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Sugar substitutes: Just sweet nothings?

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A high-sugar diet may raise heart disease risk. But no-calorie sweeteners aren’t ideal alternatives.

If you have a sweet tooth, your heart may be paying the price. Diets high in added sugars have been linked to a host of health woes, including obesity, high blood pressure, high cholesterol, and even a higher risk of dying of heart disease.

For most adults, sodas and other sweet beverages are the biggest source of added sugar in their diets. So quaffing a sugar-free diet soda seems like a good substitute, right? Not necessarily, says Dr. Teresa Fung, adjunct professor of nutrition at the Harvard School of Public Health.

It’s not that sugar substitutes like aspartame, sucralose, and others found in diet soft drinks are dangerous. In fact, they can be helpful over the short term. “People who use artificial sweeteners instead of sugar eat fewer calories, and that may make it easier for them to maintain their weight,” says Dr. Fung. Those with diabetes, who need to be extra careful about how much sugar they consume, may also find sugar substitutes useful.

But if you want to shed pounds, just using artificial sweeteners instead of sugar isn’t going to cut it. Lasting weight loss requires more than changing just one thing, notes Dr. Fung. And relying too much on no-calorie sweeteners might actually derail your efforts.

Top sources of added sugar

  1. Soft drinks (sodas, energy drinks, sports drinks)


  2. Grain-based desserts (cakes, cookies, pies, pastries)

  3. Fruit drinks (lemonade, fruit punch)

  4. Dairy desserts (ice cream, frozen yogurt)

  5. Candy

Source: Dietary Guidelines for Americans, 2010

Diet soda downsides

Here’s the problem: these “high-intensity sweeteners,” as the FDA calls them, are hundreds of times sweeter than regular sugar. Drinking diet beverages and other foods that contain these fake sugars may train your taste buds to crave very sweet foods. As a result, you may find healthful but not-so-sweet fruits and vegetables less appealing, says Dr. Fung. There’s also some evidence that people may be more likely to consume more high-calorie, nutrient-poor foods—such as ice cream, cookies, and French fries—when they drink diet sodas.

What’s more, research done in mice suggests that artificial sweeteners may change the composition of naturally occurring bacteria found in the intestines, possibly increasing calorie absorption. Mice fed artificial sweeteners were also more likely to develop high blood sugar than mice fed sugar.

Low-sugar solutions

The American Heart Association advises that women consume less than 100 calories of added sugar per day (about 6 teaspoons) and men consume less than 150 per day (about 9 teaspoons). Because a 12-ounce can of regular soda contains nearly 9 teaspoons of sugar, sipping even one a day would put all women and most men over the daily limit.

Sugar-free sodas and other beverages can help you transition away from sugar-sweetened drinks. But try to make it a short-term switch. As an alternative, try adding flavorings to sparkling water, such as an ounce or two of 100% fruit juice; a slice of lemon, lime, or orange; a few berries; or a sprig of fresh mint.

Coffee and tea are other potentially healthy choices that have the added bonus of containing beneficial plant chemicals known as phytonutrients. If you’re in the habit of spooning a few teaspoons of sugar into your tea or coffee, try cutting down to one-and-a-half teaspoons for a week, and then down to just one.

Here are some other strategies to trim added sugar from your diet:

Alter your recipes. You can make your favorite recipes less sugary by reducing a little bit at a time. Try using one-quarter less sugar than the recipe calls for, then one-third—right up until you notice the difference. You may come to prefer the less-sweet variation.

Fruit, not juice. Instead of drinking fruit juice, eat a piece of fresh fruit. If you prefer to drink juice, make it 100% fruit juice that is not sweetened. Stay away from “juice drinks” that contain heaps of added sugar.

Check your cereal box. If you enjoy cereal for breakfast, check the label and choose one with minimal added sugar.

Read labels. Many processed and packed foods contain added sugars, including bread, crackers, salad dressings, spaghetti sauces, soups, and condiments. Compare ingredient lists and Nutrition Facts panels on labels to find low-sugar options.

Try herbs and spices. Experiment with sweet-tasting herbs and spices like mint, cinnamon, allspice, clove, and nutmeg to add a sweet taste to foods. Try cinnamon instead of sugar to perk up your coffee, or mint to liven up iced tea.

Reduced-sugar options. When buying syrups, jellies, marinades, sauces, and the like, look for products that say “reduced sugar” or “no added sugar” on the label.

Common sugar substitutes

Name (brand names)

Common uses

Sweetness compared to table sugar?

daily intake*

acesulfame potassium
(Sunett, Sweet One)

Baked goods, frozen desserts, candies, beverages, cough drops, breath mints

200 times


(Equal, NutraSweet; the “blue packet”)

Tabletop sweetener, carbonated soft drinks, soft drink mixes, chewing gum, confections, gelatins, dessert mixes, puddings and fillings, frozen desserts, yogurt, and some medications

200 times


(Sweet’N Low; the “pink packet”)

Tabletop sweetener, baked goods, soft drinks, jams, chewing gum

200-700 times


(Splenda; the “yellow packet”)

Tabletop sweetener, beverages, chewing gum, frozen desserts,
fruit juices, gelatins

600 times


rebaudioside A, extract of the stevia plant
(Truvia, Pure Via; the “green packet”)

Tabletop sweetener, soft drinks, fruit juices

200-400 times


* The acceptable daily intake is the amount (as determined by the FDA) considered safe to consume each day over the course of a person’s lifetime. The number of packets listed here applies to a 132-pound person.

Posted by: Dr.Health

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