacements are artificial sweeteners, chemically produced and with a range of possible side effects. Guzzling a can of diet soda when you feel a sugar craving does not satisfy the palate, and in fact research shows that it makes you hungrier after consumption, leading to increased kilojoules in the long run. Add to that the potential health problems and it's a recipe for disaster. Outlined are some common types of artificial sweeteners, and, their natural alternatives:
Aspartame was discovered in 1965 by a chemist who accidentally licked his finger while developing a drug for another use, and found it tasted sweet. Ingredients include aspartic acid, phenylalanine and methyl alcohol, which breaks down to formaldehyde and DKP
(diketopiperazine), two chemicals known to cause problems in the nervous system.
Aspartame has been the subject of much controversy. The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) in the United States gets more complaints about aspartame than any other food or drink. Some of the symptoms linked to aspartame consumption in humans include headaches/migraines, dizziness, seizures, nausea, numbness, muscle spasms, weight gain, rashes, depression, fatigue, irritability, increased heart rate (tachycardia), insomnia, vision problems, hearing loss, heart palpitations, breathing difficulties, anxiety attacks, slurred speech, loss of taste, tinnitus, vertigo, memory loss and joint pain.
Despite being approved by the Food and Drug Administration in 1981, approval was refused for eight years prior due to the seizures and brain tumours it caused in laboratory-tested animals. President Reagan, who (ironically) ended up with Alzheimer's disease eventually overruled all administration preventing the use of aspartame in favour of its commercial viability.
Aspartame continues to undergo rigorous testing by scientists attempting to disprove its apparent safety. Studies have also shown aspartame causes brain tumours in rats and induces epileptic seizures in monkeys. It is contraindicated for anyone with the condition phenylketonuria, an inherited metabolic disease where phenylalanine is restricted in the diet.
Aspartame can be found in an increasing number of products such as diet sodas, low joule cordials, chewing gum, cakes and biscuits, confectionery, nutritional supplements and medicines. Branded sugar substitutes using aspartame include Nutrasweet and Equal.
The first artificial sweetener ever discovered, saccharin has been used for over 100 years. It is not metabolised by the body and goes directly through the digestive system without being absorbed, so effectively has no food energy.
Many studies have been performed on saccharin using rats as test subjects, with some showing an increase in cancer frequency, especially cancer of the bladder. Saccharin manufacturers dispute these claims, citing the reason for the cancer caused in the rats was the high amounts of saccharin the animals were fed, arguing that no human would ingest saccharin at such high levels. Other studies showed no relationship at all.
Saccharin is found in a number of products, such as diet soft drinks, chewing gum, confectionery, baking products and is sold as a sugar substitute, such as Sweet 'n' Low.
Usually sold under the trade name Splenda, sucralose resembles ordinary sugar, and is used in much the same way, but is about 600 times sweeter. It is produced by chlorinating sugar, changing its molecular structure by substituting three chlorine atoms in place of three hydroxyl atoms. The FDA approved the use of sucralose in 1998, but Europe is yet to permit it to be sold.
There have been very few studies of sucralose conducted, yet research in rodents and rabbits showed problems such as enlarged liver and kidneys, decreased red blood cell count and in some cases aborted pregnancy. Another study showed it could pose problems for those managing diabetes. Sucralose is found in baking mixes, chewing gum, jams and jellies,
gelatine, pudding, sweet sauces and toppings and sugar substitute products, such as Splenda.
Naturally Sweet: Xylitol
Xylitol is a low kilojoule sugar substitute that is gaining a reputation for its health-boosting properties, namely the effect it has on preventing tooth decay. While its name may sound artificial, xylitol is found naturally in fibrous fruits and vegies such as plums and corn and is also produced in the body. With 40% less kilojoules than sugar, negligible carbohydrate content and a low GI of 7, xylitol is a good option for those with diabetes. As xylitol is metabolised slowly by the body, it doesn't cause the 'sugar spike' that may be experienced with other sugar products, leading to a subsequent drop in blood sugar and a craving for more sweetness.
Unlike artificial sweeteners, xylitol has no bitter aftertaste and may actually promote oral and aural health. While sugar promotes the growth of bacteria, xylitol prevents their growth. In particular, xylitol has been found to inhibit streptococcus mutans, the main bacteria responsible for causing dental cavities. So in addition to not causing tooth caries like sugar does, xylitol is able to actively repair minor dental damage. In a 2004 study, researchers also found that xylitol damages Streptococcus pneumoniae, one of the main causes of ear infections. By harming the bacteria, it is thought that xylitol may destabilise the bacteria and prevent it from multiplying.
In large doses, xylitol can have a mild laxative effect. There is no known toxicity, with humans ingesting up to 400 grams a day for extended periods with no apparent problems. It does, however, cause hypoglycaemia in dogs, which can result in depression, seizures and reported death.
Xylitol is not as widely available as its artificial counterparts, partly due to the fact it's more expensive. It is more popular overseas, with virtually all chewing gum sold in Europe sweetened with xylitol, and China, Japan and North Korea following suit. In Australia, we can find it in some chewing gums sold in health food stores, and confectionery such as chocolate, baking mixes and as a simple crystallised form with a similar consistency to sugar. It is also added to some toothpastes and dental gels.
An all natural kilojoule-free sweetener, stevia is a natural herb the South American native tribes have been using for generations. Botanically known as Stevia Rebaudiana, the glycosides in the leaves of the plant make it hundreds of times sweeter than sugar making it an attractive natural alternative to artificial sweeteners. It has no effect on blood sugar levels and contains a number of protecting and disease preventing phytochemicals.
Naturopath Rita Cozzi states that stevia is a good replacement for sugar, especially for those who are insulin-resistant as it behaves like a complex carbohydrate, keeping blood glucose steady. It has no effect on teeth either, as tests conducted by Purdue University's Dental Science Research Group have concluded that Stevioside is both fluoride compatible and "significantly" inhibits the development of plaque, thus Stevia may actually help to prevent cavities.
Stevia is completely non-toxic and is and has been consumed in large quantities by several countries for many years without incident. Japanese manufacturers use stevia extensively in food products such as pickles, and soft drinks, as well as for general table use. Stevia is available from health food stores as it is considered a dietary supplement.
Many people may have used, or continue to use, artificial sweeteners and have never experienced any problems - but the fact remains that they are essentially chemical substances, made in a laboratory by scientists. If the artificial sweet flavour doesn't deter you enough, think of your health and how to protect it. Knowingly ingesting potentially harmful substances may not pose a problem now, but what will the future hold? It's fine to enjoy a sweet treat occasionally, but rather than indulge the craving with an artificial replacement on a daily basis, a healthier strategy would be to try and curb the craving and occasionally enjoy a sweet treat from a natural source such as maple syrup, honey, rice syrup, barley malt and even