In civilized nations we are eating more sugar, specifically fructose. Our consumption of fructose has doubled in the past 30 years and has increased sixfold in the last century. I’m not talking about the naturally occurring fructose you get from sugarcane, fruits, some vegetables and honey. Nature made sugar hard to get. Man has made it easy to get.
The food industry says that even though fructose consumption is up, real sugar consumption is down. This is true. But artificial sweetener use has increased massively in the past few decades and now it’s time for me to give you some background and reasons why this wasn’t and still isn’t a good trade for any of us.
Artificial sweeteners are ubiquitous, meaning they are everywhere. Saccharin is the oldest artificial sweetener. It was discovered in 1879 and is 300 times sweeter than sucrose which we all know as table sugar. Saccharin started only as a specialty product for diabetics on medicine-store shelves. But a sugar shortage during World War II and a desire by women favoring a thin figure, encouraged women to turn to artificial substitutes as well.
In 1965 aspartame was discovered. The FDA approved Aspartame first for use in dry foods in 1981, then as a general sweetener in 1996. It’s about 200 times sweeter than sucrose and even though it provides about 4 calories per gram like sugar, due to the small amount ingested at a time its contribution of calories is small.
Acesulfame potassium,or what we typically call Ace K was FDA approved for use in dry foods in 1988 and as a general sweetener in 2003.
Sucralose, what we all know as Splenda, is the new kid on the market, it’s the most popular and it’s 600 times sweeter than sucrose. It was approved in 1999.
More than 6,000 new products were launched in the United States between 1999 and 2004. A current ingredient search on foodfacts.com yields 3,648 products containing one or more of the five FDA approved artificial sweeteners. Sucralose is the most popular. 1,500 products contain Sucralose followed by Ace K at 1,103 products and Aspartame at 974 products.
Artificial sweeteners are most commonly used in carbonated drinks. But they also are found in a variety of other products from baby food, even Pedialyte, to frozen food-like-substances like Lean Pockets. With such a diverse selection it is more likely that you will encounter artificially sweetened items when making day-to-day choices on food and beverages.
Why care about artificial sweeteners? I thought this whole weight loss thing was about calories in and calories out. Artificial sweeteners are so sweet we barely need to use any of them to sweeten things up so who cares? Well, your flaccid, dead taste buds care. And your brain cares.
When we eat foods with real sugar we get rapidly absorbable carbohydrates that can lead to excessive calories. Sugar and other caloric sweeteners such as high fructose corn syrup have been cast by some as the main culprits of the obesity epidemic. Whether due to a successful marketing effort on the part of the diet beverage industry or not, the weight conscious public often considers artificial sweeteners health food. But do artificial sweeteners actually reduce weight?
Surprisingly, studies of mass populations suggest the contrary. Several large scale studies found a positive correlation between artificial sweeteners use and weight gain.
But why? Well it appears that artificial sweeteners hijack the brain. And the brain doesn’t take too kindly to that. Research has shown that sweet taste, whether it be from real sugar or artificial sweetener increases appetite. But here comes one of the major differences between real sugar and artificial sweeteners as long as the real sugar comes from a food you chew. For drinks in particular our bodies might not be able to identify the calories in sweet liquids as well as they can in solid foods. This is why we have a food rule at LL University to CHEW YOUR CALORIES rather than drink them. It’s more satisfying, it takes longer to consume them, and your body knows better how to process them. Okay, back to the next problem with artificial sweeteners.
Within a feeding period we’ll experience less and less perceived pleasantness to real sugar. That makes sense right – even when we look beyond fullness at some point we just get sick of the food or drink we’re consuming. And this is a good thing. The less pleasant a food becomes within a feeding period the less we’ll desire it and the less we may eat of it. Research with Aspartame, however, showed there was no reduction in perceived pleasantness within a feeding period. So there was no “shut off” signal given due to reduction in desire from taste signaling. This is the first part of a faulty hunger shut-off valve that can result from consuming artificial sweeteners. Aspartame also increased subjective hunger ratings compared to glucose–a simple real sugar.
So part one of the problem with artificial sweeteners is they don’t always signal to us that we’ve had enough and we should be sick of this taste now. Depending on what food they are a part of we could still overconsume calories or we could simply be overconsuming toxic chemicals typically used in conjunction in foods with artificial sweeteners. Okay, that’s part 1 of the problem for artificial sweeteners. Now part 2 – the hijacking of the brain caused by something researchers call inconsistent coupling.
