As the sugar debate rages on, experts look at the science behind sugar substitutes or sweeteners, questioning whether they are in fact the ‘healthier alternative’ to avoid weight gain, diabetes, and heart disease, reports SADE OGUNTOLA.
WEIGHT loss is very complicated. So, by offering the taste of sweetness without any calories, artificial sweeteners seem like a better choice to avoiding regular sugar while at the same time enjoying that favourite food or beverage.
Today, artificial sweeteners and other sugar substitutes are found in a variety of food and beverages; they’re marketed as “sugar-free” or “diet,” including soft drinks, chewing gum, jellies, baked goods, candy, fruit juice, and ice cream and yoghurt.
On the surface, artificial sweeteners seem like a great option; the same sweet taste for a fraction of the calories. Unfortunately, it is a little more complicated than that despite bodies like American Heart Association (AHA) and American Diabetes Association (ADA) given a cautious nod to its use in place of sugar to combat obesity, metabolic syndrome, and diabetes.
“Artificial sweeteners have no calorie, but they can make you add weight through other means. Now that the food is sweeter, you are now going to eat more, thus put on more weight,” said Professor Femi Fasanmade, a Consultant Endocrinologist at the Lagos University Teaching Hospital (LUTH), Idi-Araba.
Professor Fasanmade declared that unbridled intake of sweeteners is bad, adding “Even diabetics are not encouraged to take too much of it. It may make them eat more. It is natural that if your food is sweet, you will eat more.
“So, if you can avoid it completely, it is better, whether you are diabetic or not. It is not really the sweetener itself, but the increased amount of calories you end up taking in unknowingly through other sources, possibly offsetting weight loss or other health benefits.
“Reducing calories could help to attain and maintain a healthy body weight, and thereby lower the risk of heart disease and diabetes,” he declared.
A recent study showed that obese adults who drank diet drinks actually consumed more calories than their counterparts who drank the sugary alternatives!
Artificial sweeteners may play another trick, too. Research suggests that they may prevent individuals from associating sweetness with caloric intake. As a result, they may crave more sweets, tend to choose sweet food over nutritious food, and gain weight.
Animal studies suggest that artificial sweeteners may be addictive. In studies of rats who were exposed to cocaine, then given a choice between intravenous cocaine and oral saccharine, most chose saccharin.
Dr Olubiyi Adesina, a Consultant Endocrinologist at the Federal Medical Centre, Abeokuta said a study presented at an international meeting on Endocrinology recently reported that consumers of artificial sweeteners (sucralose in this case), especially those who are already overweight or obese stand the risk of adding more weight which greatly increases their risk of developing Type 2 diabetes.
He stated: “The World Health Organisation (WHO) had warned some years back that sugar-sweetened drinks are fuelling the obesity epidemic, and invariably Type 2 diabetes epidemic.
“The advice then for all and sundry will be to consume sucralose sweetened drinks with caution until a firm advisory comes out from the scientific community on the matter.
“The best drink remains water. Nigerians should also cultivate the habit of reading labels on the drinks they consume. It is better to be safe. Just because it’s a ‘diet’ product does not mean you can eat twice as much of it,” he added.
The FDA has approved five artificial sweeteners: saccharine, acesulfame, aspartame, neotame, and sucralose. It has also approved one natural low-calorie sweetener, stevia. But all artificial sweeteners are not created equally.
Whether non-nutritive sweeteners are safe depends on individual’s definition of safe. Studies leading to FDA approval have ruled out cancer risk, for the most part. But, Dr Funmi Akinyele, Chief Executive Officer, Food Basket International said there are other health concerns with consumption of artificial sweeteners.
According to Dr Akinyele, a by-product of some artificial sweeteners that have aspartame in them are a derivative of formaldehyde which is what they use to preserve dead bodies.
“Can you imagine putting that in your body constantly as a sweetener? It is not advisable because, over time, it will build up. Certainly, even as a layperson that is not the healthiest alternative to sugar,” she declared.
Dr Akinyele said some people ended up feeling on well over a prolonged use of artificial sweeteners because they were allergic to the chemical content of some sweeteners.
“I can give a specific example of my cousin who had a myriad of issues and it turns out that it was linked to a certain sweetener he was using. It was after he stopped the sweetener that he became normal. He was feeling sick all the time. It could have been an allergic reaction to the sweetener.
“You need not wait till after taken sweeteners over a number of years before you notice that you are allergic to it. Some people may have mild symptoms, while others may have moderate or severe symptoms,” she said.
However, Dr Akinyele stated that honey is probably the healthiest sweeteners in the world.
“Honey never goes bad, especially if it is organic. It also has its own health benefits. So, instead of going for something that has sweeteners, or a sweetener that has one form of chemical in it or the other, why not go natural, why not use honey,?” she declared.
She stated that brown sugar can be an alternative to sweeteners when baking, adding, “White sugar is probably the least option. I know a lot of people run away from white sugar which is why they run to sweeteners.
“Since one of the major reasons why people run away from sugar is diabetes and some other non-communicable diseases, sweeteners are probably not going to help, they might tilt the scale in the wrong direction.
“So it is always better to stay on the side of health and choose things that have been proven and demonstrated as healthy. Honey will be the first recommendation, although there are some other natural sweeteners like the date. They are more natural than most sweeteners, but certainly not very expensive.”
Sweeteners generally replace sugar in discretionary foods which have little nutritional value. Reducing discretionary foods, regardless of what they’re sweetened with, leaves more room in the diet for nutritious foods.
Moreover, a new meta-analysis published in the Canadian Medical Association Journal in 2017 found that artificial sweeteners may be associated with an increased risk of obesity, long-term weight gain, diabetes, high blood pressure, and heart disease.
Researchers from the University of Manitoba reviewed 37 studies involving 400,000 people for an average of 10 years. Seven of these studies were randomised controlled trials that followed 1,003 people for an average of six months. The longer-term studies actually showed a higher risk of health problems.
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