Fake sugars are everywhere nowadays and even though many media sources have “hyped” up the dangers of varying products, there are still many considerations people should be aware of when choosing products to eat and the types of sugars to use when cooking and baking.
What this post will be about:
- How Sugars Work in the Human Body
- How Fake Sugars and Artificial Sweeteners Interact in the Human Body
- Why I Choose Not to Eat, Bake or Cook with Fake Sugars
What this post will NOT be about:
- Arguing about whether or not fake sugars are linked to cancers or various diseases
How Sugars Work in the Human Body
When simple carbohydrates are broken down in the body, they produce monosaccharides (glucose, fructose, and galatose) and disaccharides (sucrose, lactose, and maltose). Simple carbs can be can be absorbed into the bloodstream immediately.There are 3 types of monosaccharides or “simple sugars”:
- Glucose also know as “blood sugar” or “dextrose” (which is used as fuel for most body functions)
- Fructose or “fruit sugar”
- Galactose which is part of “milk sugar”
Disaccharides or “double sugars” are what happen when single sugars are combined. Double sugars first have to be broken down and digested by enzymes in the intestines before they can be absorbed into the bloodstream. A good way to tell if something is a sugar is if it ends in “ose.” There are also 3 main double sugars:
- Lactose “milk sugar” = glucose (blood sugar) + galactose
- Maltose “malt sugar”= glucose (blood sugar) + glucose (blood sugar)
- Sucrose “table sugar” = glucose (blood sugar) + fructose (fruit sugar)
It’s important to note that fructose (fruit sugar) and glucose (blood sugar) are made up of a different chemical structure and are processed and metabolized differently in the body. This is why the sugar you eat from an apple is lot different from the sugar you get from other sources. However, just like any other food, this doesn’t mean that you should eat as much of it as you want, either. More on that later. While glucose is metabolized in various places in the body, fructose by itself is metabolized in the liver and then used as glycogen storage in the liver. Think of glycogen as the storage unit for glucose that’s stored in both the liver and in muscle tissue. Basically, it’s as if your liver is a giant warehouse with tiny rooms full of plastic tubs that contain sugar.
Fructose (as outlined above) creates table sugar or refined sugar when it is combined with glucose. This is why when you eat products with added sugar, high fructose corn syrup, and even processed honey or agave nectar, the body reacts in the same ways. There really isn’t one processed sugar that’s better than another. When these products contain amounts of both fructose and glucose, they are table sugars, plain and simple. Just because it’s from honey or agave, does not make it any healthier as it’s processed in your body.
Another thing about fructose is that it is not a secretogogue, in other words, it does not alert the body to secrete insulin. The problem, however, is that it’s rare to only ingest fructose alone.
So enough with all this science talk! What’s the overall take-away here? Basically, sugar is sugar. While fructose is processed in the liver and alone doesn’t cause insulin secretion, it still acts as a sugar in the body and when combined with other monosaccharides, it can be broken down into blood sugar as it’s digested.
The truth is, that our bodies do need glucose and sugars to function and operate. The key like anything in life is to not over do it. Having a piece of fruit is still an extremely healthy option. Fruits contain a variety of nutrients, fiber, and antioxidants that are vital to our bodies sustainability and long-term function. But jumping into a fruit-only diet wouldn’t work out well in the long run, either. It’s all about balance. Our bodies are complex and fascinating. This is why the idea of a “balanced diet” has become so prevalent. It’s important to eat a mix of foods and nutrients in our diets every day. Checkout this article from LifeHacker for more details on sugars.
How Fake Sugars and Artificial Sweeteners Interact in the Human Body
Now that you have a relatively good idea of what most sugars are and how they interact in the body, let’s take a brief look at fake sugars and what they do in our system. A couple of summers ago, I decided to indulge in some sugar-free candy. The outcome was horrible and I went on a long rant about how awful fake sugar is as well as how it can affect the brain (feel free to read that here).
