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Healthy Living Blog

Information and inspiration to help you make a habit out of living healthy.

The Not-So-Sweet Side of Sugar Substitutes

Thursday, November 08, 2018

By , YMCA Registered Dietitian Nutritionist

One regular-sized sweet tea from Chick-fil-A contains nearly 8 teaspoons of added sugar.

To put this into perspective, the recommendation for women and children is to consume 6 teaspoons or less of added sugar per day, while men should strive for no more than 9 teaspoons.

However, it is estimated that a typical American consumes an average of 20 teaspoons of added sugar every day.

Natural vs. added sugar

It is important to clarify the difference between added and naturally occurring sugars. Sugar is naturally found in unsweetened dairy products, fruits, and vegetables. Naturally occurring sugars do not count towards the World Health Organization's recommended intake of sugar.

Foods containing natural sugars tend to digest more slowly, offering the body a steady supply of energy, along with the added nutrient benefits. A high intake of fruits, vegetables, and whole grains has actually been shown to decrease a person’s risk for diabetes, heart disease, and other chronic diseases.

By contrast, added sugar is the sugar we intentionally add to our food and beverages, like granulated and cane sugars, honey, maple syrup, and molasses. It also includes the sugar added in the making of dairy and grain-based desserts, sweetened beverages and dairy products, condiments, candies, and many canned and boxed goods.

These foods are more rapidly digested by the body, leading to a limited feeling of fullness, despite the high caloric intake.

Added sugar negatively affects our body’s energy levels and impacts our brains. Consumption of sugar lights up the reward center in our brain. When we consume too much too often, it continues to be rewarding, putting the brain into overdrive. This can create an addictive effect. Simply put, the more added sugar we eat, the more we desire.

Sneaky substitutes

The use of sugar substitutes appears to be a sound alternative, right? "Get all the sweetness of sugar without the calories!"

The use of sugar substitutes is not a new concept, dating back to 1879 when saccharine was discovered. There are currently eight “high-intensity sweeteners” approved by the United States Food and Drug Administration: saccharin (Sweet n’ Low), aspartame (Equal), acesulfame potassium (Sweet One), sucralose (Splenda), neotame (Newtame), advantame, steviol glycosides (Truvia), and Luo han Guo fruit extracts (Monk Fruit).

Although these sweeteners do not provide the calories sugar does, the fact that they are chemically made and range from 100 to 20,000 times sweeter than sugar should cause alarm.

In the short-term, artificial sweeteners can limit our caloric intake when they are used in substitute of sugar; however, it is still uncertain how the different sweeteners are metabolically processed in the body. This leads to questions regarding their long-term impact on our health.

Some studies suggest that sugar substitutes may actually stimulate appetite and negatively affect gut health, in turn negatively impacting body composition and overall health. In addition, research shows that for some people, eating sugar produces characteristics of craving and withdrawal, along with changing the chemicals in the brain’s reward center.

With sweeteners being hundreds to thousands of times sweeter than sugar, this may explain why sweeteners can promote overeating and cycles of failed “dieting.” 

When it comes to sugar substitutes, Stevia looks to be the better option because it’s a “natural” sweetener, made from the leaves of a plant. Keep in mind, though, that it is highly processed in order to get the powdered form sold in stores.

Be sugar smart

Pause before you opt for a sugar-free “diet” or low-sugar options, which likely contain sugar substitutes. When it comes to sugar, too much too often is our concern.

Instead of focusing on what to replace sugar with, we should focus on reducing the amount of added sugar we are consuming.

Any boxed or packaged item can be a hidden source of sugar. Look at the ingredients and check the label. You’ll quickly find that the amount of sugar added to food is not so "sweet" after all.

Establish healthy habits with the Y

Learn more about hidden sugar and how eat smarter. Plus, get more information on nutrition counseling and wellness support services offered at your center. Let us partner with you in reaching your healthy living goals!

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