Written by Paula Goodyer. Published in Sydney Morning Herald on 24 July 2012.
With links to obesity and heart disease, sugar’s reputation is worse than it’s ever been – but does this make alternative sweeteners a healthier option?
It depends on who you believe. If you think sugar gets a bad rap (‘sweet poison’; pure white and deadly’) it’s mother’s milk compared to aspartame which so many internet sites suggest is guilty of everything from vaginal irritation and weight gain to Parkinson’s disease and multiple sclerosis. Often used in soft drink, some weight loss products and yoghurts, aspartame is considered safe by Food Standards Australia New Zealand unless you have the rare genetic disorder – phenylketonuria – which all newborn babies in Australia are screened for. As for cancer, artificial sweeteners including saccharin and cyclamates once linked to cancer in animals, have been okayed – cautiously – by the World Cancer Research Fund, which says the evidence doesn’t suggest any ‘detectable effect’ on cancer risk.
On the face of it, artificial sweeteners let you have your cake and eat it – you get the sweet taste without paying the price of extra kilojoules from sugar. But are they useful or do they perpetuate and even increase our reliance on highly sweetened foods?
“We don’t know the answer to that, although my belief is that they’re not doing us any good,” says Russell Keast, Associate Professor in Food and Nutrition at Deakin University, who thinks artificial sweeteners may leave us hankering after the real thing.
“Besides having receptors for sweetness on our tongue we also have them through the digestive tract where they pick up signals telling us that carbohydrate foods are on their way,” he explains. “But with a food like an artificially sweetened soft drink you get the sweetness but the carbohydrates never come and the body is saying ‘you promised me energy and it’s not here’ – so the body may feel cheated which drives appetite or increased hunger. “
Whether this happens with foods like artificially sweetened yoghurt which still contains carbohydrates isn’t clear – it’s probably less of an issue but we just don’t know, he says.
If you want to eat less sugar and avoid artificial sweeteners too, there’s a middle road: the plant-based sweetener stevia which is so intensely sweet – 290 times more than sugar -that it only takes a tiny bit to sweeten food (though it does have an odd aftertaste).
I’ve been trialling stevia this week with mixed results. For sweetening your cocoa with fewer kilojoules, stevia hits the spot. It’s okay in porridge too, but less successful in stewed rhubarb – it’s sweet enough but compared to raw sugar, strangely flat and less satisfying. As for baking, I had more success with CSR Smart, the blend of sugar and stevia which seems like a good compromise to me – it has 50 per cent fewer kilojoules because you only use half as much as you would with regular sugar.
But sometimes common sense gets lost when a food like sugar becomes demonised. Too much sugar spread through the day in breakfast cereal, soft drink, cakes, sweets and packaged foods is a problem – a teaspoon on your porridge isn’t. Instead of spending research dollars searching for the perfect no-kilojoule sugar substitute that lets us eat more sweet stuff with less impact on our weight, wouldn’t it be smarter to eat sugar the old fashioned way? Skip the soft drink, juice, bikkies and too-sweet yoghurt and just add a bit of real sugar to real food when we need to.
“It’s hard to go past the message that says it’s best to avoid highly processed food and to remember that our early food experiences are very important for determining our food preferences as we get older,” adds Russell Keast. “We learn to like what the family exposes us to – and parents should be aware of this.”