Differences Between Sugar and Artificial Sweeteners.
“Like heroin, cocaine and caffeine, sugar is an addictive, destructive drug, yet we consume it daily in everything from cigarettes to bread.” – William Dufty, author of Sugar Blues
Sugar. Such a simple word, yet the mere mention of it can make your head spin. Is it good for you? Is it killing us? What is the real deal with sugar anyway? This article will help to sort out the information once and for all. It may not necessarily be able to provide concrete answers to every question out there, but it WILL give you the facts so that you can arm yourself with knowledge and make educated decisions from here on out.
So, what is sugar anyway? According to Wikipedia, “Sugar is a term for a class of edible crystalline carbohydrates, mainly sucrose, lactose, and fructose characterized by a sweet flavor. In food, sugar almost exclusively refers to sucrose, which primarily comes from sugar cane and sugar beet. Other sugars are used in industrial food preparation, but are usually known by more specific names – glucose, fructose or fruit sugar, high fructose corn syrup, etc.”
It is very important to distinguish between naturally occurring sugar and processed sugar, as the effects of the two can be quite different. Naturally occurring sugar is not something you sprinkle onto your food, it is already in the food. Anything added to food has gone through some form of processing to varying degrees. For easier reading, the term ‘sugar’ in this article is used to mean ‘processed sugar’ (table sugar, brown sugar, etc), anything that might be sprinkled onto food to enhance its’ sweetness. Naturally occurring sugars and artificial sweeteners are referenced clearly.
Naturally occurring sugar can be found in grains, beans, vegetables and fruits and because it has not been processed, still contains a variety of vitamins, minerals, enzymes and proteins. When properly cooked, chewed and digested, the natural sugars in foods are broken down and enter the bloodstream to provide energy. However, once sugar goes through processing (which is the case with refined table sugar) it is stripped of all vitamins, minerals and fiber. As a result, extra effort is required to digest the sugar, and the body must use its own stores in order to break it down, leaving the body depleted of essential nutrients. Rather than providing nutrition, sugar instead causes deficiencies. It is because of this speed at which sugars can be digested, and the resulting depletion of nutrients that leads to the infamous sugar high, followed by the notorious sugar crash.
In truth, sugar can affect ones health in many different ways. As seen in the list below, many are not direct results of the sugar itself, but rather a result of our addiction to sugar. For example, if you drink soda, you will not necessarily become obese right away. In fact, you may not become obese in a year…or even two! However, the sugar in the soda will decrease your body’s ability to recognize when it is full, leading you to eat larger and larger meals. In addition, the sugar in the soda will train your body to crave super sweet foods, leaving you feeling unsatisfied with healthier alternatives. The end result is a lifetime of weight gain and decreased health.
The following list may come as a shock. Sugar has been linked to health issues that would never have been thought to have a dietary connection. Here are some ways in which sugar can affect one’s health. This adapted list comes courtesy of 146 Reasons Why Sugar Is Ruining Your Health by Nancy Appleton, Ph.D.
- Sugar can suppress the immune system.
- Sugar interferes with absorption of calcium and magnesium.
- Sugar can weaken eyesight.
- Sugar can cause hypoglycemia.
- Sugar can cause a rapid rise of adrenaline levels in children.
- Sugar contributes to obesity.
- Sugar can cause arthritis.
- Sugar can cause heart disease and emphysema.
- Sugar can contribute to osteoporosis.
- Sugar can increase cholesterol.
- Sugar can lead to both prostate cancer and ovarian cancer.
- Sugar can contribute to diabetes.
- Sugar can cause cardiovascular disease.
- Sugar can make our skin age by changing the structure of collagen.
- Sugar can produce a significant rise in triglycerides.
- Sugar can increase the body’s fluid retention.
- Sugar can cause headaches, including migraines.
- Sugar can cause depression.
- Sugar can contribute to Alzheimer’s disease.
- In intensive care units, limiting sugar saves lives.
To fully experience the differences between naturally occurring sugars and processed sugars, try the following experiment. It may have to be repeated quite a few times, and possibly attempted again after cleansing the diet of processed sugars so the taste buds can learn to again appreciate the taste of real food. Take a piece of good quality bread, free of any artificial sugar or flavorings. Place it in your mouth and chew. Chew until the bread becomes a liquid and continue chewing. Notice that the bread actually becomes sweet! This is how the digestion of carbohydrates begins…in the mouth from the saliva! If food is not being properly chewed, then the digestion of carbohydrates is interrupted, AND the true flavors of the food that are released in the process do not get to be experienced. Now, do the same with a piece of bread that contains processed and artificial ingredients. You will find that upon chewing the bread as it is supposed to be chewed, the taste that comes out is not that of sweetness, but rather of a chemically cardboard flavor…yummm!
