If you give an infant a taste of something sweet, they will smile. We have an innate desire for foods that are sweet. For our ancestors up to a couple hundred years ago, this inherent love of sweet foods was a brilliant survival tool, but for people in the modern world it is a minefield.
The calories in table sugar and its overall effect on the body have made it pariah. There has to be a better way to have our cake and eat it too…literally!
Research and development of sweeteners that taste like sugar, without the calories have become a mammoth industry since the first artificial sweetener (saccharin) was accidentally discovered in 1879. And why not? For a food manufacturer, it would be the Holy Grail to discover an ingredient that could add sweetness, be calorie free, and maybe even be good for you (or at least, not harmful). But here’s the problem; every ingredient “developed” so far has failed to meet all of these three criteria.
All of the sugar substitutes are sweet; many are 200 to 600 times sweeter than sugar. If they have measurable calories, they are typically not digestible by the body, so they don’t add to a person’s caloric intake. However, none of these products can shake the bad rap that comes from being “artificial”. (Stevia is a natural product, but has had its own issues with taste and studies that show it may cause adverse problems with fertility). Whether it’s cancer in mice, migraines, intestinal distress, or your hair falls out; each one of these products comes with its own set of controversies about their safety.
There are several sugar substitutes on the market; saccharin, aspartame, acesulfame, sucralose, tagalose, sugar alcohols, and Stevia. Some are artificial, some are more natural, but natural does not mean safe or healthy. Each of these products has been studied and approved for use in food. Stevia is the most recent addition and least studied. Without dredging up the minutia of data behind the scientific studies for each sugar substitute, it’s fairly simple to stand back and recognize that these products are not food. The body, and just as importantly, the brain don’t recognize them as food, because they are chemicals developed in a lab. If you’re thinking that your “caveman” diet keeps you from falling into the trap of consuming dangerous sugar substitutes, well, read the label of your go-to protein powder. In fact, anytime you buy ANY product with a label, READ IT. You might be amazed how many of your favorites are hiding something from you.
The best way to eat a healthy diet is to eat food in its most natural state as much as you can. When we consume sugar, our bodies and our brains understand and recognize what it is. We process, absorb, and use sugar for energy because it is food that we humans have consumed since our ancestors first found a bee hive. Rather than look to science to develop a “drug” that would sweeten our food without calories, the best practice is to consume some form of sugar, like honey or maple syrup. Even table sugar is better than a sugar substitute. Ideally, the less anything is processed the better it is for you, so follow this rule with sugar as well. The way to do this without the most visible side effect of sugar, weight gain, is to consume sugar as a treat. It should be uncommon in your overall diet.
If you want to understand more about the dark side of artificial sweeteners, go to cspinet.org, the website for The Center for Science in the Public Interest. It’s a nonprofit organization that keeps an eye on food manufacturers.