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The great debate: real vs. fake sugar

By Gabby Katz

Section: Arts

October 22, 2010

It almost seems too good to be true: fat-free ice cream, sugar-free cakes, low sugar cookies. Honestly, could you have ever dreamed of a more delicious way to eat guilt-free desserts? Finally the opportunity to over-indulge, tricking our tongues into thinking we’re consuming something delicious, all without needing to be calorie conscious.

Yes, I love America and all our modified foods. You know what they say, the more synthetic, the more delicious! Well … maybe we should take a step back and think about this. If we are, in a broad sense, only made of organic materials, could it really be safe to consume inorganic or synthetically derived materials? I know what you are thinking: “But it keeps me skinny, why should I care?” But, in reality, you actually may be making yourself fatter or worse-off health-wise. Therefore, I’m going to help you go through the pros and cons of fake sugar to see the truth behind this yummy trend and determine what is really best for your body.

According to the Mayo Clinic, we consume two main types of sweeteners in most of our foods today; nutritive and non-nutritive. Nutritive sweeteners taste sweet and contain a caloric value of energy that can come from natural sugars like glucose, fructose or sucrose. Sugar in moderation is converted into Adenosine Triphosphate (ATP) and used to fuel the majority of the cells in our bodies. One teaspoon of sugar is only about 15 calories. Examples of nutritive sweeteners include white sugar, brown sugar, molasses, honey, high-fructose corn syrup, etc. Excess consumption of these sweeteners are usually associated with higher insulin levels in the blood, cavities in the teeth and conversion to fatty acids via the liver.

A recent study by the Centers for Disease Control indicated that the average person consumes 21.4 teaspoons of sugar a day, although it is recommended to consume 6.5 teaspoons for women and 9.5 teaspoons for men. With the rise in obesity and diabetes being linked to these startling statistics, people have been searching for an alternative while still allowing indulgence. Thus we arrive at artificial sweeteners.

Non-nutritive sugar substitutes generally have no caloric value and can sweeten just by using small amounts because they taste 200 to 8,000 times sweeter than sweet sugar. Examples of these include saccharin, aspartame, sucralose, acesulfame, potassium and neotame. Though these sweeteners no longer carry the calories or volume like regular sugars, they too come with their own set of even scarier cons. In more than 10 studies from 1960 to 2000, scientists determined that saccharine (found in Sweet ’n Low) could be linked to bladder cancer, though this research is controversial. The aspartame (in NutraSweet, Equal, Diet Coke, Yoplait Light Yogurt, etc.) has been attributed to more than 75 percent of food additive-related complaints reported to the United States Food and Drug Administration, including symptoms like seizures, insomnia, weight gain, memory loss, joint pain, etc.

Also, through a personal study of five Brandeis women with sugar-free Prospect yogurt, sugar-free Jello and sugar-free cake, non-nutritive sweeteners seem to have a rather gassy effect, most likely due to the way the body metabolizes them. With every negative study, there is a study proving that these sweeteners are safe. I always love to question the funding of the studies claiming safety, but to make a conclusion that artificial sweeteners are good or bad for you from these studies alone is impossible.

So how do you make a decision? In my opinion, I would think like this: Your body naturally needs real sugar, while there is no caloric need for artificial sweeteners. Additionally, everything in moderation is the nutritionist’s favorite saying. Therefore, by moderation and realizing the potential harmful long term effects of artificial sugar, maybe I should just stick to real sugars, leaving the genetically-modified, synthetically-made and hormone-induced foods for just about everything else I eat. Just something to keep in the back of your mind next time you grab your skinny vanilla latte.

Tune in next week for more health tips and, as always, please send me an e-mail at gkatz10@brandeis.edu with any health-related questions you may have.

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