Which Is Better, Sugar or Sugar Substitutes? It’s Complicated

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Swapping artificial sweeteners for sugar in food and drink sounds like a sensible way to fight weight gain, right?

Truth is, real sugar, obtained from healthy foods like fruit, does have benefits, although they’re limited. Meanwhile, sugar substitutes (like aspartame, saccharin and stevia) won’t add calories, but research on the benefits and pitfalls of their use remains inconclusive.

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Sugar (aka glucose) is a natural part of our food supply. When it provides us with the energy we need (in the form of calories), along with the nutrients derived from the foods we eat, it is considered a “nutritive sweetener.”

For example, in eating fruit, not only are we getting the sweeteners, but we are also getting fiber, minerals, vitamins and water and other nutrients.

But the downsides to sugar consumption are huge.

The American Heart Association (AHA) recommends no more than 9.5 teaspoons of sugar per adult daily, but the daily average for American adults is 22. That excess glucose goes unused by the body, adding weight and damaging organs, which results in diabetes, obesity and cardiovascular problems.

According to the National Institutes for Health (NIH), glucose is the most important fuel for the brain, and a vital source of fuel for the body. But your body can get enough glucose from the food molecules in carbohydrates, proteins, and fats, so there’s no need to add more.

Artificial sweeteners: an imperfect substitute

On the other hand, non-nutritive sweeteners are sweeteners that do not provide any calories or nutrients. These are low calorie or no-calorie sweeteners; for example, aspartame, saccharin, stevia. Typically, these are found in drinks and snacks that offer no additional nutritional value.

Skeptics and critics have long accused sugar substitutes of being harmful; namely, by promoting cancer, and prompting weight gain by increasing the body’s desire for sweetness.

To date, while most studies have ruled out any link between artificial sweeteners and cancer in humans, medical research has not been able to conclude that artificial sweeteners lead to weight gain.

Studies in rats and small numbers of people suggest that artificial sweeteners can affect the microbes in our gut that help us digest food. This in turn can change the body’s ability to use glucose, which might then lead to weight gain. But until larger studies are done in humans, experts say, there is no conclusive evidence that artificial sweeteners adversely affect weight.

In fact, in 2012, the AHA and the American Diabetes Association published a report concluding that sensible use of non-nutritive sweeteners could help lower caloric and carbohydrate intake. But they, too, confirmed that further research is needed.

Think before you drink

Sugar-sweetened beverages like soda, energy drinks, and sports drinks are the leading source of added sugars in the American diet.

But whether a drink is sweetened naturally or artificially, there are downsides. For example, juices naturally contain a lot of sugar, but sometimes more is added to make them taste even sweeter. And while artificially sweetened drinks offer lower calories, they usually offer little to no nutritional value.

Overall, experts conclude, one of the greatest health dangers we face in the U.S. is increasingly poor nutrition from our poor health choices. Your best bet: keep your sugar intake low, limit food and drinks containing sugar substitutes (because they tend to be unhealthy, even if the sweetener is safe), and turn to healthier substitutes for your cravings. And contact your doctor if you need advice or answers.

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