By GLYNIS VALENTI
Times Leader Staff Writer
Pink stuff, blue stuff, yellow stuff. The packets are on every restaurant table in the country. Americans are addicted to "sweet," and when doctors saw this coming 50 years ago, researchers got busy looking for the perfect substitute for high calorie sugars, bringing the food industry sweet taste sensations for new generations of women watching their waistlines and diabetics watching their insulin levels. Since most come as white powders, are all artificial sweeteners the same? No, and none of them are good for you, either, but there are a couple of alternatives.
One diet soda per day may not bring adverse health effects, but using
artificial sweeteners in tea, coffee and lemonade and eating a steady intake of “no calorie,” “sugar free” and “low calorie” foods could create health issues from headaches to leukemia.
Lately the news has spotlighted the issue of weight gain among diet soda drinkers. How can this be when an average can of regular carbonated soda contains the equivalent of ten teaspoons of sugar, 150 calories and 15 percent of one's recommended daily sugar intake?
Studies are showing two scenarios associated with this phenomenon. First, everyone has ordered a burger, fries and diet pop-originally the reasoning being that the zero calorie drink will balance the rest of the order. Time has shown this isn't so. Restaurants began increasing portion sizes ("super size me,") and people, conversely, began spending more time in cars, on the computer and in front of the television. Three Diet Cokes, even super-sized, will not combat the effects of three Big Macs and fries. There is no magic powder in a packet. It's still a matter of calories taken in versus calories expended. As an aside, McDonald's Sweet Tea is not the healthy choice at 150 calories and 36 grams of sugar (9 teaspoons.) Ordering the large unsweetened Iced Tea and adding three packets of regular sugar will save your body 100 calories, 24 grams of sugar and all of the chemicals found in diet soda.
Second, the ways the artificial sweeteners react during digestion can also affect weight gain or loss. The sweeteners seem to trick the brain into getting the body ready to take in energy. But there isn't any energy-just a sweet taste and some caffeine. Unsatisfied, the body will process what it has and send out signals that it's still looking for that energy in the form of hunger or a carb craving. One study showed that people using artificial sweeteners actually took in three times the calories of the group who didn't use them. Another researcher at the University of Texas was surprised to find that their group drinking diet sodas had a higher risk of obesity than the group drinking regular sodas. That risk increased by 41 percent with each additional can per day.
There is also an expectation of zero calories when one drinks a diet pop, but this isn't always the case. Granted the calorie count is low in Diet Mountain Dew (10 calories,) Amp Energy Sugar Free (15,) Lipton Diet Green Tea (5) and Diet Sprite (6,) but if a strict calorie regimen is your thing, be aware that many diet drinks containing citrus flavors may contain those few calories from the juices.
Sugars (saccharides) are natural carbohydrates, which are known to provide fuel for the body's metabolism. They aren't necessary, however, for fueling the body. Proteins and fats are metabolized as well. Over the centuries humans have developed a "sweet tooth" because, of course, the taste of honey, molasses, maple syrup and sugar cane is enjoyable. During the last 50 years, with the choices of fast foods over home cooking, carbonated beverages and mass-produced packaged foods and candy, the coy "sweet tooth" has become epidemic, as have all of the health issues created by sugar and calorie overload.
Researchers began working on replacement sweeteners that would give people the sweet taste they'd begun to crave without the calories that would make them fat. By definition, artificial sweeteners are man-made, not natural, pretending to be something they aren't. Problems arise when the body tries to break down some of these pseudo-sugars, and the results are not the same (the creation of glucose) as with natural sugars.
Saccharin was the first artificial sweetener to hit the mass market and used to come with a warning label. It is 300 times sweeter than sugar with no calories and has been found to cause bladder cancer in rats. That being said, it is considered by many to be the least harmful of the artificial sweeteners because of the least number of side effects, and it has been around for over 40 years. Commercially, it is sold as Sweet 'n Low and Sugar Twin and is found in Tab diet cola.
Aspartame, known as NutraSweet, is a low-calorie sweetener 200 times sweeter than sugar. After its FDA approval in 1974, it replaced saccharin in almost everything, most noticeably in diet sodas. It has also had the most number of complaints of any food additive on the market along with the most severe poisonings. Of the five sweeteners listed on Coca-Cola's website, it is the only one with which they include a warning. Aspartame breaks down into phenylalanine, an amino acid that can have adverse affects on people suffering from phenylketonuria. What Coke's website doesn't tell consumers is that Aspartame's other side effects include headaches, migraines, dizziness, memory loss, skin rashes, nervousness, panic attacks and nausea. Doctors and researchers have also found links between Aspartame and lupus, lymphoma, manic/depression, fibromyalgia, brain tumors, MS and male infertility.
The FDA is also aware of European studies showing accumulations of formaldehyde in the brain caused by Aspartame use, but says the amount of formaldehyde created in normal use is low. One would think any formaldehyde in one's brain would be cause for concern considering the potential damage to the central nervous system and immune system. Coke and Pepsi use Aspartame in virtually all of their carbonated diet drinks and some of their non-carbonated drinks. Besides NutraSweet, the brand name product Equal is Aspartame.
Sucralose, or Splenda, has been taking food products by storm without any long term studies completed or studies completed by independent researchers outside of the food industry and manufacturer. This is a product literally stumbled upon by British scientists developing new pesticides. While the food industry and the FDA maintain that it's "natural" because it's made with sucrose, some of the components have been replaced synthetically with chlorine atoms. The body doesn't recognize this as food, but tries to eliminate unrecognized substances through digestion (breaking them down.) At some point the chlorine may affect the flora and chemical balance in the gut trying to perform digestion. To date, the Sucralose Toxicity Information Center has received complaints about skin rashes, agitation, numbness, dizziness, headaches, intestinal cramping, stomach pain, muscle aches, diarrhea, swelling and bladder issues. High dosage tests on rats by the manufacturer showed shrunken thymus glands, enlarged livers and kidney disorders.
One diet drink per day will most likely not create the problems noted here. However, with more foods including artificial sweeteners the body could be exposed to far greater quantities. Eating a steady diet of low-calorie foods like yogurts, cereals, cookies, salad dressings and frozen foods could present other problems besides weight gain. Do read labels to see how much "artificial" material your body is getting.
Try to eat fresh foods whenever possible. If you have an afternoon sugar craving, reach for a peach and hold off on the Special K bar. Artificial sweeteners and diet drinks have no nutritional value whatsoever-none.
Some food manufacturers are moving toward healthier alternatives. Look for low or no-cal natural sweeteners like stevia or xylitol, or go back to sweetening foods with honey, agave nectar or turbinado sugar (Sugar in the Raw.) Diabetics should avoid sugars entirely, but for the average person, working off a few natural sugar calories will be far more beneficial than trying to digest chlorine on a regular basis. It may also help you see just how dependent you have become on sugar. As a guideline, the Food and Agriculture Organization and World Health Organization recommend that sugars be only 10 percent of the diet, with an overall goal of 55 to 75 percent of energy from carbohydrates (whole grains, vegetables) based on obesity and heart disease statistics.
The food industry is not looking out for your health. It is looking out for its profits. America is addicted to sugar, and they will enable that addiction even as it makes Americans sick. If you are regularly ingesting some of these food items, you should know what you are drinking and eating. With all of the information (not just what the manufacturer and FDA say,) as a consumer, the choices about what to put in your body are yours.