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Sugar Substitutes Weigh In

The good, the bad and the ugly.

Written by Rebekah McClure

As humans, sometimes we just want it all: the home without the debt, the weight-loss without the work, the bread without the baking. Ever since the health food revolution of the 60s, the trend has been to want the sweet without the sugar: the taste of sugar without the calories and health drawbacks of sugar.

Enter sugar substitutes. As far back as the ancient Romans, who derived a sweet, sticky substance from lead (yikes!) and called it "sugar of lead," humans have been trying to bypass sugar. And for good reason. Excessive sugar intake can depress the immune system, cause tooth decay, contribute to diabetes, and foster a host of other maladies. Sugar substitutes seemingly offer the best of both worlds.

The key word there is seemingly. The year 2010 marks around 50 years since the explosion of sugar substitute availability - finally enough time to study long-term health effects of many of the substitutes that have been surrounded by controversy and confusion. While some have been found to be downright dangerous, others have proven benign and others have even shown health benefits. Healthy Utah reports the bittersweet results.

The Good

No surprise here: each and every one of the sugar substitutes in this category is found in nature. Even better, you can bake and cook with all of them - a rare convenience in artificial sweeteners. Not heavily refined and not chemically altered, these substitutes are the ones that will satisfy the sweet tooth and the health nut in you.

Xylitol | Sugar Alcohol

Although the name is a bit freaky, Xylitol is nothing but wholesome. Found naturally in the fibers of many fruits and vegetables, this sugar substitute is frequently used as a sweetener in chewing gums, toothpastes, and pharmaceutical products. Just as all sugar alcohols, however, Xylitol can result in minor temporary bloating and diarrhea, but adaptation occurs with regular intake.

Stevia | Herbal Sweetener

This sweet, leafy plant has been used around the world for centuries and has recently shown promise in treating obesity and hypertension. Though it has had somewhat of a rocky past, the sweet health benefits are now widely known. Virtually calorie-free and almost 300 times sweeter than sugar, the one and only drawback is the somewhat bitter taste if used in excess.

Agave | Nectar

Derived straight from the agave plant in Mexico, this substitute dissolves quickly and tastes delicious. It is often used by vegans to replace honey, as no animals were used in its production. Agave is almost a one to one ratio with sugar, so it is easy to use. Though it has about the same amount of calories as honey, stevia has negligible effects of blood-glucose levels and is considered far healthier.

The Bad

This is the category that is in the middle of "healthy" and "dangerous." Though these artificial sweeteners have yet to be proven conclusively harmful, anecdotal evidence suggests possible negative effects. When it comes down to it, though, it's just not worth the risk.

Saccharin | Sweet 'N Low

Aside from sugar of lead, saccharin was the first artificial sweetener, discovered in a lab by accident in 1879. Fear about saccharin arose in 1960, when a study showed that high levels of saccharin may cause bladder cancer in laboratory rats. It was banned in many countries, and in the United States it was required to have a warning label. Recently, it was found that saccharin causes cancer in male rats by a mechanism not found in humans and is thus safe for human consumption. However, many countries still ban it.

Sucralose | Splenda

Most of the controversy surrounding Splenda, a sucralose sweetener, is focused not on safety, but on its marketing. Splenda was recently sued for its slogan, "Made from sugar so it tastes like sugar." The dispute was that Splenda was too artificial to claim any sort of natural connection with sugar, and both the sugar industry and the other brands of artificial sweeteners were infuriated. The lawsuit was settled and Splenda has changed its slogan to "It's made from sugar. It tastes like sugar. But it's not sugar." The only real health threat that sucralose has shown to pose is possible weight gain and less nutrient absorption.

The Ugly

Only one popular artificial sweetener falls into this category. You'll be shocked to find out why.

Aspartame | (Equal, NutraSweet)

Aspartame is an artificial sweetener that is 100-150 times sweeter than sugar and is tempting due to its low caloric value. But don't be fooled. It wasn't until 1996 that the FDA approved aspartame as safe for human consumption. But as recently as 2009, the Cancer Prevention Coalition has called on the FDA to put a strict ban on the sweetener, as studies have shown that it causes cancer in lab rats. Along with cancer, it has also been shown to cause or worsen such chronic illnesses as epilepsy, arthritis, diabetes, attention deficit disorder, and even Alzheimer's and Parkinson's disease. Clearly, aspartame is a poison. Check labels on soft drinks, chewable vitamin supplements, breath mints, and any "sugar free" food.

Article Reviewed: July 18, 2012
Copyright © 2014 Healthy Magazine

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