By Andrea Falcone
In an age where sugar has a bad rap and people generally go crazy for calorie-free sweeteners, understanding what all of the hype is about will keep you in control of your health and your food choices.
Isolating The Good
Natural sugars, which come from all-natural sources like fruit and honey (fructose), vegetables (some more than others), starches and 100-per cent whole grains (potatoes, corn, pasta, oats, beans, and legumes), and milk and yogurt (lactose), are the best choice and easiest for your body to digest. But can you still have too much of a good thing? Absolutely. At the end of the day, if calories in (from food energy, even natural sources) are greater than calories out (activity, including exercise) there will be a surplus, leading to weight gain.
What’s With All The Hype?
Added sugars and artificial sweeteners are currently wreaking havoc on our food system and our waistlines, but that’s not to say we must avoid them altogether. After all, we know what happens when you tell someone they can’t have something. Let’s set some things straight so that you feel empowered to make the best choices for your health.
First, added sugars can include from anything ending in –ose, even if they come from natural sources. A label for cereal, granola bars, or sweet treats that says “no added sugar” technically does have added sugars if the product includes honey or agave in the ingredients list. It’s up to you to be consumer-savvy and read the ingredient lists of all pre-packaged foods.
Second, artificial sweeteners are just that – artificial. They are chemically processed products designed to bring about a desired outcome – in this case, a product that is 25 to 700 times sweeter than granulated sugar. Artificial sweeteners grab people’s attention because they are calorie-free. Five are approved for use by Health Canada: acesulfame potassium, aspartame (Equal), cyclamate (Sucryl, Sugar Twin, Sweet ‘N Low), saccharin, and sucralose, as well as stevia, a natural low-calorie sweetener. Unfortunately, they all lack long-term data from human studies and most are not recommended for use during pregnancy – that’s reason enough for many people to stay away from them.
These non-caloric artificial sweeteners (NAS) have been available for years, marketed to people wanting to lose weight or those living with diabetes to help control their blood-sugar levels. The research that backed these claims was astounding and quickly embraced when these sweeteners were first introduced. What wasn’t clearly identified, however, was the weakness of the studies; certain variables were not isolated for and the studies were not carried out for long enough periods of time. We are now seeing research showing that people who regularly consume NAS have a history of weight gain and an increased risk of blood sugar problems. Studies are also being done on the effects of these sweeteners on gut and brain health.
Most long-term research looking at artificial sweetener use has been done using rats or mice, showing anything from a higher risk of cancer to weight gain or blood glucose issues. The evidence from human studies is still preliminary, but it’s there.
This is reason enough to query the safety and validity of their daily use.
Putting It Into Perspective
When you consume artificially sweetened foods, your body’s messaging system sends signals telling your brain that it is getting fuel (sugar and energy). When your body then recognizes that it has not received the fuel (since the sweeteners are non-caloric), overconsumption of calories may occur, as your brain demands some real power. By this time, however, your focus may be so unsettled that poor food choices are made, leading to increased calories and ultimately to weight gain.
So, just like everything in our food world these days, there is an overabundance of NAS products. It’s up to you to continue to gain the sound knowledge to help you stay on track and keep you empowered in your food choices.
Andrea Falcone is a private practice dietitian working within Peel, Halton, and the Greater Toronto Area.