With the ever-increasing attention on sugar in the American diet, it is common to want to replace its sweet taste with a sugar substitute, and there are quite a few to choose from. They appear in a variety of food products, from beverages to baked goods, and are available for home use.
One type of sugar substitute is the natural sweeteners, such as agave nectar, honey, maple syrup and molasses. These are considered safe but still classified as “added sugar,” since they contain calories and nutrients similar to sugar. Consuming too much can lead to the same health problems as too much sugar: dental cavities, weight gain, higher blood sugar and increased triglycerides. Use these sparingly.
Sugar alcohols are semi-nutritive sweeteners. Despite their name, they do not contain ethanol and are not alcoholic. They include sorbitol, xylitol, erythritol, lactitol, maltitol and mannitol. Used to sweeten candy, cookies, bars and chewing gum, they contain on average only half as many calories as sugar, and have a smaller effect on blood sugar. Beware, as they may cause bloating, gas and diarrhea when as few as 10 grams are consumed.
Non-caloric artificial sweeteners, non-nutritive sweeteners and high-intensity sweeteners are the terms used for the calorie-free substances that are many times sweeter than table sugar. These include saccharin (Sweet'N Low), aspartame (Equal), sucralose (Splenda), acesulfame potassium (Sweet One), neotame (Newtame) and advantame. These are approved and regulated by the FDA as safe food additives.
There are Acceptable Daily Intake (ADI) levels for each of these, much higher than even the heaviest user will likely consume in one day. For example, researchers say an adult can safely consume hundreds of packets of aspartame, sucralose or saccharine daily, or more than a 12-pack of diet soda without an increased risk of cancer. Nonetheless, many people experience headaches or other signs of intolerance, and should listen to their own bodies.
Another concern is the effect of these sweeteners on the digestive tract. Sufferers of irritable bowel syndrome are advised to avoid both sugar alcohols and fructose, as these appear to trigger symptoms. You should consult your favorite dietitian for information to address these and other possible symptom-triggering foods.
In addition, it is hypothesized that continual use of semi-nutritive and non-nutritive sweeteners will alter bacterial content of the gut. By disrupting the natural balance of good bacteria in the digestive tract, the body becomes susceptible to glucose intolerance, inflammation and metabolic syndrome (the combination of diabetes, heart disease and obesity that affects millions of Americans). Research is still emerging, and the effects vary from person to person.
The final category of sugar substitutes is novel sweeteners, including stevia (Truvia) and monk fruit (Nectresse) extracts; these are accepted by the FDA as generally recognized as safe (GRAS). Research is limited, so it is too soon to declare their impact on the gut or other health issues.
Given preliminary findings, I recommend, as usual, a moderate approach. If you use sugar substitutes, use less and try a variety. For example, switch from diet soda to flavored sparkling water, switch between stevia and sucralose in your coffee, and try just a teaspoon of honey in your tea. Your taste buds will adjust and your body will be grateful.
As published in the Fort Collins Coloradoan
The new 2015-20 Dietary Guidelines have arrived, and while many readers will not study them carefully, there is an important point to bring to your attention: for the first time, they are telling Americans to limit their intake of sugar to 10 percent (or less) of daily calories.
What is sugar?The sugar guidelines are for limiting “added” sugars, not those found naturally in foods. Natural sugars include those in fruits, vegetables and milk, while added sugars include the various forms that appear in processed food and drinks: glucose, fructose, dextrose, corn syrup and malt syrup, just to name a few. These are interchangeable referred to as added, refined and processed sugars.
Why sugar?There are years of data indicating that too much sugar increases risk of heart disease, Type 2 diabetes and leptin resistance, the hormone that regulates body weight. It raises triglyceride, blood pressure and blood sugar levels; it also increases waists and weight, further increasing risk for chronic diseases.
How much sugar?Food labels use 2,000 calories as a typical daily intake. At 10 percent of calories, that means 200 calories, 50 grams or 10 teaspoons of added sugar daily. The 2,000 calories are just an average goal; women often need fewer calories, and a suggested reference for women is 1,800 calories. Ten percent would be 180 calories, 45 grams or 9 teaspoons of added sugar. Of course, your caloric needs will also vary depending on age and physical activity level.
Where is the sugar?Sugar-sweetened beverages are one of the biggest sources of added sugar. One 12-ounce can of cola provides more than 30 grams, while fruit drinks, coffee drinks and energy drinks contain similar amounts. Coffee creamers and hot chocolate mixes serve up 5-8 grams per tablespoon — and who uses 1 tablespoon? Another significant source of added sugar is breakfast food, including cereal, cereal bars, sweetened instant oatmeal, pastries, toaster pastries and even some breads. All this before noon.
What if you avoid this sugar fest and eat healthfully?
One client reported this: yogurt with blueberries for breakfast (29 grams sugar), spinach salad with low-fat dressing for lunch (20 grams sugar), apple with peanut butter for a snack (5 grams sugar), sports bar after workout (10 grams sugar) and spaghetti squash with tomato sauce for dinner (6 grams sugar). Well, the 70 grams (17.5 teaspoons) of added sugar she got was better than average but still had room for improvement.
As indicated, common sources of added sugar include sweetened yogurt, condiments, reduced-fat desserts and salad dressing and sauces.
I have had clients who feel the government should stay out of their meals, and do not feel the guidelines are important. But with the average intake of added sugar in this country topping 22 teaspoons daily, or 130 pounds per year, it’s time to start listening. Forget the math. Just eat smarter – water instead of sweetened beverages, oats instead of sweetened cereal, whole foods instead of boxed mixes and spices in place of sauces. Eating from the earth never tasted so sweet.
As published in the Fort Collins Coloradoan
Melissa Wdowik, PhD, RDN, LDN, FAND
is a nutrition educator with over 20 years experience as a college professor, nutrition coach, presenter and writer, as well as a nutrition consultant and founding director of the Kendall Reagan Nutrition Center.