Sugar has always been popular. For instance, ancient people found they could enjoy its desirable sweetness by simply chewing on the cane. Once crystallization was discovered, sugar grew in popularity, and, eventually, by the 1600s, sugar was a prized commodity sought after by European colonists in the New World. The 1700s resulted in mass produced sugar for use in the rum trade, and African slaves were a big part of sugar and rum’s success. The confectionery and chocolate industry also blossomed, and cotton candy debuted at the Paris Exposition in 1900. Sugar was also a big hit in 1957 when the McGuire Sisters achieved the hit song known as “Sugartime.” (You may remember the lyrics: “Sugar in the morning, sugar in the evening, sugar at suppertime, be my little sugar and love me all the time.”)
Even if the McGuire Sisters hadn’t been pushing sugar, American would have still loved it. In fact, over-consumption has lead to hypoglycemia, diabetes, and coronary heart disease. Sugar is also blamed for a litany of other illnesses: gout, cancer, tooth decay, obesity, and chronic tiredness. Some people readily avoid sugar, such as diabetics, and some people object to sugar, such as vegans because calcinated animal bones, known as bone char, are sometimes used to whiten it. Other people simply chose to avoid it because of its calorie content or they switched to artificial sweeteners. Two of the most popular sweeteners are aspartame and saccharin (sometimes mistakenly spelled saccharine).
So, you may be wondering, what are the differences between aspartame, saccharin, and sugar, and are artificial sweeteners safe?
Aspartame is an artificial sweetener often used in soft drinks and sugar-free chewing gum. It was discovered in 1965, and is 180 times sweeter than sugar. When ingested aspartame breaks down into such things as phenylalanine (which can cause migraines and is also a serious health hazard to people who suffer from phenylketonuria, also known as PKU because they can’t metabolize it properly). It is also unstable when heated and loses its flavor, so cannot be used in baked goods. However, diabetics like it, and a study on diabetics and aspartame concluded that the “use of aspartame as a low-calorie sweetener does not adversely affect glycemic control of persons with diabetes.”
Saccharin is also an artificial sweetener and is used as a food additive in things such as candy, drinks, and medicines. It was accidentally discovered in 1879 by a chemist and it did not become popular until World War I’s sugar rationing days. What made saccharin really popular was when the Coca Cola company added it to their diet drink Tab; however, its popularity plunged in 1977, after a study found rats fed large amounts of saccharin also showed increased tendencies towards bladder cancer, but that study was eventually shown to be flawed, and now it can be found regularly in little pink packets at restaurants. The American Diabetes Association approves of saccharin in moderate amounts, although they recommend pregnant woman avoid it.
Sugar is made from either sugarcane or sugar beets, and according to the authors of Concepts in Biology, in 2004, sugarcane was the number one major world food crop and sugar beets were sixth. (Interestingly, sugarcane is produced at almost twice the rate of the number two crop, corn.) There is little difference between sugarcane and sugar beets as far as taste, but sugarcane requires more than four times as much water to produce as the beets. When white sugar is refined, nutrients are striped from it, and, even though it is touted as “natural” sugar, it’s nothing like the kind of sugar found in fresh fruits or vegetables. In the past few years, the sugar industry has aggressively promoted refined sugar as “natural,” even though most white sugar is made from genetically modified beets.
So, what’s the sugary scoop? Most nutritionists agree no more than 10 percent of your daily calories should come from refined sugar, although the Institute of Medicine suggests sugar not make up more than 25 percent of your calories, which based on a 2,000 calorie diet is equivalent to 2/3 cup of sugar (and to me is way too much sugar per day). Either way—following nutritionists or the Institute of Medicine’s sugar guidelines—it is easy to consume more sugar than recommended. Just read the nutritional label on the back of packages or on soft drink cans. It doesn’t take much to overload your diet with sugar, particularly because so many food items contain fructose corn syrup.
In 1987 about 70 million people used artificial sweeteners. By 2000, that number had more than doubled, reaching 160 million. During the same time, obesity among adults in the United States rose (it was 15 percent in 1987 and by 2000 it was 30 percent). Some people believe the increase in artificial sweeteners explains the rise in obesity because there is evidence that artificial sweeteners affect the the body’s ability to judge caloric intake and that encourages people to overeat. To learn more about this read Artificial Sweeteners: A Not So Sweet Deal.
Aspartame is one artificial sweetener that has received increasing consumer complaints and prompted numerous anti-aspartame web sites. Holistic practitioners claim it’s poison, and one article titled, Aspartame: Diet-astrous Results, written by registered dietician, Rebecca Emphraim, states, “Aspartame itself doesn’t have any calories, but basically, one of its ingredients, the amino acid phenylalanine, blocks production of serotonin, a nerve chemical that, among other activities, controls food cravings. As you might well imagine, a shortage of serotonin will make your brain and body scream for the foods that create more of this brain chemical—and those are the high-calorie, carbohydrate-rich snacks that can sabotage a dieter.” Moreover, there is ongoing controversy over aspartame, and some people claim there is link between it and headaches, brain tumors and lesions, or lymphoma, although the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) refutes this.
There are also complaints about saccharin and not just because of it’s funny aftertaste. According to Jim Earles in his article, Sugar-Free Blues–Everything You Wanted to Know About Artificial Sweeteners, he notes, “unlike aspartame, saccharin is not metabolized by the human body and is excreted rapidly through the urine.” Saccharin is also a sulfonamide and sulfonamides have been linked to dermatological reactions in people who are allergic to sulfa drugs. They may experience a litany of problems, including itching, wheezing, insomnia, diarrhea, tachycardia, headaches, eczema, prurigo, urticaria, or tongue blisters. Earles sums it up when he asserts, the bottom line is although there is no definitive link between saccharin and cancer, there is also no proof that saccharin does not cause cancer in humans.
The bottom line on sweeteners is, you’re better off without them. Sugar has no nutritional value and neither does aspartame or saccharin. Although sweeteners may not be the cause of all the following—obesity, tooth decay, and certain types of diabetes—they contribute to these diseases, and over consumption of sweeteners are definitely linked to numerous health problems. Why take the risk of consuming something that is modified and offers no nutritional value? If you want something sweet, why not eat a piece of fruit that contains natural sugars and is much better for you? Removing empty calories and substituting better and healthier foods can help you lose and maintain weight. In addition, you won’t have to wonder or worry whether or not aspartame, saccharin, or “natural” sugar is good or bad for you.