smart science: sweeteners edition

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If you’ve ever been to a coffee shop, you’ve seen the brightly colored packets of artificial sweeteners kicking around on the table. You’ve probably also seen drinks proclaiming the health benefits of stevia, or a smoothie sweetened only with agave. Today, we’re gonna chat about these guys. Not only what they’re made out of, but whether or not the health/diet/superpower claims are true. Let’s start with Splenda.

  • Splenda is made out of sucralose, which is about 600 times sweeter than normal table sugar. It also contains very few calories – hence its popularity on the diet circuit. Since it’s approval by the FDA in the 90’s, sucrolose, in the form of Splenda, has become extremely popular. Additionally, it was thought to be biologically inert – meaning that it had no actual, chemical effect on the human body. Recently, an article published in the Journal of Toxicology and Environmental Health has shown that sucralose does have an effect on the mechanisms involving glucose and insulin – both hot button topics due to their involvement in diabetes. This study did not definitively prove that sucralose contributes to Type II diabetes, but it merits further study. To add insult to injury, another recent study in the International Journal of Occupational and Environmental heath suggests that, in mice, sucralose might contribute to some malignant cancers. Strike two.
  • In this vein, many of the artificial sweeteners like Splenda (aspartame, for one) have been embroiled in far more dangerous controversy. Some sides say it’s completely safe, some don’t. All sides merit further study. Aspartame, (name brand: Nutrasweet, Equal), was discovered in the 60’s by a man attempting to make an anti-ulcer drug. Displaying poor scientific practice, he licked his finger reaching for a piece of paper, and discovered that whatever he was making was extremely sweet – and aspartame was born. Before aspartame, other low-calorie sweeteners all had significant health concerns. So, when aspartame hit the market, it seemed like the best option for a low calorie sweetener. Its scientific significance was broad, in that it momentarily filled a hole in the low-calorie sweetener market, and also provided a new structure for sweet compounds. But – there is serious conflicting evidence that aspartame contributes to serious health issues, including insomnia, headaches, neurobehavioral difficulties, and seizures. Additionally, mice and rat studies have shown an increase in malignant tumors after long-term exposure to small amounts of aspartame. Animal studies are significantly different than human studies, so this does not by any means indicate that aspartame causes cancer in humans. As always in science, more research is needed.
  • Moving onto agave. Agave syrup is made from the agave plant, which is the same plant used to make tequila! It’s long been marketed as the healthy alternative to any other sweeteners, whether that be honey, sugar, or artificial sweeteners like sucralose and aspartame. In theory, agave syrup should contain a lot of inulin – a fiber-rich, sweet compound. But – agave you buy in stores is highly processed, and most of that inulin is broken down into fructose. Fructose is found in all sugars, in varying amounts – and the higher the amount, the more unhealthy for you it is. Think…. high-fructose corn syrup! We all know that’s bad. Now, when agave gets processed, it is equally as dense in fructose as HCFS, if not more! Essentially, it’s genius marketing, since ingesting high levels of fructose actually interfere with digestion, among other processes. Agave isn’t healthy – despite what people on Instagram might think.

Essentially, when looking at any version of sugar, whether that be normal white sugar, artificial sweeteners, or agave, limiting the amount you eat and drink is definitely a good move. Eating diets high in sugar contribute to a bunch of health problems, not just limited to things like diabetes or heart disease. Additionally, if you eat a diet high in artificial sweeteners, your body and brain might forget what a normal sweetness level in foods is, leading you to consume even higher levels of these sweeteners. Bummer – since we should all be able to remember the natural sweetness of a ripe strawberry!

For tons more information, check out the links below!

  • For more information on the affect of Splenda on insulin levels, check out the Huff Post article here.
  • Cancer experts tend to think that aspartame is safe to use, but they also like to provide all the information. Check out this detailed factsheet here.
  • Lots of general information here¬†and here from Harvard¬†about artificial sweeteners, their brand name counterparts, and some crazy facts about how much sweeter than normal sugar they are!
  • A doctor has some harsh words about agave in the HuffPost…. all rooted in science!