Artificial Sweeteners - Bad and Not-So-Bad
(October 7, 2014)
It is a sin and an error in logic to fully equate things that in reality do have some differences, like Democrats and Republicans. So in response to popular outcry, I unbent from my blanket assertion that all artificial sweeteners are Bad enough to investigate the subject in a little more depth, admitting the possibility that there MIGHT actually be a Good Artificial Sweetener.
Because we really do eat too much sugar. The typical diet gets about 25% of its calories from sugars and that is way, way too much. We can’t help liking sweet things. It’s part of our programming. It’s generally believed that the sense of taste evolved in order to detect nutrients and avoid potential toxins and in nature, carbohydrates and in particular foods that contain vitamin C (fruit, in other words) tend to be sweet. [Humans, like other primates and unlike most other mammals, do not make their own vitamin C.] Additionally, a sweet flavor can be very nice – it seems to have a cheering and even painkilling effect and also does many of those funny things in the brain that you also see with the opioids which, there is no denying, most people like quite a lot. So maybe it’s a little harsh to expect people, particularly when they are first trying to cut back on sugar, to do it cold turkey.
Most artificial sweeteners are still found in diet drinks, but they are putting them in everything these days so if you are faced with a list of ingredients on something that’s going into your mouth (even if it’s toothpaste or a medication) you might as well read it and see if it contains one of these known-to-be-bad must-be-avoided artificial sweeteners:
Sucralose (in Splenda) is much better but, mostly because of one study that found it to produce leukemia in lab mice is still in the “be careful with it” category. Admittedly, no one has found anything negative to date about advantame or neotame. The amounts used of both of these latter sweeteners are minuscule, so in the absence of anything to the contrary they are officially judged to be Safe. But they are both pretty new and/or not in very wide use, so they really haven't been thoroughly put to the test yet. If you MUST eat any of these, my choice would be sucralose. What's a little leukemia among friends?
Now, those are all artificial sweeteners. But then there are natural sweeteners, which are intensely sweet substances that are found in nature and thus theoretically not as bad for you as something whose parents were test tubes. This is not just granola hippie prejudice. If it’s found in nature, chances are that your body somewhere along the line has devised a plan to deal with it. For things that first saw the light of day in a laboratory, that may not be true, because it doesn’t take much of a change at the molecular level to make something a complete mystery to your body.
So of the natural substances that are so intensely sweet that they can be used as sweeteners, stevia seems to be fine (although my own opinion is that I think people should keep a plant around and use the leaves instead of using the manufactured extracts). Monk fruit has been in common use in China for hundreds of years, but the extract currently being manufactured hasn’t been studied at all. And those endless sugar alcohols (mannitol, maltitol, sorbitol, etc.) do seem to be fine -- as long as you don’t eat too much of them because some people's gut bacteria can't cope well with them and then they get tummyaches and, ah, accompanying manifestations.
None of these alternatives is without some drawback, but every one of them beat the heck out of saccharin. So I hope that this has been of some help.
--dr. diane holmes
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