Sugar Artificial Sweeteners:

Trick or Treat? Sugars and Artificial Sweeteners in the Modern Diet

by Mira Dessy

Sugars are an integral part of our modern lives. Whether a complex sugar like honey or a more refined sugar like High Fructose Corn Syrup (HFCS) everyone consumes them to varying degrees. The amount and degree of refinement strongly determine the health impacts of various sugars. Complex, or unprocessed, sugars are slower to enter the bloodstream; the more refined the product, the more quickly your body metabolizes it.

Additionally, in order to metabolize sugar your body requires calcium, sodium, potassium and magnesium which it pulls from other parts of the body, such as calcium from the bones. []. Refined, or simple sugars include white sugar, brown sugar (white sugar with a light coating of molasses for color), HFCS, crystalline fructose, and concentrated fruit juices. Complex sugars include brown rice syrup, barley malt syrup, whole fruit puree or sauce, honey, maple syrup, unrefined cane juice, date sugar (made from ground, dried dates), agave syrup and blackstrap molasses.

Many people include stevia (Stevia rebaudiana) in this category. Although it is not a sugar per se, stevia is a sweet herb from South America with up to 400 times the sweetness of white sugar and no calories. Also, stevia will not cause a rise in blood sugar.

According to the Statistical Abstract of the United States, published by the U.S. Census Bureau, total per capita consumption of caloric sweeteners (which include cane sugar, beet sugar, and corn sweeteners) rose from 120.2 pounds in 1980 to 141.7 pounds in 2003. From 1980 to 2003 per capita sugar consumption declined from 83.6 pounds to 61.1 pounds however HFCS consumption increased from 19.0 pounds to 60.9 pounds. [U.S. Census Bureau, 2006]

Unfortunately many of the calories consumed are hidden calories found in soft drinks, condiments and other food stuffs which most likely explains the decrease in sugar, increase in HFCS and overall increase in sweetener consumption. The World Health Organization recommends we eat no more than 10 percent of our calories from added sweeteners. Thus, for a 2,000 calories diet that equates to 200 calories, or 50 grams of sugar. [HealthyMe, November 30, 2007]

Sugar has calories; 1 level teaspoon weighs 4 grams and contains 15 calories. Regardless of whether it is complex or simple there is still an effect from caloric intake. While most of us like the sweetness of sugar we are not so fond of the caloric addition to our diet. In 1879 a researcher spilled a derivative of coal tar on his hand and discovered that it tasted sweet; this accident became known as saccharin, or Sweet-n-Low, and was the first sugar substitute. [WebMD, March 25, 2005]

Artificial sweeteners became very popular because of their low or zero calorie content, leading many to believe that it was better than using natural sweeteners; it also allowed diabetics to partake of sweet foods.

Currently there are five sugar substitutes available; saccharine, aspartame (NutraSweetTM or EqualTM), sucralose (a chlorinated sugar also called SplendaTM), neotame (another form of NutraSweetTM), and acesulfame potassium (SunettTM and SweetOneTM).

There are a number of others that are currently pending FDA approval such as Alitame and Cyclamate (which was banned in 1970 and is currently seeking re-approval with the FDA) [Wikipedia] and Coca-Cola and Cargill are working together to develop a new sweetener based on stevia named RebianaTM. [American Botanical Council, 2007]

Overconsumption of sweeteners has negative consequences for health. A recent study, published in November of 2007 showed that the gene that regulates active testosterone and estrogen can be turned off by eating too much fructose and glucose (sugar is composed of fructose and glucose). Glucose and fructose are metabolized in the liver which converts excess sugars to lipids.

Scientists have discovered that increased production of lipids shuts down the sex hormone binding globulin (SHBG) gene reducing the amount of SHBG protein in the blood. With reduced SHBG protein the levels of testosterone and estrogen rise. These higher levels have been associated with acne, infertility, and polycystic ovaries among other illnesses. [Science Daily, November 21, 2007]

Additional research reveals that overconsumption of fructose causes a spike in levels of uric acid which can block the ability of insulin to regulate use and storage of sugar and other nutrients. This in turn can lead to obesity, metabolic syndrome and type 2 diabetes. [ScienceDaily, December 14, 2007]

Artificial sweeteners also have various negative health effects. In the 1970's the USDA tried to ban saccharine because of studies revealing a risk for cancer of the various organs including bladder, uterus, ovaries, and skin. In the late 1990's the Calorie Control Council stated that the main concern was bladder cancer in male rats, not people. As a result the ban was overturned. Now Aspartame has come under scrutiny with a recent study from a highly respected Italian cancer institute showing an increase in lymphomas, leukemias and breast cancer in rats.

As a result of this study the Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI) has downgraded aspartame, now labeling it “everyone should avoid” instead of it's previous “use caution” rating. [CSPINET, June 25, 2007] Research from Purdue University reveals that the ability of the body to “count”calories, based on sweetness, may be confused by artificial sweeteners. This research also showed that on a caloric count basis solid foods are more satisfying than thick liquids. [ScienceDaily, June 30, 2004]

All of the above clearly indicate that over-consumption of sweeteners, whether processed, unprocessed or artificial have negative effects on the body. The best option is to limit sugar intake and carefully read labels to understand which sugars are in the products you are consuming. If you choose to consume sweet foods, choose naturally sweet or sweetened, minimally processed foods.

About the Author
Mira Dessy is the owner of Grains & More and teaches whole grain cooking and nutrition classes. She is currently studying Nutrition Education through Bauman College and is a member of the National Association of Nutrition Professionals.


“The Hazards of Refined Sugar”, Everlasting Life.

“Are Artificial Sweeteners Safe?”, WebMD, March 25, 2005.

“Coca-Cola and Cargill Developing New Natural Sweetener from Stevia”, American Botanical Council, 2007.

“Statistical Abstract of the United States: 2006”, U.S. Census Bureau, Table 202 Per Capita Consumption of Major Food Commodities: 1980 to 2003, pp 136.

“Sugar Substitute”, Wikipedia, January 1, 2008.

“Too Much Sugar Turns Off Gene That Controls Effects Of Sex Steroids”, Child & Family Research Institute, ScienceDaily, November 21, 2007.

“Too Much Fructose Could Leave Dieters Sugar Shocked”, University of Florida, ScienceDaily, December 14, 2007.

“FDA Should Reconsider Aspartame Cancer Risk, Say Experts”, Center for Science in the Public Interest, June 25, 2007.

“Artificial Sweetener May Disrupt Body's Ability To Count Calories, According To New Study”, ScienceDaily, June 30, 2004.

“The Sweet Life: How Much Sugar is Too Much?”, Chris Woolston, Consumer Health Interactive, HealthyMe, November 30,2007.

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