The quote above by William Dufty labels sugar as an addictive substance, placing it in the same category as heroin, cocaine and caffeine. That is quite a statement! Yet, when the qualities that put it there are examined, it becomes much more understandable. Sugar is qualified as an addictive substance for two reasons (and some of you have experienced these effects first hand for sure):
- Eating even a small amount creates a desire for more.
- Suddenly quitting causes withdrawal symptoms such as headaches, mood swings, cravings and fatigue.
Now, some readers may be thinking, “There is no way I could be addicted to sugar! I only put it in my morning coffee, and I only eat dessert sweets on special occasions!” Well, here is where the bad news comes in. On average, Americans consume over 100 pounds of sugar and sweeteners each year! (As opposed to the whopping 8 pounds of broccoli per year.) “I do NOT!” some of you say, but the next sentence is shocking. Sugar is expected to be found in the usual sweets like candy, cakes and cookies. However, today sugar is also added to canned vegetables, baby food, cereals, peanut butter, bread and tomato sauce. It frequently goes incognito under one of its alias’ such as corn syrup, dextrose, maltose, glucose or fructose. *Hint: Any word that ends in -ose is a sugar.
Here are some words that might appear on ingredient labels. They are all forms of sugar.
- Brown sugar
- Confectioner’s sugar or powdered sugar
- Corn syrups
- Dextrose or glucose
- High-fructose corn syrup (HFCS)
- Invert sugar
- Lactose or milk sugar
- Levulose or fructose
- Raw sugar
- Sorbitol, mannitol, malitol and xylitol
- Sucrose or table sugar
- Turbinado sugar
This is not a complete list of all the various names used for sugar, as food manufacturers continue to come up with new names so that the sugar will remain hidden from curious readers.
*I have to veer on a slight tangent here to express my extreme disappointment regarding the commercials you have most likely seen for High-Fructose Corn Syrup (HFCS). These commercials make me so upset because they are so cleverly designed to mislead consumers. The commercial states that HFCS is derived from corn, is fine in moderation, has the same calories as regular sugar and your body cannot even tell the difference. All of these statements may be true, but they conveniently leave out the MOST important information that is the REAL problem! Corn is not the problem (well, for the purposes of this article, it is not the problem.) Calories are not the problem. The problem is two-fold:
- The process by which HFCS is created, makes it foreign to your body. So in some sense, your body does not even recognize it! It views it as a threat, and can exacerbate your autoimmune response to food. HFCS becomes a chemical that actually interferes with your body’s natural processes. For example, it interferes with your hormones that control your “hunger” and “full” signals. Those hormones become jumbled or just ineffective and no longer send the signal that you are full, allowing you to overeat, AND send signals that you are hungry long before your body actually needs fuel.
- The fact that it is put in almost EVERYTHING! Unless you are following the “No Packaging Diet” and buying ALL of your food from the produce section, you are consuming HFCS! Go down the processed food aisle of your grocery store and pick up ANY item. Check the ingredient list and there is a 99% chance that HFCS will be listed in the top 5 ingredients. This is how you get addicted to sugar. HFCS (an extremely addicting substance) is added to an alarmingly large amount of our “food” (and that term is used VERY loosely) so our taste buds become accustomed to the super sweetness AND our body becomes conditioned to getting that sugar “hit” regularly. So not only do we crave food more often, we crave the sweet food because our body wants sugar, and even when we try to eat healthier options, our taste buds are so conditioned to eat chemically altered sweetness, that natural sweetness no longer cuts it! We are just not satisfied.
So, in a warped economically inspired way, HFCS ensures that you eat more food and eat the type of food that will keep you coming back for more. When you look at how many children’s “foods” contain HFCS, it is almost the exact same argument we had when Joe Camel was used to market cigarettes to children. By getting to the consumer even younger, you create a more profitable consumer for life. It is truly saddening. Yet, I digress. Moving on…*
When the public became very aware of calories in their food, and were looking to consume as little calories as possible, they noticed that sugar had a significant amount of calories. In order to continue to manufacture and consume sweet foods, zero-calorie products were created to replace sugar. These products come in the form of artificial sugar substitutes, also known as artificial sweeteners. Since artificial sweeteners are not a naturally occurring food, they must be approved before being added to foods as per the Food Additives Amendment to the Food, Drug and Cosmetic Act (passed by Congress in 1958) which requires the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to approve all food additives, like artificial sweeteners, before approval for sale in the US.
The FDA has currently approved of five artificial sweeteners:
- Aspartame,sold under the brand names NutraSweet and Equal
- Saccharin,sold under the brand name Sweet’N Low
- Sucralose, sold under the brand name Splenda
- Acesulfame K (or acesulfame potassium), produced by Hoechst, a German chemical company; widely used in foods, beverages and pharmaceutical products around the world.
- Neotame, produced by the NutraSweet Company; the most recent addition to FDA’s list of approved artificial sweeteners, neotame is used in diet soft drinks and low-calorie foods.
