Banishing sugar: Are alternative sweeteners a safe replacement?

With all the fervor over sugar – is it toxic? Should sugary sodas be banned? Many more people are turning to alternative sweeteners to pacify their cravings, but this switch is not without worry.

Pink, blue, yellow and, now, green – regardless of which packet you pluck from the ceramic box on every restaurant table or the metal troughs at Starbucks – controversy is wrapped inside.

For decades, people have questioned the safety of alternative sweeteners and, if you do a little research, you will find that there are multiple studies that argue for and against every brand.

You know these little packets as Sweet ‘n’ Low, Equal, Splenda and Truvia or PureVia, but science calls them saccharin, aspartame, sucralose and stevia rebaudiana. All have received G.R.A.S. (generally recognized as safe) status from the FDA and therefore may be used in food and beverages sold throughout the United States.

The New York Times delved deep into the heart of this debate last week, taking comments from more than 500 readers and interviewing several experts. The accounts varied from fear of cancer to recurring headaches to a complete lack of concern. There is little consistency in the evidence for or against alternative sweeteners because most have not been around long enough to confirm or deny the health implications associated with normal consumption.

Dr. Walter Willett, chairman of the nutrition department at the Harvard School of Public Health told The New York Times, “It took us about 90 years to discover [trans fat] was a big problem. It’s a bit sobering how long that took.” Trans fats were introduced to the food supply in the 1900s, but it wasn’t a concern until the 1990s and was not banned until the 21st century.

While the safety of alternative sweeteners will remain a source of heated debate and cause those who have kicked the sweet tooth habit to eye you with scorn as you sprinkle one of the four brightly colored packets into your coffee, Dr. Willett says, “The world is almost never black and white, and we rarely operate with absolute certainty about anything. What is most important is to avoid risks that are large and clear, like smoking, obesity and regular consumption of full-strength soda.”

A 25-year research analysis of health data from more than 100,000 nurses published in the New England Journal of Medicine, found an undeniable relationship between obesity and sugar-sweetened foods and drinks versus no weight gain among individuals consuming beverages with artificial sweeteners (stevia was not part of the research data.)

Many experts, including Dr. Willett, believe that liquid calories are more of a problem than solid foods. In the minds of most individuals, liquid calories do not count, so they rarely factor them into their “budget.” A 12-ounce soda is 140 calories – that is roughly the size of an afternoon snack, if you have two or three, you are approaching a whole meal’s worth of calories, but you have done nothing to satisfy your appetite. (Even though Bloomberg’s soda ban is an attempt to get to the heart of this matter, it doesn’t solve the problem – people can get seconds or thirds of those 16-ounce sodas, if they so desire.)

If you are debating your risks – the effects of alternative sweeteners vs. real sugar – the solution is to kick the sweet habit altogether. The safest and most effective diets eliminate processed foods and sugars in favor of natural whole foods. Dr. Willett advised, “… artificially sweetened beverages are much less bad than the full-sugar beverages. I view them like a nicotine patch.”

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One comment

  1. Like a nicotine patch… I love that analogy. better than the cigarette, but still probably not good for you!

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