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Sugar subs may do more harm than good

According to data published a few weeks ago by the World Health Organization, our society is consuming too much sugar. It is recommended that we ingest no more than six teaspoons a day for optimal health, and yet in Canada we are consuming about 18 teaspoons daily.

Our excessive consumption of sugar is a big concern, but mounting evidence over the years suggests replacing sugars with artificial sweeteners is not the solution. And in reality these man-made concoctions may be putting our health in jeopardy.

Aspartame, saccharin and sucralose, marketed under the names Splenda, Nutrasweet Equal and Sugar Twin, are just a few of the artificial sugars found on our store shelves today. These chemically-altered, man-made and highly refined sugar replacements have been available to consumers in Canada since the 1970s; aspartame hit the market in the early 1980s, promoting better weight management.

Although the giants in the food industry spend millions of dollars each year to convince us that they are safe, many health professionals are questioning exactly how these chemicals react in our bodies. In fact, there are a growing number of studies that point to these sweeteners as a potential cause of symptoms such as headaches, sleep problems, nausea, dizziness, hives, rashes and joint pain.

Worse yet, research done at Purdue University has shown that some of these sweeteners can cause an increase in sugar cravings and weight gain.

Diet sodas are the most popular products using artificial sweeteners, but they can also be found in items such as puddings, frozen desserts, yogurt, chewable vitamins, flavoured waters, sauces and gelatins. They are also often contained in many household items such as toothpaste, sugar-free cough syrup, mouth rinse and gum. Regrettably there is no mandatory labelling of these sweeteners yet.

Fortunately there are some safer alternatives to artificial sweeteners available on the market to help curb sugar cravings.

My favourite is stevia, which can also be found in stores labelled as sugar leaf or sweet leaf. This perennial shrub is native to Paraguay and Brazil and has been used as a sweetener in South and Central America for centuries. The Japanese have been using it in food preparation for over 40 years with no evidence of harm.

This no-calorie sweetener can be up to 300 times sweeter than table sugar in the same concentration, so a little bit goes a long way. Better yet, it contains traces of phytonutrients, minerals and vitamins that assist with overall immunity. It also has antibacterial properties and boasts the ability to assist with lowering blood pressure and blood sugar levels, which makes it a good choice for diabetics.

It can be purchased in liquid, powder or whole leaf form at health food stores and some grocery stores. But always check the label before buying as some brands of stevia contain fillers such as maltodextrin, dextrose, alcohol or flavours.

Another safer sugar replacement option is xylitol. This crystallized form of sugar alcohol contains calories, but is not fully digested by your body and therefore has little effect on blood sugar levels.

It is produced from the pulp of plants, most often corn husks. It is prudent to make sure the product is labelled as non-genetically modified.

The texture and appearance of xylitol is the most similar to table sugar, and it has no aftertaste.

It also contains an antimicrobial agent that has been shown to help clean the bacteria from your mouth when using it, and so it is often used in sugar-free mints and chewing gum to help deter tooth decay.

Xylitol has been shown to be a safe product. However, it can cause intestinal distress in some individuals and is more chemically refined than pure stevia, so I recommend only using it in small quantities as a replacement for sugar or artificial sweeteners.

We need to change our habits and drastically reduce sugar consumption in our diet. But artificial sweeteners are not the answer, and in fact may be sabotaging our weight goals and overall health.

Alternative sweeteners such as stevia and xylitol can help us to safely meet our need for sweetness.

 

Sheila Ream, CNP is a certified nutritionist in the Beach  ~  shealaream@sympatico.ca

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