Recent reports state that Australians have reduced their sugar intake by 30% in recent years. Good for you I hear you say! But at what cost? We haven’t lost our sweet tooth, instead we have replaced sugar with artificial sweeteners which carry no shortage of claims on their ill effects — ranging from Alzheimer’s, cancer, seizures, depression and blindness to name a few. What no one ever mentions is the cost to the environment. Maybe what we need to focus on is not what these sweeteners may be costing our health, but what they are costing our environment.
Doesn’t it seem absurd that we use scarce resources to concoct a fake sugar, only to put it into junk food and feed it to people who are overfed anyway? It takes a total of 6000 calories of energy to produce 1L of diet soft drink, compared to a normal soft drink which takes only 1400 calories of energy – that’s almost a 4 times bigger carbon footprint.
The use of aspartame also contributes to the growing trend of genetically modified crops as it is made from the fermentation of corn and soy (two of the biggest genetically modified crops).
And don’t forget about the packaging…
- Plastic bottles – made from fossil-fuel,
- Glass bottles – twice the carbon footprint thanks to heavier transportation loads,
- Aluminum cans – not only contain the risky BPA, but also contribute to the environmentally destructive aluminum mining industry which uses as much electricity as the entire continent of Africa.
Do We Need Them?
Users of artificial sweeteners believe their use can reduce their overall caloric intake which leads to weight loss. On the other hand, many researchers believe they have the opposite effect on weight loss. Several studies have shown that the use of artificial sweeteners increases hunger. This may be done through tricking your brain into thinking you are consuming calories from sweet foods, only to trigger a need to fill this void of calories.
So do we need them? Well maybe. Diabetics on the verge of neuropathy may use artificially sweetened drinks to help wean them off sugar packed sodas which may save them more than their limbs. There is no easy answer here.
Aspartame – Why all the Hype?
This is the big one. The one that gets all the spotlight. Additive 951 is 200 times as sweet as sugar and is widely used in soft drinks, chewing gum, chocolate and confectionery and as a powdered sweetener. Numerous health claims against the ill effects of aspartame can be found with the click of a mouse. Our consumer skepticism may have come from the way aspartame was first passed for consumption in the USA in 1981. It has been speculated that after some studies had shown potential problems with a high intake of aspartame, the head of the FDA was sacked after he refused to approve it. His successor then passed regulations permitting aspartame and later accepted a job with the makers of the sweetener (we will see this type of ‘revolving door’ pop up again in relation to the same company when we discuss GMO products). Aspartame continues to be approved by the FDA (and FSANZ.)
Whose Hands Do We Put Our Health In?
If you can look past their chemical aftertaste and them being as far away from whole foods as possible, you may get suspicious when the safety of food is put into the hands of big money making corporations. Each artificial sweetener is tested for safety by bodies such as the FDA, initially in animals where rats or mice are given massive doses of the sweeteners to check for any harmful effects. This allows for an acceptable daily intake (ADI) to be established, with a large margin to account for potential individual variation in toxicity. Food authorities follow the principle that it is ’the dose that makes the poison.’ Maybe it is just time until that dose is reached.
Better Alternatives to Aspartame
A newer addition to the market is Stevia which comes from a plant originating from South America. Stevia has been used in Japan for decades making up 40% of the sweetener market. Although it is 300 times as sweet as sugar, it has negligible effects on blood glucose levels, neither raising it nor lowering it. The plant grows well in Queensland and NSW climate making it an appealing choice in terms of sustainability. But again comes the question, do we really need to be making junk food seem OK by adding low calorie sweeteners to them?
“If you’re going to make jam or cakes or biscuits, you need the bulk of sugar as well as its sweetness, and because some of these concentrated sweetener products don’t have the bulkiness, they’ve got to use a horribly highly refined starch, which has the same calories as sugar anyway so they’re not better off.”
Rosemary Stanton- SMH
What about good old fashion honey. In its raw, organic state you would be doing your body a favour – it contains antioxidants, minerals, vitamins, amino acids, enzymes, and phytonutrients. It still has the calories but if used sensibly this low GI sweetener is a great alternative. Even better, cut back on the honey and add cinnamon to breakfasts and smoothies to jazz them up a bit. Cinnamon has been proven to lower blood glucose levels- although you may need more than a sprinkle to see the benefits.
The science isn’t there to dispel the use of artificial sweeteners. If you are consuming copious amount of cola, maybe their use as a stepping stone may be of benefit. Though their long term use remains questionable in terms of our health and the environment.
What do I use? Water for drinking, dried fruit on cereals and honey if anything else is needed :)
Website:SMH Is Nocalorie Susbstitute for Sugar Too Sweet To Be True
Blog: Eco-Etiquette-How Bad is Diet Coke for the Environment
Website:Food Politics-Artificial Sweeteners
Book:The Choice Guide to Food – Rosemary Stanton
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Rachel Dickens, The Conscious Dietitian, is a Registered Dietitian and Certified Diabetes Educator. She graduated with her Masters in Nutrition and Dietetics in 2010 from Griffith University. She strives to provide evidence-based nutrition information with a focus on plant-based nutrition, and share some of her favourite seasonal recipes and sustainable eating tips.