SUGAR 101: NATURAL VS. ARTIFICIAL

Does it matter if it’s real or not? Let’s explore sugar and alternative sweeteners and get the facts straight with nutrition Expert Dianna Sinni Dillon.

We are a society living off sugar, in the literal and visceral sense. There’s a lot of hype over sugar nowadays from best-selling books, fad diets, detox plans, and even entire aisles in the grocery store devoted to “natural sugars” or “sugar-free” products. What these typically emphasize are added sugars and alternative sweeteners, not the naturally occurring forms found in fruit, whole grains, and dairy.   So what is the difference between natural and artificial sweeteners? Let’s get to know them both and  few tips to get some sweetness into your daily life:

THE REAL STUFF

For starters, sugar is sugar, no matter how it’s marketed, priced or packaged.  All sugar offers the same number of calories, although some may be less processed. It seems like every third day a “new” natural sugar emerges as the next best thing. Take for example, the increasingly popular coconut sugar or maple sugar, which are actually just fancy names with a heftier price tag for one ingredient: sugar. Your body can’t tell the difference between raw coconut sugar or processed table sugar, all sugar is metabolized and digested the same. While some more natural forms of sugar may contain a bit more minerals and haven’t undergone as much refinement, they really aren’t any healthier.

Too much sugar in the diet creates inflammation in the body causing premature, advanced aging, inhibiting immune system functioning, and raising insulin (the hormone that regulates blood sugars) levels and taxing the body in order to mediate energy spikes. The World Health Organization recommends only 10% of our daily caloric intake should come from sugar, that’s about 3 tablespoons, while the American Heart Association strongly recommends a lower 5%. Women should strive to consume no more than 6 teaspoons a day and men 9 teaspoons of added sugars, however, on average, Americans are consuming nearly 20 tablespoons a day!

THE ARTIFICIAL STUFF

The most popular artificial sweeteners include sucralose (Splenda), aspartame (Equal) and saccharin (Sweet’N Low), neotame, and acesulfame-K are found in diet sodas, light yogurts or ice creams, sugar-free chewing gums and candies among other products. They’re oftentimes marketed as diet, sugar-free, calorie-free, low-calorie, skinny or light. Since these sweeteners don’t provide any caloric value (or any nutrients at all), it can sound enticing to have your (sugar-free!) cake and eat it too.

But think about this: artificial sweeteners are man-made, unnatural chemical compounds that our body doesn’t understand or know how to metabolize.  Some scientific evidence suggests artificial sweeteners may cause brain cancer or slow down metabolism – although most of these studies have been tested on animals, never humans.

Or what about the theory that eating alternative sweeteners  makes you more inclined to eat a) a whole bag of sugar-free candies at one time, and b) overindulge in junk food later. Plus, certain types of sugar alcohols or sugar substitutes contain hard-to-digest ingredients that can manifest in symptoms of gastrointestinal discomfort, like bloating, gas, cramping, diarrhea, or even constipation. 

Starting to sound too good to be true?

When it comes to sweeteners, there are 3 key things to remember:

Forget what the front of the box says.

Food marketers are intentionally trying to get you to buy their products with their fancy packaging, vague health claims, and buzzwords. Remember, they’re all marketing gimmicks to get their product into your cart, and more often than not it probably works (even for me!). Stick up for your health and look past the front of the package; the only reliable source of information is on the nutrition facts label and ingredient list.

Check to see what makes your chosen item sweet – is it artificial sweeteners, whole food ingredients (like dates or raisins), brown sugar, or corn syrup? Where do sweeteners fit into the ingredient list; are they first (the most abundant by weight) or lower down the list? Choose products with either whole food sweeteners (preferred), only one or two forms of sugar, or with sweeteners listed lower down the ingredient list (lesser in abundance).

Eat the real stuff.

You may be surprised I’m telling you to eat the real deal sweets. But wouldn’t you rather have the real cake, rather than the imitation slice? If you’re going for a sweet treat, you might as well enjoy the real thing. Of course, the key is moderation.

Indulge, but don’t go overboard. And if you do, recognize that it’s not the end of the world. You won’t gain five pounds by eating the whole banana split. Think forward to your next meal or snack as an opportunity to add in nutrition.

When I encourage individuals to cultivate a healthy relationship with food, I stress the importance of allowing and most importantly, enjoying, a dose of indulgence.  Ice cream, mostly in the form of Dairy Queen’s Health Bar Blizzard, is my absolute favorite and frankly, life would be bleak without it. Going to the ice cream shop with my husband and our sweet pup has become time together we all look forward to more so than just the ice cream itself.  Do I eat Blizzards everyday? Nope, but you better believe I don’t opt for the tiny ‘mini’ when I order one.

Choose what makes you feel good most often.

I get sugar cravings a LOT. I have a mean sweet tooth that doesn’t back down. While I’d love to eat my Blizzard, a slice of chocolate cake or a glazed donut every day, I know they’re choices that will leave me feeling tired and sluggish within the hour. Opt for fresh fruit desserts, no-bake energy balls, a quarter cup of raw almonds and chocolate chips, or a square of dark chocolate to satisfy recurring sweet cravings in more wholesome, nourishing ways. One of my favorite evening snacks is blending plain kefir with frozen cherries and unsweetened cacao powder for a cherry-chocolate ‘milkshake’.

And when you can’t shut the craving out, eat that donut, enjoy it, and move on with your day!

HEADER IMAGE: ASHWIN VASWANI

Dianna Sinni Dillon, RDN, LD is a Registered Dietitian based in Kansas City, MO with a passion for all things whole grain, green, and homegrown. She focuses on empowering and inspiring others to take charge of their wellness through simple plant-based recipes and science-powered advice at Chard in Charge.

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