Artificial Sweetener Rabbit Hole

Artificial Sweeteners – Go Ask Alice

Executive Summary

Artificial Sweeteners, what a “rabbit hole!” By rabbit hole, I refer to the Wikipedia definition, “a metaphor for an entry into the unknown, the disorientating or the mentally deranging, from its use in Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland.” 

In this metaphor, artificial sweeteners stand in for the rabbit. I’m Alice (although I look better in a navy blue dress than a sky blue one). The hole is a symbol for my attempt to make sense of this topic.

You, the readers are to blame. It all started with a request for my comments on the 2015 Dietary Guidelines for Americans. I posted that here. Then the second level questions came in, including questions about the new guidelines for added sugar. That discussion can be found here. But it’s unrealistic to tell people to eat less sugar, a highly addictive substance, and not say how to kick the habit. The Dietary Guidelines acknowledge this fact and gives some deference to artificial sweeteners.

So like any other person with an unnatural, irrational and insatiable curiosity about personal health (because there are so many of us walking around), I felt honor bound to get to the bottom of it.

I still haven’t found the bottom. There are at least three different categories of artificial sweeteners, fifteen distinct substances currently in use and hundreds of different brands and blends,s each with its own effect on your health.

As I started documenting this, I saw that I was in the midst of creating an epic post. And by “epic” I mean “long and tedious” like what you had to read in high school and not “awesome and groovy”  like kids SAY in high school (kids still say “awesome” and “groovy” in high school, right?).

There’s so much nuance on this subject, I could fill a book and I’m not ready to do that. If I’m going to write another book, it’ll be about integrating kindness and physical activity into your otherwise busy life. Also, it will contain poop jokes but there’s nothing stopping me from making poop jokes in this post (The Karma Sense Activity Plan coming to stores in early 2018).

Instead, I break this subject into multiple parts. In this segment, I try to make sense of the government’s recommendations. I also provide some background on why it’s difficult to come up with one-size-fits-all guidance.

In the next post I’ll discuss some of the subtle differences between the types so you can come up with a strategy that fits you. Since many of you don’t care about the background and just want some practical advice, I begin this post with that.

Artificial Sweeteners – WWDHD (What Would Davey H Do?)

I’ll provide most of the justification for this advice in the next post. But here is what I recommend:

  1. Your best bet is to avoid artificial sweeteners just like you should avoid added sugar.
  2. If this isn’t possible, either because you have a sweet tooth or because you’re addicted to diet drinks, don’t panic. Artificial sweeteners can be part of a healthy lifestyle.
  3. Evidence that artificial sweeteners cause chronic diseases (such as cancer) or make you gain weight is weak or dependent on consuming more than one ever could in a lifetime (at least until Ben & Jerry releases a sugar-free version of Chubby Hubby. Then maybe one could consume enough).
  4. Still, specific types of artificial sweeteners can cause specific issues for people under specific conditions. Most common is the stomach upset associated with eating the so-called low-calorie sugar alcohols (“stomach upset” is a euphemism for “explosive diarrhea”←first poop joke). It’s best to research the effects of the different kinds (something I address in the next post).
  5. If you don’t want to worry about it, see #1.  I avoid artificial sweeteners but mostly because they’re gross. I’m not a fan of the used gym sock taste they leave in my mouth. Also, when compared to a perfectly ripe peach, a cold piece of in-season watermelon or an orange on a really hot day, well, there really is no comparison, even if sugar-free Chubby Hubby did exist.

That’s my recommendation. Now, before we discuss the fake stuff, we need a little background on the real thing.

The Real Thing: Glucose, Fructose and Galactose

No. Glucose, Fructose and Galactose are not the names of Giant Nuclear Monsters Intent on Destroying Tokyo.

Definitely Not Artificial Sweeteners
Godzilla, Rodan and Mechagodzilla at a Vodka and Red Bull Infused Rave.

Instead, they are monosaccharides, real sugar molecules in their purest, uncut form. These monster monosaccharides contain the standard four calories per gram you get from any carbohydrate but without the nutritional and calorie diluting benefit of the fiber, vitamins or phytochemicals that come with whole foods like sweet potatoes, apples or beans.

Monosaccharides are delivered to our gut in many forms. Here is that recurring list of Big Food’s code names for monosaccharides when they’re adding sugar to your food:

Big Food’s Sugar Decoder Table
Agave Nectar/Syrup Fructose Maltodextrin
Blackstrap Molasses Fruit Juice (Concentrate) Maltose
Brown Rice Syrup Glucose Maple Syrup
Brown Sugar Granulated Beet Sugar Molasses
Coconut Sugar Granulated Cane Sugar Palm Sugar
Corn Syrup High Fructose Corn Syrup Raw Organic Cane
Date Sugar Honey Sucrose
Dextrose Hydrolized Starch Sugar
Evaporated Cane Syrup Invert Sugar/Inverted Sugar Syrup Sugar Beets

Now mashup the above nutrition knowledge bomb with the “added sugar” recommendations from the 2015 Dietary Guidelines for Americans (discussed here). What you get is an average daily limit equal to one Snickers bar OR one can of pop (or whatever else you call liquid-candy in your geographic region) each day.

