The facts and fiction on sugar substitutes

Sugar substitutes are everywhere. They are in yogurt, fruit drinks, sodas, gelatins, powdered drink mixes; they are even in gum.

Most people reach for sugar substitutes because they are seeking a simple way of enjoying their favorite foods and beverages without consuming the extra calories. Could this be an effective measure when it comes to controlling your weight?

Sugar substitues

Rather than trying to replace every bit of sugar in your diet with an artificial sweetener, look to natural ways of taming your sweet tooth. For example, top plain low-fat yogurt with fresh berries and a light drizzle of honey.

Some of the early research shows that aspartame-based sweeteners can in fact help dieters keep the pounds down compared to people who don’t use them. But more recent studies have come to question the ability of sugar substitutes to help people lose weight.

Studies using young animals suggest that children who get used to a steady diet of artificial sweeteners tend to overeat when they eat regular foods. Scientists speculate as a result that artificial sweeteners may disrupt our ability to correlate flavours with calories.

Over the last decade, the most common concern over the safety of sugar substitutes has been whether they cause cancer. The link between cancer and sugar substitutes arose when early studies suggested that the combination of cyclamates and saccharin caused bladder cancer in rats.

Generally, many of the sugar substitutes out there have been approved as safe for human consumption. Some of them, however, should not be used at certain stages of life. For example, cyclamates (Sugar Twin®) should not be used in pregnancy, nor should saccharin (Sweet’N Low®). Sucralose (Splenda®) and Equal® (an aspartame-based sweetener), on the other hand, are considered safe during pregnancy.

Aspartame has been under scrutiny recently. In 2005 Italian researchers found that rats fed aspartame in very high doses – the equivalent of 2,000 cans of diet soda a day – had more lymphomas and more cases of leukemia.

I would safely assume that none of you out there are consuming 2,000 cans of diet soda a day, but what you can take from a study like this is that perhaps an over consumption of diet sodas might in fact play some role in increasing cancer risk.

So how much is too much? As a nutritionist, I suggest consuming no more than two diet sodas per day.

In a 2006 study completed by the National Cancer Institute, 5,000 people were followed for five years, and those who had the highest intakes – that is, no greater than three cans of diet soda a day – were at no increased risk of cancer.

So if you are looking to reduce the amount of sugar in your diet, understand that your main goal, whether you have diabetes or not, is to tame your sweet tooth. In other words, instead of trying to replace every bit of sugar in your diet with an artificial sweetener, look to natural ways of taming your sweet tooth:

? Add a splash of cranberry or pomegranate juice to sparkling water

? Top plain low-fat yogurt with fresh berries and a light drizzle of honey

? Enjoy sweet (orange) potato with your evening meal

? Use a full teaspoon of cinnamon and raisins (two tbsp) to sweeten that bowl of oatmeal.

? Try reducing the amount of sugar in your tea or coffee to one teaspoon (it will take some time to get your taste buds adjusted, but in a few weeks you’ll never know the difference!)

The bottom line is that a balanced diet – one that includes a variety of foods and takes portion sizes into account – is a surefire way of keeping that sweet tooth under control and your health risks in check.

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