Our desire for sweets is built in. Mothers’ milk contains twice as much milk sugar as cows’ milk, and, for that reason, all infant formulas are sweetened. Given that glucose (“blood sugar”) is brain food and that sweet milk is an infant’s sole nourishment, it follows that humans learn a deep predilection for sweets.
Surprisingly, we don’t need sugary foods to feed our nervous system. In fact, carbohydrates supply only 20 percent of our energy. This small need is easily met simply by eating vegetables. Fat is the body’s main fuel.
In spite of this, within the last 300 years, the amount of sweeteners eaten by the average American has increased by 4000 percent! In the 1700s, sugar consumption was 4 pounds per year. Now it is over 100 pounds per year per person — approximately one-fifth of our total calorie intake. A combination of price, prevalence, and our predilection for sweets has made this possible.
In this article from Nutrition News, we discuss “non-nutritive” sweeteners, many found at your local natural product store. We believe the majority of our readers are savvy about health and have learned the dangers of both high fructose corn syrup (HFCS) and chemical non-nutritive sugar replacements.1
However, revelatory information has recently come to light about both the high and low ends of sweetening choices: honey and “fake sugar”.
We discuss new findings about fake sugars. As always, we encourage you to play The “Is It Healthy?” Game to support your desire to make informed choices. The glycemic index is included for each sweetener discussed. The rating system for the glycemic index (GI) used here is based on glucose at 100 points.
Scores are as follows: High – above 70; Medium – 56 to 69; Low – 55 and below. All GI information provided by www.sugar-and-sweetener-guide.com/glycemic-index.html.
What Are Non-Nutritive Sweeteners?
As stated, these are sweeteners with little or no nutritional value. “Low calorie sweetener” is the euphemism for synthetic chemical sweeteners. (See “Fake Sugars”.) Reduced calorie sweeteners are known as polyols. At this time, stevia and lo han fruit (monk fruit) are the only “natural” low cal sweeteners on the market. Brazzein, a protein– based sweetener, continues to wait in the wings.
• Stevia (Stevia redaudiana) is an intensely sweet herb from South America. With a tale to tell, stevia has finally become the preeminent natural 0-calorie sweetener. The leaf is 30 times sweeter than sugar but when processed, it is 70–400 times sweeter. The vast majority of health benefits reported from research and consumer experience involve daily use of truly natural stevia concentrate.
• Lo han fruit extract (Siraitia grosvenori, sometimes called monk fruit) grows in China and is up to 300 times sweeter than sugar. Available as a pleasant tasting powder, Wikipedia reports that it is not tasty off the vine but must undergo extensive processing to become palatable. It is pricier and more highly processed that stevia concentrate.
Be that as it may, the makers of Splenda have taken on monk fruit as their entry into the “natural” low calorie sweetener market. In this case, the fruit is reproduced using bacteria and then combined with erythritol and molasses. (Again, see “Fake Sugars”)
“The artificial sweeteners that are widely seen as a way to combat obesity and diabetes could, in part, be contributing to the global epidemic of these conditions,” writes Alison Abbott on Nature.com, commenting on a study published by Nature in September 2014.
A team led by Eran Elinav of the Weizmann Institute fed mice various sweeteners – saccharin, sucralose and aspartame. After 11 weeks, the animals displayed glucose intolerance, a marker of propensity for metabolic disorders, including obesity and diabetes.
This is the first study to suggest a connection between artificial sweeteners and these conditions. Most interesting is the further connection between the sweeteners and an upset in the diverse community of bacteria that work in our intestines (microbiome).
Elinav’s team then used data from an on-going clinical nutrition study with 380 participants. The researchers found a correlation between clinical signs of metabolic disorder – such as increasing weight or decreasing efficiency of glucose metabolism – and the ingestion of artificial sweeteners.
Curious to know what would happen if lean healthy people used fake sugars, the team gave seven volunteers daily doses of artificial sweeteners for a week. As a result, four became glucose intolerant. Further, there was a shift in their intestinal bacteria toward a balance known to be related to metabolic diseases. (The other three participants seemed resistant.)
Speaking to the unexpected relationship among the fake sweeteners and the altered microbiome, Martin Blaser, a microbiologist at NYU, commented that understanding how the fakes affect intestinal bacteria might engender new approaches to metabolic disease.
Okay people, here’s my comment: “You really can’t fool Mother Nature!”
1 These compounds are Acesulfame K (Sunette), Aspartame (Equal or Nutrasweet), Neotame (aspartame without the phenylalanine), Splenda (a combination of sucralose and maltodextrin with a glycemic index of 80:100, nearly as high as glucose at 100), and saccharin (in use since 1979, most commonly sold as Sweet’N’Low).
Siri Khalsa, Editor Nutrition News www.NutritionNews.com