The actual average consumed? About twice that.

What’s a Healthcare Industrial Complex to Do?

One would expect the collective geniuses in the worlds of medicine, research, engineering and policy to collaborate in a sincere effort to divert our attention from packaged foods that are not palatable without added sugar. The new target would be whole foods that are naturally delicious.

But all the best intentions in the world are no match for the marketing and lobbying might of Big Food. Unfortunately, the “Big Fruit” lobby isn’t so big.

The result is a halfhearted effort on behalf of whole food with a much larger focus on “better living through chemistry” and an ongoing pursuit of artificial sweeteners. Sugar substitutes. Fake sugar.

Ahh, Capitalism.

Artificial Sweeteners and the 2015 Dietary Guidelines for Americans

To be fair, the folks in charge of food policy continuously encourage us to eat more whole food. They also accept the inevitable that people don’t want to give up their bacon-and-ranch-flavored-chocolate-covered-cheese-puffs.

In fact, every five years, the US Department of Health and Human Services and the US Department of Agriculture release a document called the Dietary Guidelines for Americans (I discuss the process here). To ensure that the guidelines contain the most up-to-date information, the sponsoring organizations charter a group of nutrition and health experts who work under the auspices of the Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee (DGAC).

The DGAC analyzes the latest research and summarizes it into a set of recommendations. Congress reviews these recommendations and removes anything that may offend big donors such as the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association (motto:It’s What’s for Dinner), the Sugar Refiner’s Association (motto:You’re not fat. You’re big boned) and the Bacon-and-Ranch-Flavored-Chocolate-Covered-Cheese-Puff Association (motto:We have the most ingredients). The results serve as food policy for all government activities over the course of the next five years and ensures that bacon-and-ranch-flavored-chocolate-covered-cheese-puffs maintain their classification as a vegetable and is freely available in your school lunch program.

What Did the DGAC Say?

For the first time in Guidelines history, the DGAC had some specific things to say about fake sugar. There are over fifty mentions of “low-calorie sweeteners” in their final report.   Most of those mentions are repeats of the same statement:

“…added sugars should be reduced in the diet and not replaced with low-calorie sweeteners, but rather with healthy options, such as water in place of sugar-sweetened beverages.”

They also looked at one specific artificial sweetener, aspartame, and said this:

“…aspartame in amounts commonly consumed is safe and poses minimal health risk for healthy individuals without phenylketonuria (PKU).”

In summary, fake sugar, isn’t necessarily bad for you, but it’s gross, so try not to eat it.

What Do the Guidelines Say?

Those of you who are following my series on The 2015 Dietary Guidelines for Americans know that in most cases when there is disagreement between the DGAC recommendations and the final guidelines, I side with the DGAC. Here is the best summary statement directly from the guidelines (brace yourself for some bloviating):

“It should be noted that replacing added sugars with high-intensity sweeteners may reduce calorie intake in the short-term, yet questions remain about their effectiveness as a long-term weight management strategy. High-intensity sweeteners that have been approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) include saccharin, aspartame, acesulfame potassium (Ace-K), and sucralose. Based on the available scientific evidence, these high-intensity sweeteners are considered to be safe for the general population. This means that there is reasonable certainty of no harm under the intended conditions of use because the estimated daily intake is not expected to exceed the acceptable daily intake for each sweetener. The FDA has determined that the estimated daily intake of these high-intensity sweeteners would not exceed the acceptable daily intake, even for high consumers of each substance.”

In summary, fake sugar (what they call “high-intensity sweeteners”) is a perfectly legitimate and safe way to reduce calorie consumption. There is no recommendation for healthier alternatives. Do what you gotta do, brah.

Reconciling the DGAC report with the Guidelines

When you look at each of these conclusions, what you get is a tepid endorsement of fake sugar that together amount to my summary below:

You probably shouldn’t eat fake sugar but we know you’re going to do it anyway. In the scheme of things there are worse things you can do such as upsetting the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association, the Sugar Refiner’s Association and the Bacon-and-Ranch-Flavored-Chocolate-Covered-Cheese-Puff Association.

This seems like pretty realistic and reasonable advice. The weird thing to me is the difference in terminology. The DGAC talks about “low-calorie sweeteners.” The guidelines refer to “high-intensity sweeteners.”

