The Sweet Life

If you’re trying to improve your diet and lose weight, one of the first items to go is sugar. The empty calories in sugar-laden foods lack nutrition and can lead to weight gain, blood sugar issues and dental caries. However, you still want something sweet after dinner, in your coffee or just because, so…What if you could still enjoy the sweet taste of sugar, without the downside? In other words, what if you could have your cake and eat it too? This is the promise and allure of sugar substitutes. What is the truth? The Mayo Clinic’s definition of sugar substitutes is chemical and natural compounds which offer the sweetness of sugar without as many calories. There are several commonly used artificial sweeteners.

  • Acesulfame potassium is 200 times sweeter than refined cane sugar and is marketed under the brand name “Sweet One.”
  • One of the most popular sweet stand-ins is Aspartame, which is sold as “Nutrasweet” or “Equal.” Despite user reports of headaches, dizziness and disruption of central nervous system activity (tingling in the fingers is an example) this is the most popular artificial sweetener in the United States.
  • Saccharin is the oldest sugar sub and 300-700 times sweeter than sugar and usually comes in the familiar pink “Sweet ‘N Low” packets. The big drawback is the National Cancer Institute has found increased rates of bladder cancer in people who consumed large amounts of saccharin. The link to cancer has been disputed, but some people report headaches after using this product.
  • The latest sugar alternative is sucralose or “Splenda.” Six hundred times sweeter than sugar, this synthetic sweetener is derived from sucrose (a natural sugar) so side effects may occur less often, but sucralose hasn’t been around long enough to study in depth. However, early anecdotes of headaches, agitation, dizziness and diarrhea have been recorded.

Where does this leave the person who wants to consume fewer calories and improve their health, but doesn’t want to give up a little sweetness? Natural sweeteners like sugar alcohol (a.k.a. sorbitol, xylitol and erythritol) are probably safe in moderation, but cause gastrointestinal distress in some people. Stevia is a non-caloric sweetener, but may taste bitter when you first try it. Agave nectar, brown rice syrup and good, old-fashioned honey are other natural, but not calorie-free alternatives to sugar.

Yet, don’t assume calorie-free sugar substitutes have to be part of your weight loss plan. New research provided by Dr. Paul Smeets of University Medical Center Utrecht (the Netherlands) indicates our brain prefers real sugar over fake and knows the difference. Dr. Smeets used a technique called functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) to measure brain responses in people tasting two versions of orangeade, one with sugar and the other with a similar tasting mixture of aspartame, acesulfame K, cyclamate and saccharin.

The test subjects tasted the mixtures on different days, making it harder to notice any difference in taste. In fact, Smeets reported most didn’t know which was which when asked. However, their brains knew the difference. Both drinks were recognized as sweet tasting, but only the sugar-sweetened orangeade was recognized as nutritious. In short, the brain registered caloric input from the sugared drink and began the process of tamping down the appetite. The fMRI results showed no such response when the artificially sweetened drink was consumed. In other words, the fake sugar did not satisfy the appetite, which would leave the body craving food.

If you still want to sweeten your diet artificially, use moderation (six servings a day seems to be the tipping point) or mix real sugar with fake. Substituting water for sugary drinks is an easy way to cut calories while giving your body the hydration it needs. Other ways to reduce the real or fake sugar in your diet is to gradually reduce the sweetener you use in baking and in your coffee. Maybe satisfy your after dinner cravings with fresh fruit or chew a piece of sugar free gum. No matter how strong your sweet tooth seems to be, you can eat healthier, lose weight and enjoy the sweet life.