Hot ‘n’ Sweet: The Debate over Sugar, Sugar Alcohols and Artificial Sweeteners

Have you ever perused the aisles of the grocery store attempting to decide on a dessert that will tantalize your taste buds while simultaneously maintaining your sleek physique?

It can be a challenge to decide which candies, cookies, drinks and other sweet treats will satisfy your craving without damaging your diet or good health. Artificial sweeteners are a source of heated debate in the industry, but as research on the long-term effects of good old-fashioned sugar surface, the debate gets even hotter – how will Americans get their sweet fix?

If you haven’t heard, new research suggests that excess sugar in your diet increases the risk of cancer and not just because it contributes to  obesity. Researchers have uncovered evidence that spikes in blood sugar levels from the consumption of sugar, induce sharp increases in the secretion of insulin, which act as a catalyst for certain types of cancer. Dr. Lewis Cantley, a Harvard Professor and head of the Beth Israel Deaconess Cancer Center told CBS News, “Every cell in our body needs glucose to survive. But the trouble is, these cancer cells also use it to grow. So if you happen to have the tumor that has insulin receptors on it then it will get stimulated to take up the glucose that’s in the bloodstream rather than go into fat or muscle, the glucose goes into the tumor. And the tumor uses it to grow.”

Evidence like this has many seeking alternatives. Artificial sweeteners and sugar alcohols have been labeled by many as “toxic” and “cancer-causing” without any real studies to back-up these claims. According to the National Cancer Institute, as of 2009, artificial sweeteners that have been approved by the FDA are not linked to cancer.

You should still exercise caution when choosing foods with artificial sweeteners and sugar alcohols. Artificial sweeteners do not causes the same spikes in blood sugar levels as real sugar, however many sugar alcohols do.  Additionally, many foods that are sweetened with artificial sweeteners and sugar alcohols make up the flavor with additional ingredients (calories) or added fat (more calories.)

Sugar alcohols have also been linked to GI disturbances causing bloating, gas and diarrhea, especially in individuals who consume excessive amounts or have undergone gastric bypass surgery. The risk of dental carries is low with sugar alcohols and they have fewer calories than traditional sugar. Although sugar alcohols cause a glycemic response, it is not nearly as significant as the spikes caused by natural sugar. Some sugar alcohols occur naturally in certain fruits and vegetables, but they are most commonly seen in processed sugar-free and reduced-sugar products. The “toxic” reputation of sugar alcohols is linked to the simplest form of these chemicals – ethylene glycol and methanol. These two sugar alcohols are toxic, but you will not find these in food items, they are the chemicals found in antifreeze.

If you are craving something sweet, consider noshing on a few berries to minimize your intake of fructose. Choosing fruits as your sugar source will slow the absorption of glucose in the bloodstream thanks to the simultaneous consumption of fiber. If candy and cookies are the only cure for your sweet tooth, examine the label carefully before selecting a dessert made with artificial sweeteners or sugar alcohols – food items like these generally contain extra fat or ingredients that make up for the calorie deficit, which means it may not be any better for your health. The best advice is to carefully manage your sugar intake – remember, the 2009 guidelines by the American Heart Association recommend  no more than 100 calories a day comes from sugar for women (that’s just about 6 teaspoons) and no more than  150 calories per day for men (approximately 9 teaspoons.)

The healthiest diets avoid processed foods and include balanced consumption of primarily natural, whole foods.

This is the answer to a question from a follower on my Facebook page. Feel free to send me your nutrition and fitness related questions on Facebook or at


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