The National Cancer Institute (NCI) cannot claim a definitive link between artificial sweeteners approved by the FDA and the risk of cancer, leukemia, brain tumors and other adverse side effects in humans. However, numerous studies have found direct links between the consumption of artificial sweeteners and cancers, leukemia, brain tumors, etc in laboratory rats. Due to these studies, the Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI) advises everyone to avoid aspartame, saccharin and acesulfame K because they are “unsafe in amounts consumed or is very poorly tested and not worth any risk.” Please refer to CSPINet.org for the full list of foods to cut back on and avoid completely.
Aspartame, however, is of further concern as it is composed of three chemicals: phenylalanine (50%), aspartic acid (40%) and methanol (10%). These chemicals are all known to be dangerous neurotoxins. Below is a list of symptoms that have been linked with aspartame consumption:
- Hearing loss
- Blurred vision
- Memory loss
- Personality changes
- Anxiety attacks
- Edema or swelling
- Skin lesions
- Chest pain
- Eye problems
- Slurred speech
- Violent episodes
- Gastrointestinal disorders
- Muscle cramps
- Increased appetite
- Mild to suicidal depression
- Mood changes
- Heart arrhythmia
- Joint pains
- Menstrual irregularities
- Numbness and tingling of extremities
All of these symptoms significantly improve upon discontinuing the consumption of aspartame. Dr. Mercola has much more information on the composition of aspartame and its components at Mercola.com.
Now, before your dreams of ever eating something sweet again are completely crushed, do not despair! Here is the GREAT news! There ARE, in fact, sweeteners out there that are not as damaging to the body and blood sugar levels. Just to clarify, they are still a type of sugar and have to go through some form of processing. Therefore, even natural sweeteners should be consumed in moderation. Yet, since many still have fiber, vitamins and minerals in tact, they are a better choice than any processed or artificial sweetener.
Here is a list of more natural sweeteners. If you have never tried, or even heard of, any of these, expand your taste buds and give some a shot. You will be shocked at how delicious they are and how easily you can make the switch!
- Agave Nectar
- Barley Malt
- Birch Sugar
- Birch Syrup
- Brown Rice Syrup
- Date Sugar
- Maple Syrup
- Maple Sugar
- Vegetable Glycerin
Now that you are armed with knowledge, one very important thing to remember is that the body craves balance. Completely stripping your life of sugar and all situations where you may come face to face with sugar can end up being more stressful, and therefore damaging, then creating a healthy relationship with sugar.
If there were one thing to take away from this article, it would be that the sugar you are aware of in your diet is not necessarily the culprit. You are aware of how many cookies, and how many slices of cake you eat. It is the sugar that sneaks into your diet, hidden in the form of beverages (soda, and…*gulp*…Starbucks!), peanut butter, pasta sauce, yogurt, and all of those “zero-calorie” energy drinks! If you ween yourself off of these sugar-laden products, you will see a significant difference in the type of foods that you crave. In addition, you will start to appreciate the taste of real food, grown by our very own Mother Nature.
So in the sugar debate, you have three choices:
- Naturally occurring sugars – fruits, grains, sweet vegetables (I include raw honey in this category).
- Processed sugar – table sugar, brown sugar, etc.
- Artificial sweeteners – NutraSweet, Equal, Sweet’N Low, Splenda, etc.
Even though the studies on artificial sweeteners do not concretely link them to dangerous symptoms, they are still a chemically derived substance. Humans are not meant to consume chemicals. The human body is very complex and to find a connection between an artificial sweetener and a symptom is very difficult to prove. There are so many other factors that can come into play, such as stress, overall diet, and physical activity level, that those conducting the studies cannot say that the artificial sweetener is the sole cause. However, if you simply look at what these products are made of and all the possible side effects, that is enough of a reason to avoid them at all costs. Processed sugar may not pose the serious threats that artificial substitutes do, but it may still come with its own side-effects. Avoid processed sugar as much as possible, but try to avoid isolating yourself in doing so. Lastly, naturally occurring sugars are your best choice. Not only will they have the least side effects, but they also will save you money in the long run: less doctors visits, and lower grocery bills because you simply will not eat as much food when you start incorporating real, whole foods into your diet. Sweet foods that contain naturally occurring sugar will help to lessen your overall sugar cravings. These foods also contain vitamins, minerals, enzymes and fiber that help the body in the assimilation of sugar. However, even here the rule of “everything in moderation” still applies. Too much of a good thing is no longer a good thing!
Overall, think of your need for sugar as a craving for sweetness in your life. Your body craves balance and needs love, humor and rest just as much as stability, focus and activity. If you live a stressful, busy life, make a point to add more sweetness (maybe in the form of hugs and kisses) to your life, and you may end up not needing any sugar at all!