But more importantly, it’s good to know what happens when you eat something.
- How does it make you feel?
- What does it cause your body to do?
- Does it make you want more of it or crave something else?
- These are the kinds of things trigger foods can do that vary from person to person but fake sugars do a lot of things that many people might not realize.
Fake sugars are chemical compounds that taste just as sweet (and often more sweet) than regular sugar. They often contain fewer calories or because of how sweet they are, you can use much less than regular sugar with the same amount of calories per serving. Splenda (sucralose), for example, is 600 times sweeter than regular refined sugar. SIX HUNDRED! 0_O Many fake sugars cannot be digested by the human body, which is what makes them virtually zero calorie. However, some studies are finding that sweet tasting compounds can be found by the pancreas and within the gastrointestinal tract and can then trigger the release of the hormone insulin much like regular sugar would.
So what are the main types of fake sugars we hear about and what’s in them?
- Aspartame (NutraSweet, Equal)
- Sucralose (Splenda)
- Acesulfame potassium (Sunett, Sweet One)
- Saccharin (Sweet’N Low, SugarTwin)
Natural Sweeteners (although still processed)
- Agave Nectar
- Maple Syrup
- Date Sugar
- Fruit Juice Concentrate
- Hydrogenated starch hydrolysate
- Tagatose (Naturlose)
- Stevia Extracts (Pure Via, Truvia)
One thing to be aware of is that many products can still say that the sweeteners they use are “natural” and while many of them may come from natural sources or are extracts of plants, that does not mean they are healthy OR safe. Sucralose (Splenda) for example is an extract from sugar and stevia is an extract from plants in the sunflower family. While eating stevia leaves or a banana or even a teaspoon of straight sugar won’t kill you, it’s best to avoid eating added sugars when possible. One main concern about these sugar extracts, like stevia and sucralose, is that they are highly concentrated forms of sugar and while you may come across them in nature, you never would find them as dense in form.
The newest fake sugar I’ve been seeing a lot of lately is Xylitol, which is a sugar alcohol. You can even buy it in the bulk section at health food stores. And again, even though it may be pulled from a natural source, when highly concentrated and eaten in larger amounts, can we really call it a natural substance? One thing about xylitol is that it is not converted into harmful acids in the mouth that cause tooth decay unlike sugar. In fact, it has been used to decrease decay-causing bacteria in saliva. But even with that being said that doesn’t mean it’s safe in the digestive system or would have any health benefits to your intestines. In fact, there are warning labels on xylitol products that state that eating high amounts of the product can cause extreme cramping, gas and diarrhea.
Why I Choose Not to Eat, Bake or Cook with Fake Sugars
There are tons of great and amazing recipes out there on blogs for clean eating and living a healthy lifestyle. That is one thing about our rise in nutrition knowledge and information that is inspiring and fun to participate in! However, I am always sad to see so many “clean” recipes that call for Splenda, Truvia, or Xylitol. While a little fake sugar in your life won’t kill you, just like real sugar won’t either, my main point in life is to find ways to eat less of sugar in general instead of finding ways to “cheat” the system.
I am a true believe that if I’m going to bake with a little sugar for something sweet, then I’m going to use real sugar. Just the way I believe that eating real butter is a lot better than margarine or canola oil spreads. The best thing we can do for our health is to get in the habit of making better habits. To drink less soda, eat less processed foods, and find healthier ways to cook and eat our favorite foods. This is why you’ll NEVER see me post a recipe that calls for fake sugar or alternative sweeteners. I’d always rather eat a tsp of regular sugar than a tsp of a chemical compound that hasn’t been around long enough to know what it’s long-term effects are.
Just because something doesn’t immediately make you sick, doesn’t mean it won’t hurt you in the long run if it becomes a regular habit. Although, personally, I hate the taste of fake sugars and get super shaky within minutes of eating them.
Thanks for reading!