What’s the Deal with Those Different Names for Fake Sugar? (Say it in a Seinfeld Voice. It Makes it Funnier)

I did a lot of research for this post. I read government policy documents, scientific journals, Big Food white papers and the last book in the Game of Throne series (hey, I needed a break). In that process, I came across all of these terms in reference to the same thing:

  • High-Intensity Sweeteners
  • High-Potency Sweeteners
  • Low-Calorie Sweeteners
  • Non-nutritive sweeteners
  • Zero-Calorie Sweeteners
  • Sugar Substitute
  • Rare Sugar
  • Novel Sweeteners (“as in ‘fiction’?”, he asked)
  • Alternative Sweeteners
  • Artificial Sweeteners
  • Dornish Wine (not sure if that one applies)

I don’t know why the DGAC had to call fake sugar one thing and the guidelines went with something else. I’m sure there’s a story there. But it’d be really nice if they’d use a single term for the category.

All real sugars come from the same monosaccharide building blocks (glucose, fructose and galactose). Therefore their effects are consistent regardless if they are in table sugar form or crunchy-sugar-bomb-cereal form. The  various fake sugars have little in common and that complicates things for those of us in the advice-giving business.

By my count, there are hundreds of brand names (e.g., Equal, Splenda, Truvia). They each use one (or more) of the fifteen or so fake sugar compounds (e.g., aspartame, saccharin, stevia).  Those compounds fall into one of three categories (discussed below). Each has its own advantages and disadvantages. When the compounds get blended together, a common practice, the combinations are infinite. Do we really need the added chaos that comes from having so many synonyms?

There are actually technical differences between the different terms. But those differences are not relevant to us average folk. All we care about is how many calories are in the final product and what are the side effects of the product’s ingredients. From my research, I noticed that even the scientists, regulators and product specialists who should know and care about the difference interchange the terms with reckless abandon.

Let’s dispense with the unnecessary complexity of vague overlapping terminology. I propose”fake sugar.” “Sugar substitute” is also an accurate name, but it sounds so mature I reject it on principle. As Juliet said to Romeo, “fake sugar by any other name would still taste like sweat socks.”

The Taxonomy of Fake Sugar

In order to provide meaningful advice let’s first look at the basic types, truly artificial sweeteners, sugar alcohols, natural sugar substitutes. This post only contains summary information. The next post has the details.

Real Fake Sugar (Truly Artificial Sweeteners)

Real fake sugars are chemicals that don’t occur in nature. That’s what makes them “real fake.” Many of them were accidental discoveries by chemists pursuing unrelated projects. For example, the chemists who discovered Saccharin were working on applications for coal tar derivatives that had nothing to do with food.

Real fake sugars come from the labs of companies like Celanese (a textile manufacturer) and Monsanto (of GMO fame). The varieties of real fake sugars include Acesulfame Potassium (ACE-K), Advantame, Allulose, Aspartame, Cyclamate, Neotame, Saccharin (Mmmmm, coal tar), Sucralose (another accident) and Tagatose.

Fake Real Sugar Alcohols (Sugar Alcohols)

Sugar alcohols actually do exist in nature. They occur in very small amounts in several foods, mostly fruit. That’s what makes them “Real Sugar Alcohols.” But, because they occur in such small amounts, Big Food manufactures them in industrial laboratories to increase yield. That’s what makes them “Fake Real Sugar Alcohols.”

There are many different kinds of sugar alcohols. The ones that are food additives include xylitol, erythritol, sorbitol and maltitol. The digestive system tolerates some better than others but as with all the fake sugars, it seems to depend on the person.

Real Sugar Substitutes (Saviors or Disappointments?)

Stevia and monk fruit (also known by the much cooler name, lo han kuo) are the two rising stars of the fake sugar universe. Each contains substances called glycosides. Glycosides are naturally sweet because they contain monosaccharides but like sugar alcohols, they’re bound to other molecules. Your digestive system is unable to break the bond between the two molecules so the sugar is never absorbed by your body.

However, yield on these guys is pretty low too. Don’t worry, Big Food is working on ways of building industrial lab versions of stevia and monk fruit too. And they’re already lobbying to call these fake versions “natural.”

Go Ask Alice

You now have the lay of the land of artificial sweeteners.This is a good place for a break. In the next post, we’ll survey some of the research and details of the various fake sugars you may encounter until then, sung to the tune of Go Ask Alice...

Sugar makes you larger
The fake stuff may make you small
But the best thing for your body
Is avoid any of them at all.
Go Ask Davey
Or give him a call

Seriously, reach out if you have any questions. Your requests for clarification make for better future content.


Research and Details of the Various Fake Sugars

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