The obesity epidemic is one of America’s most serious health problems. Adult obesity rates have doubled since 1980, from 15% to 30%, while childhood obesity rates have more than tripled. Increasingly, more Americans are searching for low-calorie options to control their weight while food makers roll out new artificial sweeteners to meet this rising demand. Artificial sweeteners are a billion dollar industry. Nowadays, they are found in so many foods, from diet drinks, yogurt, snacks, dessert, candies, chewing gums, children’s vitamins, over-the-counter drugs, prescription drugs, to even water.
“Artificial” means something that is not found in nature; it is a man-made chemical compound. When you consume them day-in, day-out, what effect do they have on your body? Is it really safe for long-term consumption? Does it really help prevent you from gaining weight?
Artificial sweeteners are just about the worst of all possible worlds, as far as dietary choices go. They are beyond processed, completely unnatural, insufficiently tested for long-term safety, and have a long history of causing health problems. They are extreme examples of what has gone wrong with our modern day diet. Studies show that people who consume diet drinks tend to gain more weight than people who consume regular soft drinks.
Aspartame was originally developed in a lab as a drug to treat peptic ulcer. In 1965, a scientist at G. D. Searle & Co., licked his fingers to pick up a piece of paper, and got the world’s first taste of this chemical. Since its approval in 1981, aspartame has gained substantial market share over saccharin (Sweet’N Low), which has been determined to increase the rate of bladder cancer in rats.
Aspartame is also known as NutraSweet, Equal, and Canderel. It is an ingredient used in over 6,000 consumer foods and beverages worldwide and is found in little blue packets at coffee shops and restaurants.
Aspartame has been touted as safe because it is made from amino acids, the building blocks of protein. However, the statement is not entirely true. Aspartame is not a natural product; it is a synthesized compound composed of 50% phenylalanine (an amino acid), 40% aspartic acid (also an amino acid) and 10% methanol (wood alcohol or paint remover). Aspartame breaks down into its constituents under conditions of elevated temperature or high pH. The following are some reasons why aspartame is not as safe as it claims:
Phenylalanine changes brain chemistry
- Causes mental retardation in people who have the genetic disorder, phenylketonuria (PKU).
- When consumed in high concentrations, it interferes with the growth of the fetus’ brain.
- Blocks production of serotonin, a neurostransmitter that controls eating patterns, resulting in sugar and carbohydrate cravings, and weight gain. Therefore, diabetics, should never use aspartame as a substitute for sugar. Further, low serotonin is associated with symptoms from premenstrual syndrome, mood swings, to depression.
- Changes dopamine level in brain and exacerbates symptoms of Parkinson’s Disease
Aspartic acid is neurotoxic
- When consumed in high concentrations, it causes excessive firing of brain neurons and potential cell death, an effect called excitotoxicity. It is linked to disorders such as Alzheimer’s disease and symptoms such as headaches, depression, mental confusion, memory loss, severe vision loss, balance problems, and seizures.
Methanol is extremely toxic
- Toxicity symptoms mimic multiple sclerosis, which leads to many wrong diagnoses.
- Worsens symptoms of systemic lupus
In the ten years from 1981 to 1991, 10,000 aspartame complaints had been filed with the FDA, totaling over 80% of all FDA complaints. Then in 1992, the FDA quit categorizing complaints as an aspartame grievance and began putting them into generic categories. So after 1992, no more specific aspartame complaints were recorded.
On Apr. 26, 2005, the National Justice League filed three lawsuits against NutraSweet alleging that aspartame is hazardous to human health. On Sep. 15 of the same year, a $350 million racketeering class action lawsuit was filed against NutraSweet and a number of other plaintiffs. Those charged are being accused of knowingly using the neurotoxic aspartame as a sugar substitute in the manufacture of Equal, while being fully aware that consumption of it could lead to a host of health problems.
Given the myriad health complaints and the impending lawsuits regarding the safety of aspartame, it is advisable to avoid all foods and beverages containing this artificial sweetener.
In 1976, a chemistry student at Queen Elizabeth College in London was working with his advisor to create new pesticides. They accidentally discovered an exceptionally sweet compound by adding chlorine to sugar and putting it through a lengthy chemical transformation process. This compound eventually became sucralose and is marketed by Tate & Lyle under the name Splenda. It was first approved for use in the U.S. in 1998.
Sucralose is used in more than 4,500 food and beverage products and is found in little yellow packets at coffee shops and restaurants. It has at least twice the shelf life of aspartame and unlike aspartame, does not react to heat and can be used for baking. As a result, sucralose became an overnight success.
