Barb Goshorn, RN
With the growing obesity epidemic many people are turning to artificial sweeteners to help decrease calories and lose weight, but are they a good substitute? There’s mounting evidence that “diet” sweeteners not only contribute to weight GAIN but they also come with a myriad of potential health concerns. According to a study from the University Of Texas Health Sciences Center Division Of Epidemiology those who consume diet drinks regularly have a 200 percent increased risk of weight gain, a 36 percent risk of pre-diabetes or metabolic syndrome, and a 67 percent increased risk of diabetes. These statistics are alarming because since the 1960’s diet drink consumption has increased 400 percent.
Research from Purdue University, Investigative Behavior Center, and published in a recent issue of Behavioral Neuroscience suggests that artificial sweeteners actually contribute to OVEREATING. In this study, one group of rats was fed yogurt sweetened with glucose while the other group was fed yogurt sweetened with saccharin. The rest of their diet remained the same. The rats that had the saccharin sweetened water put on more weight, and gained more body fat than the rats that were fed the glucose water. Although the study was done with saccharin, the authors stated they believed aspartame, sucralose, and acesfulame K would have had similar results.
Results published in the June 2010 issue of the Yale Journal of Biology and Medicine concluded that rather than helping with weight loss, artificial sweeteners actually appear to cause weight gain. The researchers determined that artificial sweeteners heightened the motivation to eat more while also increasing appetite.
Metabolic Syndrome is considered one of the fastest growing health epidemics in America today, with almost 2/3 of Americans at risk. A symptom of metabolic syndrome is the development of a “spare tire” around the abdomen. The April 2009 issue of Diabetes Care found that the daily consumption of diet soda significantly increased the risk of developing a large waist circumference thus increasing the risk for metabolic syndrome.
A widely used artificial sweetener in soft drinks, gums, gelatins, and dessert mixes is aspartame which is 180 times sweeter than sugar. This artificial sweetener is a combination of the two amino acids, phenylalanine and aspartic acid plus methanol (wood alcohol). Phenylalanine and aspartic acid are not harmful when eaten in natural, unprocessed food. But when they are chemically manipulated problems can potentially occur. Side effects such as headaches, mental confusion, dizziness and seizures have been reported after consuming aspartame.
Another type of artificial sweetener is the sugar alcohols. These include xylitol, sorbitol, and mannitol. Sugar alcohols are not calorie free but contain approximately 2.6 calories per gram. A problem often seen with sugar alcohols are they can cause bloating, abdominal pain, and diarrhea. Sugar alcohols are often an ingredient in protein bars, ice cream, gum, and even tooth paste.
Another artificial sweetener is sucralose or Splenda. Sucralose is unrecognized as a food by the body and therefore goes through the gut largely undigested. It is therefore considered “calorie free”. Is sucralose safe? The truth is there are no long-term studies of the side effects of sucralose in humans. The manufacturer’s own short-term studies showed that very high doses of sucralose (far beyond what would be expected in an ordinary diet) caused shrunken thymus glands, enlarged livers, and kidney disorders in rodents. A more recent study also shows that sucralose significantly decreases beneficial gut flora. In the 11 years sucralose has been on the market no INDEPENDENT (not paid for by the manufacturer) studies have been done on humans. Of the trials that were done, all were small and for very short periods of time. Remember saccharin and aspartame were once touted as the perfect sugar substitutes too!
So if you are looking for a way to add some sweetness without adding sugar or artificial sweeteners what can you use? One option may be stevia. Stevia is a relative of herbs and shrubs in the sunflower family from Paraguay and Brazil and is approximately 200-300 times sweeter than sugar. Stevia’s sweetness actually comes from the leaves of the plant. Another positive aspect of stevia is it does not raise the glucose levels. Other natural alternatives include: agave nectar, date sugar, and honey.