By Jessica Tong, RD; Andrea Stokes RD, and Dr. Farrell Cahill, Senior Research Lead, Medisys Health Group.
Why do we crave sugar?
Our desire for sweet-tasting foods is part of our biology. Our innate preference for sweet-tasting foods likely reflects the fact that these foods are typically high in energy, which was necessary for our early ancestors who had to physically work hard for their food. Sugar also induces biochemical reactions in our brain which cause us to feel pleasure, which further encourages our sugar habits.
Given our innate preference for sweetness combined with the fact that sweet foods are heavily marketed and abundantly available, it’s no wonder why the average Canadian consumes 88 pounds of total sugars (from all sources) every year. That’s more than FOUR TIMES the daily recommended limit by the World Health Organization. What’s worse is that our children are consuming even more sugar than we are: the average Canadian child consumes more than FIVE times the recommended limit.
What’s the problem with sugar anyway?
Refined, concentrated sugar consumed in large amounts rapidly increases blood glucose and insulin levels, increases triglycerides, inflammatory mediators and oxygen radicals, and thus increeases the risk for diabetes, cardiovascular disease and other chronic illnesses. Excessive, long term consumption of added sugars has been linked to obesity, type 2 diabetes, heart disease, high cholesterol, high blood pressure, cancer, and strokes. High-sugar foods have also been linked to food addiction – a condition that affects about 1 in 15 Canadian women.
Are “natural” added sugars healthier than white table sugar?
Natural sources of added sugar, such as honey, maple syrup, beet sugar, organic cane sugar, and coconut sugar, are often marketed as being healthier than white table sugar. While it is true that some types of natural sweeteners may contain more vitamins and minerals than refined sugar, the amounts are usually too small to have a benefit on our bodies. Also, it’s important to understand that all types of sugars are metabolized by the body in a similar way and are roughly the same number of Calories (15-20 Calories per teaspoon).
Are non-nutritive/artificial sweeteners a better choice?
In order to limit refined sugar consumption, many Canadians have adopted artificial sweeteners instead. These nonnutritive sweeteners are exponentially sweeter than sugar, and, thus, only small quantities are needed. Non-nutritive sweeteners include saccharin (Sweet’N Low), acesulfamepotassium, aspartame (Equal), neotame, and sucralose (Splenda). Current research on the health implications of artificial sweeteners is inconclusive, with research showing mixed findings. Health Canada rigorously tests the safety of these products before they are able to be approved for consumption. However, many people continue to be wary of the health implications of consuming artificial sweeteners, especially in high quantities or by children.
Overall, the artificial sweeteners currently on the market are considered safe for regular or occasional consumption, at least in terms of major health concerns, such as cancer. However, research continues to shed light on potential effects of artificial sweeteners such as the role they may play in increasing sugar cravings or dulling our taste buds to more naturally sweet foods, such as whole fruit. Some research suggests that artificial sweeteners are able to increase blood sugar levels and trigger the insulin response, although more studies are needed to confirm this. In terms of weight loss, the use of artificial sweeteners in place of sugar should theoretically assist in decreasing overall Calorie intake; however, research suggests that, in practice, this isn’t typically the case.
According to a study performed by the University of Manitoba’s George and Fay Yee Centre for Healthcare Innovation which comprised of a meta-analysis of 37 studies dating back to the early 1980s involving more than 400,000 participants, artificial sweetener consumption was positively correlated to diabetes, obesity, high blood pressure and heart disease. Specifically, participants who consumed the greatest amount of artificial sweeteners had a 14% higher risk of Type 2 Diabetes than those who consumed the least. Additionally, participants who consumed the greatest amount of artificial sweeteners had a 31% higher risk of having metabolic syndrome than those who consumed the least. “It’s important to note that correlation doesn’t necessarily mean causation” warns Jessica Tong, a Registered Dietitian based out of the Medisys Calgary clinic, “while it’s possible that artificial sweeteners may alter the body’s response to sweetness and amplify sugar cravings (one popular theory), it’s also possible that people who consume the most artificial sweeteners may also have the most limited nutrition knowledge or make the poorest food choices”. Also, artificial sweeteners are often found in highly processed foods that tend to lack overall nutrition. The link between artificial sweeteners and weight gain is not completely understood, but it is clear that a relationship does exist. However, it could be the combination of artificial sweeteners with simple sugars that’s doing the most harm, suggests Dr. Farrell Cahill, Research Lead for the Medisys Health Group.
“It’s clear that small amounts of ingested simple sugars will initiate the metabolism to reduce blood sugar levels, whereas artificial sweeteners do not have the same effect. However, carbohydrate intake in combination with artificial sweeteners could effectively mute the proper metabolic response and this may be how the consumption of artificial sweeteners can lead to both obesity and insulin resistance” warns Cahill.
“Therefore, the metabolic dysfunction we see in individuals with diets high in processed foods could be due to the sweeteners which could be disrupting how carbohydrates are being metabolized” continues Dr. Cahill.
Although, these research findings are very new, they would help explain the issues we see individuals struggle with loss weight even though they have attempted to reduce caloric intake with artificial sweeteners. So, the next time you think of drinking a diet pop with your lunch and/or dinner, think again. You may be promoting more weight gain and metabolic issues and this may also lead to a significant road blocks for those trying to combat obesity.
Tips for avoiding artificial sweeteners:
1. Read labels carefully. Watch out for foods marketed as “sugar free” or “low in sugar” – you may be expecting a product that is unsweetened, but products marketed as “sugar free” often contain artificial sweeteners that are just as sweet, or sweeter, than the original version.
2. Be cautious with foods marketed as “fat free”, “low-calorie”, “light”, “carb-wise”, or “diet”, as these often (but not always) contain artificial sweeteners as well. Examples of common grocery items that may be high in artificial sweeteners include light fruit-flavoured yogurts, diet soft drinks, reduced-sugar iced teas, protein bars, protein powders, chewing gum, fruit-flavoured waters or sparkling waters, “low sugar” versions of children’s breakfast cereals, and “light” versions of salad dressings, condiments, and cooking sauces.
What we recommend:
1. Use sweeteners (both artificial and natural) sparingly – focus on ensuring that the bulk of your diet is made up of whole, nutrient-dense, minimally-processed foods. Sugar, if consumed in moderate amounts (eg. the occasional pastry or piece of candy) is not harmful to your health. Canadians, however, continue to move farther and farther away from nutrient-dense sources of sugar, such as whole fruit, toward nutrient-poor sugar sources, such as soda, juices, and baked goods, which is a significant public health concern.
2. Try to satisfy your sweet-tooth with whole foods like sweet potatoes (a great substitute for chocolate pudding when mashed with ripe banana and unsweetened cocoa powder), fresh berries, or whole fruit with skin on (washed). These foods are nutrient-dense and low in glycemic load.
3. Limit added sugars or “free sugars” to no more than 5% of your daily calorie intake, as recommended by the World Health Organization. To put this recommendation into context, one 10-oz glass of all-natural orange juice contains about 26 grams of free sugars, which is the recommended daily limit of free sugar for an average adult woman.
4. Avoid consuming both artificial sweeteners and simple sugars together. So, look closely at products that contain artificial sweeteners and reduce the consumption of artificially-sweetened drinks at meal/snack time.
Got questions? We've got answers. Speak with one of our registered dietitians today.