Fake Sweetness…What’s that About?

One of the many pleasures I get to delight in regularly as a dietitian is fielding mass amounts of off the wall questions. It’s part of the gig and I expect it, but it really makes me wonder what people read in their spare time these days.

“Does glucagon release estrogen? And if not, how much soy can a male roughly 205 lbs process without resulting in man boobs?” or “How many grams of protein should I consume each hour if I want to weigh 132kg by 2018?”

Ok, maybe that’s a slight exaggeration…but I do get some real doozies. And while I get a good chuckle and think to myself “Are these people for serious?”  I do have to provide them a legitimate answer to put their mind at ease. One of the biggest culprits in this headache inducing game of ongoing questions is sugar…including sugar substitutes, artificial sweeteners, natural sweeteners, etc.  Namely, how do they affect our bodies? Or our minds? Do they give us cancer? Do they make us fat? Or worse, will we die from drinking diet soda? Honestly, I don’t blame those that wonder these things. Between what is read in magazines, seen on tv, and published in scientific books of fact it’s hard to know what is fact and what is fiction. So let me break this sugar thing down for you real* RD, Kenzie style…

I once read a statistic like “American’s eat about 70% of their body weight in sugar annually”…so for me, that’s about 100#. That’s pretty disgusting.  But it’s because sugar is in damn near everything we eat, whether we know it or not. NOTE: some sugar is good for us and necessary. Sugar containing foods in natural from, like fruit, are nutrient dense, high in fiber and a great source of carbohydrate, when we need it. But refined, concentrated sugars (cakes, cookies, soda, candy, etc) consumed in large amounts lead to nothing good. So how do we side step this issue?

We work food science magic! Enter sugar substitutes, a food additive that duplicates the effect of sugar in taste but has zero calories. Also known as aspartame, sucralose, or saccharin. Great news, they are also approved as safe by the FDA! WINNING!.. Right?

Well, believe it or not, it’s not just about what the food label reads. Just because something has ZERO calories doesn’t mean it has ZERO effect on us. How the human brain and body respond to these sweeteners is very complex.

The reward center of our brain directs food cravings. Studies have revealed that compared to high fat foods, sugar has a more pronounced effect on the reward center, meaning, the more sugar you eat the more you want. This causes us to crave sweets and choose sweet, sugary foods, which as we know, causes weight gain. Some animal studies even suggest these sweeteners are addictive (but that was in rats…rats aren’t people.)

These sorts of sweeteners are far more potent than table sugar. A tiny amount produces a big sugary taste. Over stimulation of sugar receptors from frequent use of these hyper-sweeteners may limit tolerance for less intense flavors. Meaning, people who routinely use artificial sweeteners may start to find less intensely sweet foods, like fruit, less appealing and unsweet foods, like vegetables, downright nasty. To me, this is a bigger problem than the claims about disease and what not.

Yes, there are studies that support artificial sweetener use leading to an array of conditions ranging from headache and rashes, to seizures, to tumors and cancer. The thing is, experiments vary in test subject, high doses, sample sizes, and inconsistent outcomes. It not enough to PROVE these things are GOING to happen to you if you max out on diet soda daily. So don’t freak out.

So here is what I conclude: Too much of ANYTHING is bad. It’s more so the habitual consumption of the product than the actual product itself that is going to cause the said problem. So, if you are consuming in moderation, why even mess with these chemically engineered sugar wannabes? Take it from a girl who loooves her some chocolaty baked goods…as long as it’s in moderation, go for the good stuff. Go big or go home! And for people use “natural sweeteners” like it doesn’t count or something…whatever helps you sleep at night.  Honey, stevia, and agave all have calories, guys. It’s all causing the same insulin response in your brain, you’re just paying more for it.

Eat real* food more than sugar laden junk or artificially sweetened garbage.  Oh, and people aren’t animals…so don’t let science-y research scare you with their “facts.”

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