Sucrose Has its Problems, But so do Artificial Substitutes
Americans are known around the world for our voracious appetite for sugary treats. Our collective sweet tooth compels us to ingest mountains of candy and cookies, truckloads of ice cream and sodas, and many other confections. But we also swallow enormous amounts of "hidden" sugars that are added to a bewildering array of processed foods, from cereals to ketchup and from canned fruits to some vitamins.
Consumption of sweeteners in the U.S. has risen from 113 pounds per person per year in 1966 to around 142 pounds per person per year in 2004, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA). Compare that to an average of 8.3 pounds of broccoli and 25 pounds of dark lettuces for 2003, according to U.S. News and World Report. Americans now consume an average of 61 pounds a year of high fructose corn syrup (especially in sodas), and we scarf down 20 teaspoons of added sugar a day (not including lactose or fructose naturally found in milk and fruit).
The USDA recommends adults consume no more than eight or nine teaspoons of sugar for a typical 2,000-calorie diet. Staying within this limit can be much easier said than done, however, considering that some candy bars, 12-ounce sodas and one-cup servings of ice cream contain around nine teaspoons of sugar.
What’s wrong with sugar? In addition to its tooth-rotting properties, Marion Nestle, professor of nutrition and public health at New York University, explains, "Sugar’s empty calories [meaning lack of nutrients] contribute to the big problem with the American diet: too many calories." Sugar has also been widely linked to increasing risk for type II diabetes. Plus, the sweet stuff has a considerable environmental footprint (see EarthTalk, this issue).
Closely related to sugar is the now ubiquitous high fructose corn syrup, which is prepared by treating cornstarch with acids or enzymes. The sticky, tooth-attacking syrup is often made with genetically engineered corn, and, like sugar, it contains no nutritional value beyond its caloric content. During the past few decades, corn syrup (which tastes sweeter than sugar) has become the sweetener of choice for many food processors, who load it into everything from baked goods to sauces, jellies, drinks and even frozen fruit. In fact, corn syrup recently overtook sugar itself as America’s most popular sweetener.
Corn syrup is a blend of fructose and glucose, while refined sugar is made of the larger molecule sucrose. Recent research suggests that fructose may be handled differently in the body than other sugars. "It appears to behave more like fat with respect to the hormones involved in body weight regulation," Peter Havel, associate professor of nutrition at the University of California, Davis, told the Washington Post. "Fructose doesn’t stimulate insulin secretion. It doesn’t increase leptin production [a hormone that helps regulate appetite and fat storage] or suppress production of ghrelin [which helps regulate food intake]. That suggests that consuming a lot of fructose, like consuming too much fat, could contribute to weight gain."
Partly because they are also sweeter than sugar pound for pound, a number of artificial sweeteners have been on the U.S. market for years, and are ubiquitous in such foods as diet soda and "sugar-free" candy. Perhaps echoing the sentiment of many environmentalists, Nestle cautions, "I don’t like artificial sweeteners because I do not like artificial anything when it comes to food." Observers have also questioned whether the widespread adoption of artificial sweeteners has made much of a dent in the ever-growing American waistline.
Less popular than it once was, saccharin (often known as Sweet "N Low) has long raised red flags among food safety scientists after it was definitively linked to bladder cancer in male rats. The industry denies those studies have any application to human beings, but the Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI) points out, "In some studies, saccharin has caused bladder cancer in mice and in female rats and other cancers in both rats and mice."
The group also suggests staying clear of the German-made sweetener acesulfame-k, which it says has been linked to cancer and other ailments in lab animals. Safety tests of the chemical, conducted in the 1970s, were of "mediocre quality," reports CSPI.
The sugar substitute aspartame, known as NutraSweet, Equal and Spoonful, accounts for 75 percent of adverse reactions to food additives reported to the FDA. In recent years, aspartame has been at the center of an Internet firestorm, in which various advocacy websites have linked it to cancer, ADD, autism, Parkinson’s disease and other problems. CSPI cautions, "Most such claims are not supported by studies." However, the group does point out that a 2005 study found that "even low doses of aspartame increased the incidence of lymphomas and leukemia in female rats and also might have caused occasional brain tumors."
A relatively new sweetener on the block is British-made Splenda, which was first approved in the U.S. in 1998. Splenda is the trade name of the patented sweetener sucralose, which is marketed solely by Johnson and Johnson subsidiary McNeil Nutritionals.
When it was first introduced, sucralose sparked considerable consumer excitement, because it is extremely low in calories. Sucralose is now appearing in everything from baked goods to sweetener packets, and makes up about 50 percent of the U.S. sugar substitute market, according to the Associated Press.
However, Splenda’s success hasn’t been entirely sweet. Lawsuits have been filed in several states against McNeil Nutritionals on behalf of the sugar industry, which claims the company misrepresents Splenda with its slogan "made from sugar, so it tastes like sugar." In fact, Splenda is made in a patented, highly industrial process that adds chlorine atoms to sucrose. McNeil countersued, claiming the sugar industry is waging a "malicious smear campaign"—including promotion of the slick Truth About Splenda website—by trying to convince consumers that Splenda is "unhealthy or unsafe" and that they "would be better off consuming refined sugar."
Jim Murphy, a Sugar Association lawyer, told the Associated Press, "I think one of the concerns is that there really have been no long-term studies that resolve whether or not consumption of Splenda is healthy." Echoing this concern, natural products retailer Whole Foods moved to ban sucralose from its stores on the basis that there aren’t enough studies to prove that it is safe and the fact that it requires heavy industrial processing.
The good news is a number of more natural alternatives are becoming widely available to help people enjoy their food without risking their health (see "How Sweet It Isn"t," Eating Right, November/December 2003). Better choices include maple syrup, honey and date sugar, which at least provide some nutrients in the form of vitamins, amino acids, enzymes and minerals, even though their sugar content is very similar to regular sucrose.
Agave nectar absorbs more slowly into the bloodstream than traditional sugar, making it less likely to resul
t in an energy "crash" after consumption. Natural birch sugar, called xylitol, packs fewer calories than cane or beet-based sugar. Some nutrients are also found in Sucanat, a brand name for organically grown, dehydrated cane juice.
BRIAN C. HOWARD is managing editor of E.