Over the past 20 years or so, Americans have developed quite the sweet
tooth, with an annual consumption of sugar at about 100 pounds per person.
During these same years, many more Americans — particularly children — have
become overweight and obese. Added caloric sweeteners may be one of the
Sucrose and fructose
Sucrose, or table sugar, has been the most common food sweetener. In
the late 1960s, a new method was introduced that converts glucose in
corn syrup to fructose. High-fructose corn syrup is as sweet as sucrose,
but less expensive, so soft-drink manufacturers switched over to using
it in the mid-1980s. Now it has surpassed sucrose as the main added sweetener
in the American diet.
Fructose once seemed like one of nutrition’s good guys - it has
a very low glycemic index. The glycemic index is a way of measuring how
much of an effect a food or drink has on blood sugar levels; low glycemic
index foods are generally better for you.
But fructose, at least in large quantities, may have some serious drawbacks.
Fructose is metabolized almost exclusively in the liver. It’s more
likely to result in the creation of fats which increase the risk for
heart disease. Moreover, recent work has shown that fructose may have
an influence on the appetite hormones. High levels of fructose may blunt
sensations of fullness and could lead to overeating.
Fruit-juice concentrates: Just empty calories
Fruit juices such as apple or white grape juice in concentrated form
are widely used sweeteners. They’re used to replace fats in low-fat
products because they retain water and provide bulk, which improve the
appearance and “mouth feel” of the food.
Although they may seem healthier and more natural than high-fructose
corn syrup, fruit-juice concentrates also have high levels of fructose.
Fruit-juice concentrates are another way that empty calories get into
In sweetening power, the sugar alcohols are closer to sucrose and fructose
than to the super-sweet artificial sweeteners. They don’t affect
blood-sugar levels as much as sucrose, a real advantage for people with
diabetes, and they don’t contribute to tooth decay. Sugar alcohols
are used in candies, baked goods, ice creams, and fruit spreads. Read
the ingredients carefully, and you’ll spot them in toothpaste,
mouthwash, breath mints, cough syrup, and throat lozenges.
Sweeteners added to sports and juice drinks are particularly troubling
because many people think those drinks are relatively healthful.
Researchers are beginning to document the adverse health outcomes. Harvard
researchers reported that women who drank one or more sugar-sweetened
soft drinks per day were 83% more likely to develop type 2 diabetes than
women who drank less than one a month. Not surprisingly, they were also
more likely to gain weight.
When children regularly consume beverages that are sweetened they’re
getting used to a level of sweetness that could affect their habits for
a lifetime. A 2004 editorial in the Journal of the American Medical
Association said that reducing the consumption of sugar-sweetened
beverages “may be the best single opportunity to curb the obesity
Artificial sweeteners sing a siren song of calorie-free and, therefore,
guilt-free sweetness. The FDA-approved ones include acesulfame K (Sunett),
aspartame (NutraSweet, Equal), neotame, saccharin (Sweet ’N Low,
others), and sucralose (Splenda). All are intensely sweet.
There’s a cyberspace cottage industry dedicated to condemning
the artificial sweeteners, especially aspartame. Some fears are based
on animal experiments using doses many times greater than any person
would consume. But even some mainstream experts remain wary of artificial
sweeteners, partly because of the lack of long-term studies in humans.
Even if safety weren’t an issue, artificial sweeteners might still
be a problem because they may set people (especially children) up for
bad eating habits by encouraging a craving for sweetness that makes eating
a balanced diet difficult.
Tips for cutting down your sweetener consumption
- Drink lots of water.
- Choose beverages with no (or few) calories.
- Try to limit yourself to no more than one sweetened beverage
- If you drink sugar-sweetened beverages, you need to eat less
and exercise more to offset the beverage habit.
- Avoid so-called juice drinks, which have no redeeming nutritional
- Drink real fruit juices. They’ve got lots of calories
but also are nutritious.
- Be a savvy consumer and read food labels.
December 2006 Update
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