Splenda is marketed as natural and safe, “Made from sugar, so it tastes like sugar.” But nowhere in nature is there any form of sugar that remotely resembles the resulting chlorinated hydrocarbon known as sucralose:
Besides, there are no long-term safety trials done on any humans, only animals, and it was over a mere two-year period.
Since the introduction of sucralose, there have been many reported side effects:
- Skin – rash, hives, itching, redness, swelling
- Lungs – wheezing, cough
- Head – headaches, dry mouth and sinuses
- Nose – runny nose, sneezing
- Eyes – itchy, swollen
- Stomach – bloating gas, diarrhea, nausea
- Heart – chest pains, palpitations
- Joint – pains and aches
- Neurological – anxiety, anger, mood swings, seizures, depression
Worse, a recent Duke University study on rats shows that Splenda
- reduces the amount of good bacteria in the intestines by 50%,
- increases the pH level in the intestines,
- contributes to increases in body weight, and
- affects the P-glycoprotein (P-gp) in the body in such a way that crucial health-related drugs (e.g. chemo, AIDS, heart) could be rejected.
Consuming sucralose is almost like putting pesticide in your body. Tate & Lyle admitted that 15% of sucralose is absorbed by the body and some into the fat tissues, however, we don’t know what amount stays and what amount gets flushed out.
In early 2009, Cargill began marketing this new no-calorie sweetener made from erythritol (a natural sugar alcohol from fruits and fermented foods) and steviol glycoside or rebiana (a compound extracted from the South American herb, stevia).
This natural herb, stevia, has been safely used as a sweetener in South America for over 1,500 years with no known or reported harmful effects. Stevia is allowed for use as a food additive in 12 countries, including Japan, Australia, and New Zealand. However, to this date, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) still bans its use as a food additive, and only allows it as a dietary supplement. Many believed that the FDA’s actions are nothing more than a restraint to trade, designed to benefit the artificial sweetener industry as stevia is a natural herb and cannot be patented.
So the question is: Is Truvia safe? The answer is: We don’t know yet. Although it is quite safe to consume whole stevia leaves, there is no long-term study on whether consuming isolated compounds, like steviol glycoside, extracted from the whole herb will be harmful to humans. As we always say, time will tell.
Therefore, for diabetics seeking a sweetener that doesn’t affect blood glucose, stevia is still the safest and most natural choice available at this moment. Remember, do not confuse Truvia with stevia. Until Truvia’s long-term effect is determined, it is not wise to play guinea pig with your own health.
Although natural sweeteners are much more nutritious than refined sugars and contain vitamins, minerals, and enzymes, they are still caloric and have an effect on blood glucose (except stevia). Therefore, use in moderation. If you struggle with diabetes or extra weight, you are better off avoiding them.
The following are some healthier sweet options:
- Agave nectar: Made from the agave plant in Mexico. Agave is less viscous than honey and has a neutral taste. It contains mainly fructose, therefore, use sparingly.
- Barley Malt: Dark, sticky, and boldly flavored. Contains primarily maltose, a complex sugar.
- Date Sugar: Ground from dehydrated dates. Can be used in baking but not for beverages as the tiny pieces won’t dissolve.
- Honey: A whole food made by bees from flower nectar. Raw is best as the enzymes are not destroyed during processing.
- Maple Syrup: Boiled-down sap of maple trees. Look for 100% maple syrup with no additives.
- Maple Sugar: What is left when all of the liquid has been cooked out of maple syrup. It is about twice as sweet as refined white sugar.
- Molasses: Unsulfured molasses is made from the juice of sun-ripened cane; sulfured molasses is a byproduct of refined sugar; blackstrap molasses is the residue of the cane syrup after the sugar crystals have been separated.
- Rice Syrup: A traditional Asian sweetener made from rice starch converted into maltose, a complex sugar.
- Sorghum Syrup: From sorghum cane juice, boiled to syrup.
- Stevia: A natural no-calorie sweetener that does not spike blood glucose. Available as a powder or extract, its taste has a slower onset and longer duration than that of sugar; some say it has a bitter or licorice-like aftertaste.
- Yacon Syrup: Extracted from the root of a perennial plant grown in the Andes. High in fructo-oligosaccharide (FOS) that promotes growth of beneficial bacteria in the colon. It has less of an effect on blood glucose levels and contains 25% less calories than honey.