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The Lowdown on Sweeteners

From artificial to natural, MF's handy guide will keep you in the know

Sweet tooth or not, we all need a little treat from time to time. The most recent U.S. Dietary Guidelines suggest no more than 8 tablespoons of added sugar in a 2000-calorie diet. Lately, those 8 tablespoons are getting complicated as simple table sugar becomes the exception to the rule when doctoring your morning coffee. From the Little Pink Packet to Splenda and now stevia — the options are endless and really, none of them are health foods. But, says Manhattan-based nutritionist Mary Ellen Bingham, used sparingly, sweeteners are fine. Her advice: "Research is still so inconclusive. Pick your poison and limit it." Here's the lowdown on what we currently know about the most popular sweeteners on the market:

Sweet n' Low

Also known as saccharin, this stuff comes in the famous pink packet. About 300 times sweeter than table sugar and calorie-free, it's the most common form of artificial sweetener. That said, in early 2008 the journal Behavioral Neuroscience published a study by researchers at Purdue University and the National Institutes of Health suggesting that saccharin can actually cause weight gain. The scientists found that rats consuming saccharin eventually lost the connection between the brain and the body that normally results from tasting sweet foods: an increase in body temperature and a digestive response preparing the body to burn additional calories. Because the sweet taste with saccharin wasn't followed by calories to burn, the rats became conditioned to have a weaker digestive response after eating the zero-calorie sweetener and gained weight.

Bottom line: Not every study (especially studies involving rats) should be taken as gospel, says Keri Gans, New York registered dietitian and spokesperson for the American Dietetic Association. "I wouldn't draw a conclusion based on one study done on rats. People who eat artificial sweets may crave more of the real thing. I think a lot of what you hear is anecdotal because I haven't found many more studies to support it. Until there are human studies that conclude this product causes weight gain, it's fine to have Sweet n' Low in moderation — just like any other sweetener."

 

Equal

This is aspartame. There have been endless claims that this particular sweetener can cause cancer and even neurological damage in the human body. A September 2007 panel of medical experts, doctors and academics convened at the University of Maryland to sort out the final word, and the verdict came back that there is no real risk to using aspartame in moderation. That said, any Google search on the stuff will bring up hundreds of pages warning of tumors, autism and cancer and a 2007 study at the Ramazzini Foundation of Oncology and Environmental Sciences in Italy questions the long-purported belief that cancer isn't a likely side-effect.

Bottom line: Gans' take: "It's safe in moderation until hard science proves otherwise. I try overall to have my patients to get their sweetness from the real thing — fruits and whole foods. But there is a place for artificial sweeteners in your diet as well if you're trying to reduce your calories."

 

Truvia

The latest sweetener to hit your grocery store shelves, Truvia is made from rebiana, the sweetest part of the stevia plant — a relative to the chrysanthemum plant. It's been used in Japan since 1977, and the likes of Coca Cola, Cargill and Pepsi have jumped on board the all-natural sweetener train to market products using the stevia leaf in lieu of sugar. Just like it's counterparts, Truvia is several hundred times (about 300) sweeter than sugar, calorie free and . . . (wait for it, wait for it) all-natural. Of course, though, the all-natural billing is debatable given that the FDA has no real definition for the "natural" label.

Bottom line: Rebecca Scritchfield, a Washington D.C.-based dietitian says it really comes down to personal preference with this one. If you like the taste of the stevia extract, go for it. Just don't over-do it or think Truvia has a health-halo because of its all-natural label.

 

Splenda

Made from sugar, Splenda is another option that allows you to pack your sweet tooth into fewer calories. That said, Splenda is not natural, despite it's sugar roots, says food chemist Kantha Shelke. Splenda is also called sucralose — a man-made molecule that may have started with sugar but was manipulated with various molecular extensions. It isn't absorbed in the same way sugar is — the sugar compounds in Splenda (and in all artificial sweeteners) pass through the body and are not stored or used for energy. Since it's not metabolized in the same way sugar is, says Bingham, you're not likely to feel satisfied after eating it and may still crave sweet. And of course, the jury is still out on long-term health effects of using Splenda.

Bottom line: A Duke University study released in September 2008 suggests that Splenda may be linked to obesity, just as in the saccharin study at Purdue mentioned above. Still, says Gans, there has been no conclusive evidence to suggest a half a packet in your daily latte is going to cause major weight gain.

 

Sugar

We all know this one. Table sugar is an added sugar and it has the highest caloric count of all options. That said, it's perfectly fine to use sugar if you prefer the taste to the artificial options.

Bottom line: So long as you're not using sugar to replace whole foods and nutrients, you are totally entitled to it in moderation.

 

Honey

You may think this is a healthy alternative to sugar. That's a myth. Yes, honey truly is a natural option, but the same approach you might take to any sweetener should be taken here as well — not to mention, Bingham points out, honey has more calories per serving than straight sugar (64 cal per tbsp of honey vs. 48 cal per tbsp of sugar).

Bottom line: If you like the taste of honey and prefer it over your other options, go for it but don't be fooled that because honey is natural, it's good for you. It's basically sugar in a different form, says Gans—and sugar is empty calories.

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