Just a Hint of Real Sugar Sweetness
A shiny bag of candy calls your name from the vending machine of a rest stop, but after learning about the association of excess sugar consumption and risk for disease, you think twice about resorting to candy for a quick burst of energy. Perhaps you turn your attention to the cereal bar claiming to have “less sugar” than the candy you really want. More and more food products are claiming to contain “reduced sugar” or “less sugar” than similar products on the shelf because they include artificial sweeteners in place of the real stuff.
Because they contain zero calories and are are not converted into usable energy by the body, artificial sweeteners are also called “non-nutritive” sweeteners, and there is a fair amount of controversy over whether or not they are really a healthier choice than sugar.
Sugarcane from La Villa de Los Santos, Panama
The Most Common Artificial Sweeteners
There are six FDA approved artificial sweeteners used in the American food supply: saccharin, acesulfame potassium, aspartame, neotame, advantame (recently approved) and sucralose. You may recognize some of these from soda cans and sweetener packets found in your local coffee shop. Stevia, a sweet-tasting extract of leaves from the Stevia plant, is not considered an artificial sweetener, but is very low in sugar and is also approved for safe use in food products. Sugar alcohols, like maltitol, are commonly found in sugar-free versions of chocolate and candy, and are not broken down by our digestive system. When sugar alcohols make it to the large intestine, bacteria consume them for their own source of food, and produce gas in the process. For some, that can contribute to uncomfortable bellies when consumed excessively.
What Do We Know About the Health Effects of Artificial Sweeteners?
Early skeptics were wary of artificial sweeteners because of their association with increased cancer risk in rats. However, this research does not necessarily translate to the amount of artificial sweeteners Americans routinely consume. The rats studied by early researchers consumed far more artificial sweetener than an average person realistically would be able to physically intake, and no study to date has been able to conclusively draw the direct link between artificial sweeteners and cancer in humans. For now, the FDA tightly regulates the amount of artificial sweeteners allowed in food products, categorizing them as GRAS, or “Generally Recognized as Safe,” if consumed within their Upper Limit (UL). This Upper Limit is conservative and far lower than the amount estimated to be associated with any potential health risks.
But that doesn’t mean artificial sweeteners necessarily get a free pass to the “health food” category.
Despite contributing zero calories on their own, recent studies increasingly suggest that artificial sweeteners could potentially lead to unwanted weight gain and overeating in the long term. It seems that our bodies are wise to our tricks, and artificial sweeteners may not do much to quench a sweet tooth. In fact, frequent consumption of artificial sweeteners may increase our craving for sweet, calorie-dense foods. Artificial sweeteners may also disrupt hormonal control of hunger, making it harder for us to notice when we are truly hungry or adequately full.
How Are Artificial Sweeteners Processed By the Body?
By definition, artificial sweeteners do not get converted into energy by the body - otherwise, they would provide calories. Instead, after sending the message to our brains that what we are eating is sweet, artificial sweeteners get shuttled through the digestive tract without being absorbed or used for energy. There is still a lot that is unknown about what happens to specific sweeteners after we swallow them, and most research has still focused solely on animal models, which we should not use to make assumptions about how human bodies process them. Current research suggests that artificial sweeteners left unabsorbed in our gastrointestinal tract may cause changes to our healthy gut bacteria, which could influence a multitude of health outcomes.
Artificial sweeteners taste much sweeter than an equal amount of real sugars like maple syrup or honey, so they are usually added in smaller quantities to food products. When consumed frequently, however, scientists theorize that our taste buds may become accustomed to the ultra-sweet sensation driving us to need more sweetness to fully satisfy our cravings. At the same time, as our desire for super-sweet foods increases, foods like fruits and vegetables that contain naturally occurring sugars and a plethora of vitamins, minerals and beneficial plant chemicals, become less desirable. We may be less likely to eat them in favor of super-sweetened snacks.
Sweeteners Used By 88 Acres: Natural Sugars
At 88 Acres, we believe in the power of eating whole foods, and food products made from the simplest of ingredients. We use just a touch of real sugar to naturally sweeten our snacks. Many of the nutrition professionals we consult with agree - natural sweeteners like the maple syrup in our bars and organic cane sugar in our Seed Butters provide just the right amount of sweetness to make our products delicious and satisfying, and give your body real energy to help appropriately regulate its innate hunger cues. Our Seed Bars are sweet enough to crush a craving, but also leave you feeling full and satisfied from the combination of whole food fiber, protein and unsaturated fats.
That’s not to say we are fans of excess sugar. On the contrary! We hope to provide a well-balanced snack that is just as delicious as it is nutritious. Based on overwhelming customer feedback, we recently reduced the sugar content of our Pumpkin Seed Butter by half, and launched a new seed butter flavor that is lightly sweetened with maple sugar instead of cane sugar. Each two tablespoon serving of 88 Acres Pumpkin Seed Butter and 88 Acres Maple Sunflower Seed Butter now contain only three grams of sugar.
The Take Home Message
Many of us will always have some sort of sweet tooth, and the goal is to satisfy it without overdoing the sugar. Just as with sugar, the key in consuming artificial sweeteners is to avoid excess. Since much more of the research points to stronger links between sugar and disease risk compared to artificial sweetener and disease risk, it is still wise to keep your intake of real sugar within your energy needs, and aim for nutrient-dense sources (like fruit, starchy vegetables and dairy if you like) to make strides in meeting all of your vitamin and mineral needs. Some artificial sweeteners like sugar alcohols can cause uncomfortable digestive upset, and since none of the sugar substitutes provide real energy, they may encourage your body to crave more super-sweet, high-calorie foods in the long-term. Sweetened foods that provide more than just quick energy - that also contain healthful fats, satiating fiber and protein - will satisfy more than just a sweet tooth. They satisfy your energy needs as well.