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Sugar and Artificial Sweeteners: the Low-Down

Written by Lisa Brown, MS, RD, CDN & Jennifer Medina, MS, RD, CDE, CDN.

Sugar is everywhere in the American diet. Though it can take different forms and be called different names, most people inevitably consume far more sugar than they realize.

While a certain amount of sugar (and we’re not talking table sugar) is necessary for good health—it is the preferred fuel for the body and certain vital organs, including parts of the brain which require sugar in the form of glucose to run—most of us consume far more refined sugar than we need. Whether it is in the form of soft drinks or processed snack foods, these added sugars, especially High Fructose Corn Syrup, are believed to be a major contributor to the obesity epidemic and related health concerns such as Diabetes and elevated Triglycerides.

Even for the savvy consumer, it can be a challenge to recognize the added sugars in your foods and beverages because sugar has many aliases: dextrose, maltodextrin, and maltose to name just a few. Adding to the confusion is the large number of artificial sweeteners on the market. These are not only found in pastel-colored packets, but also hidden in a wide variety of foods and beverages.

Knowing the basics helps you make smarter choices!

Table Sugar (Sucrose):

What we commonly think of us sugar (table sugar) is actually sucrose, a simple sugar that breaks down to glucose in the body and is quickly absorbed into the blood stream. White sugar has been refined to alter its texture and color, while raw sugar, favored by natural foodies, is less processed so it retains its brown and chunkier appearance. Besides the degree of processing, their sweetness factor, caloric content, and effect on the body are the same. At 15 calories per teaspoon, unless you are diabetic, there is nothing wrong with adding a packet of regular or raw sugar to your coffee or tea, or to add flavor to plain yogurt or oatmeal. The problem is that most of us use much more than one teaspoon.

Agave:

Agave is a natural sweetener that has experienced a recent gain in popularity in the US.  Agave does have calories, however it has been shown to cause less of a spike in blood sugar than traditional sucrose. Agave is a nectar or syrup with a consistency similar to honey, but several times sweeter. It comes from agave plants in Mexico and South Africa, where it has been used as a sweetener for years.  Like table sugar, agave contains the simple sugars fructose and glucose, but because of its higher proportion of fructose, it ranks lower on the Glycemic Index. Agave’s effect on blood sugar is comparable to fructose, the sugar found naturally in fruit. For individuals with insulin insensitivity, agave may be preferable to sucrose, but diabetics and calorie-counters must still exercise caution.

High-Fructose Corn Syrup:

Of all the forms of sugar, high fructose corn syrup (HFCS) is undoubtedly the most controversial. It is ubiquitous in the U.S. food supply in large part because government agricultural subsidies make it is so inexpensive to produce. Most commercially produced sweetened beverages and snack foods are now made with HFCS, which is basically sugar that has been treated with enzymes to convert naturally occurring glucose to fructose, enhancing sweetness. Critics of HFCS blame its extensive use by the food industry for rising obesity-related health problems, arguing that it alters normal appetite and causes people to overeat. But independent clinical studies (not just those sponsored by the corn industry) have found no evidence supporting these claims, and the FDA has deemed HFCS safe since the 1970s. HFCS is generally found in nutrient-poor, energy-dense food choices. Most consumers would be wise to avoid it or at least consume it only in moderation.

Non-Nutritive/Zero-Calorie Sweeteners:

Non-nutritive sweeteners have been a favorite among diabetics and dieters for decades. Unlike regular sugar, our bodies can’t break them down, so we don’t derive any calories from them and they do not cause a rise in blood sugar. Often referred to as “artificial sweeteners,” these substances have indeed been artificially created to provide a sweet taste without raising blood glucose or adding calories to the diet. Thus, they have a role in weight control and diabetes management. Non-nutritive sweeteners can be found in the familiar pastel-colored packets as well as in diet drinks and foods. The most common non-nutritive sweeteners on the market today include aspartame, saccharine and sucralose. Candies and snack foods labeled “sugar-free” usually contain one of these substances. Despite claims to the contrary, the FDA has deemed these sweeteners safe when used in appropriate amounts (and the upper limit for safe consumption is far higher than any individual would consume under normal circumstances).

Aspartame is commonly packaged as Equal or NutraSweet and comes in a light blue packet.

Saccharin, commonly known as Sweet ‘N Low and packaged in pink packets, is several hundred times sweeter than sucrose.

Sucralose is one of the newer non-nutritive sweeteners on the market. Commonly branded as Splenda and found in yellow packets.

Stevia: Those looking for a sweetener that is both calorie-free and natural may see Stevia as their best option. 

The take-home message from all of this is that added sugars, whether calorie-containing or not, are okay in moderation, but their ubiquity in the U.S. food supply makes it challenging to actually adhere to this recommendation. The best advice is to limit your intake of added sweeteners and learn to love the natural sweetness of fruits and vegetables, which, unlike their processed counterparts, also contain a host of essential vitamins and minerals to enhance your overall health.

Lisa Brown, MS, RD, CDN & Jennifer Medina, MS, RD, CDE, CDN
Lisa Brown, MS, RD, CDN & Jennifer Medina, MS, RD, CDE, CDN

Lisa Brown MS, RD, CDN Lisa Brown has over 15 years experience in nutrition counseling. Prior to forming Brown & Medina Nutrition, Lisa was a senior dietitian at Joy Bauer Nutrition in NYC.  Lisa treats a variety of nutritional concerns including nutrition for the whole family, nutritional therapy for those of all ages suffering with anor.. Read more

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