When we consume real sugar our brain gets a signal that says “Hey, this is real food, it contains energy, I know what to do with this and I will give you feedback at some point that you’ve had enough and you don’t need more for a while.” The sweetness of the real sugar is COUPLED with the energy it provides. By energy I’m talking about calories. But when we consume artificial sweeteners the brain detects the sweet and assumes that energy in the form of carbohydrates is coming. But they usually aren’t – after all we’re consuming junk food with artificial sweeteners in it. Therefore we have inconsistent coupling. We have sweet but we don’t have the energy.
Well the brain doesn’t take too kindly to being tricked. So what it does as part 2 of the problem is it continues to send signals to your gut and other organs that you need to go find the MISSING carbohydrates – the missing carbohydrates that should have been provided by whatever the hell it was you were tasting a bit ago that was sweet.
The brain says “I don’t know what kind of shananigans you were trying to pull with the zero-energy sweet taste thingy but all I know is sweet equals energy from carbohydrates and by God we are going to go find some carbohydrates to fill the gap. So, for your little trick you tried to play on me I’m going to give you hunger signals and cravings for sweet and carbs until you fill in the gap. Thanks for stopping, nice try, better luck next time.”
And that ladies and gentleman is a big problem for you and I. It also helps to explain why studies on people who use artificial sweeteners don’t lose weight and often times gain weight. Your brain drives you to make up the difference elsewhere.
What does that mean? It means that when we try to trick our brain into the idea that we had something sweet but we really don’t provide any energy calories, carbohydrates or real sugar, we will make up for it later. We’ll find other ways and other things and other foods and other products to make up for the calories we thought we just ate.
Let me say that again? Animals, we are an animal by the way; seek food to satisfy their inherent craving for sweetness. Even in the absence of energy need, even when we don’t need calories, there is a drive within us to seek food to satisfy a craving for sweetness.
Artificial sweeteners, precisely because they are sweet, encourage sugar craving and sugar dependence. Repeated exposure trains flavor preference. Let me say that again – it’s very important – REPEATED EXPOSURE TRAINS FLAVOR PREFERENCE.
Researchers in a Yale study on the subject had this to say … “A strong correlation exists between a person’s customary intake of a flavor and his preferred intensity for that flavor. Systematic reduction of dietary salt or fat without any flavorful substitution over the course of several weeks led to a preference for lower levels of those nutrients in the research subjects.”
What did they just say? Did I hear that right? Yes, I did, they said when subjects reduce salt and fat in their nutrition without any substitution over the course of several weeks it led to a preference, a preference for lower levels of salt and fat. Let me say it another way — when they lowered the salt and fat for several weeks and didn’t substitute with a bunch of fake crap to mimic the missing salt and fat – in other words they just endured it — there was a preference after several weeks for lower levels of both salt and fat.
But Isn’t Diet Soda Better For Your Teeth Than Full-Strength?
No. Diet soda is only marginally less destructive to your teeth than regular soda. Frequent, daily consumption of either diet soda or regular soda will significantly increase the likelihood of dental cavities. Dental decay is caused by sugary foods AND acidic foods. In the case of regular soda, you are ingesting sugar in an acidic liquid.
Acidic content is measured on a 0 (most acidic) to 14 (least) pH scale. The pH of battery acid is a 1 on the scale — tap water is a 7. Cola measures in the 2.3-2.5 range which means it’s much closer to battery acid than it is water.
With diet sodas, there is no sugar, but the artificial sweetening is still being delivered in a very acidic mixture. The acids in soda first weaken and then ultimately begin to wear away tooth enamel, the hard outer layer of the tooth; without it, your teeth have little to no protection.
In conclusion, artificial sweeteners taste sweet but are not as rewarding to the brain as sugar. As the brain is hijacked into believing energy (calories) are being delivered, when they’re not, it can drive us to seek the missing calories it feels are missing. In other words, if you consume artificial sweeteners you are likely to make up for the missing calories elsewhere. Research does not support the use of artificial sweeteners working better for weight loss. Although each artificial sweetener has passed government approval for our consumption these chemicals add to the total load of chemicals (endocrine disruptors) and may, therefore, be not only worthless for weight loss but harmful to health.