Why fake sugars can be bad for you

In many ways, sugar is like a drug. It impacts mood, digestion, sleep and can profoundly affect cognition. Sugar triggers the brain’s reward system the same way drugs do, though it’s much more complex than “Oreos are like cocaine.” Withdrawals are also not unheard of and sugar consumption can be compulsive; however, it’s probably not addictive in the way that heroin or alcohol can be. “Sucrose use disorder” is not an actual diagnosis like substance use disorder.

Either way, society seems to have a problem with sugar. In addition to its negative environmental and social impacts, excessive sugar consumption is linked to a wide range of health problems, including metabolic diseases such as obesity and diabetes, cardiovascular damage and dental caries. But it seems impossible to avoid sugar, even if you try, because unscrupulous companies inject it unnecessarily into food products, including bread, salad dressing, soup, pasta sauces, cereals, tonic water, dried meat and much more.

Avoiding sugar is hard, but we crave it for a reason. Sugar is high in calories, but it was much scarcer before industrial society traded it for about $70 billion than it is today. In order to survive in a nutrition-poor world millions of years ago, humans evolved to seek out sugars wherever we could find them. In plants, sugars come in the form of fructose, sucrose, and maltose, while lactose is a sugar found in milk. The body breaks down all of these chemicals into glucose, which is used for energy and fat storage.

But humans have come up with ingenious ways to make sure we always have a supply of sugar on hand, perhaps too much of a good thing. And we like to have our cake and eat it too, so we’ve also invented chemical alternatives to sugar that don’t exist in nature or hacked natural sugars to be even more potent.

There is actually a long history of developing alternatives to sugar. In ancient Rome, it was customary to boil grape syrup in a concentrated form called “sapa” or “defrutum” which was frequently used to enhance the flavor of wine. However, it was brewed in lead-lined kettles or pots, which produced lead acetate, also known as “Saturn’s salt” or “lead sugar”. Although mild, lead acetate is very toxic.

Scientists have recreated these antiquarian concoctions using old recipes, finding that between 240 and 1,000 milligrams of lead were present in these toxic drinks. A single teaspoon (five milliliters) would have been enough to cause chronic lead poisoning. Some anthropologists believe that such tainted wine contributed to Rome’s downfall more than lead plumbing.

Unfortunately, even today these sweet shortcuts have a price, which is becoming increasingly clear thanks to advances in scientific research. The most recent bombshell is erythritol, a mildly sweet sugar alcohol widely used in everything from chocolate and gum to dietary supplements and soft drinks. (It also appears to kill insects.) Although first discovered in the 19th century, this tiny molecule (composed of just four carbon atoms) became widely used in 1990 thanks to breakthroughs in Japanese fermentation technology that gave it allowed to be produced on a large scale.

It has quickly become one of the most popular sweeteners in the world due to the fact that erythritol is literally zero calories. This is because the body excretes it too quickly to metabolize it, too difficult even for the bacteria in our intestines to break it down. Despite this, it is still associated with weight gain and the development of type 2 diabetes.

Erythritol is derived from plants like corn, so it’s often marketed as “natural” and technically not an artificial sweetener. Our body even produces it naturally in small amounts. But Cleveland Clinic researchers published a study last month in the journal Nature Medicine that found erythritol consumption was linked to a dramatic increase in heart attacks and strokes. Given that some people consume up to 30 grams of erythritol per day – far more than is found in fruits or vegetables – this is a serious risk of death.


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So far, this link is only an association, but the underlying mechanism indicates that erythritol increases the risk of blood clots, which is of particular concern for people with diabetes, obesity or history of cardiovascular disease – the same groups of people who may be inclined to avoid sugar and seek an alternative in the first place.

Future studies are needed to truly untangle this relationship, but in the meantime many organizations including the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and the European Food Safety Authority consider erythritol safe for consumption. human. Dose, of course, also plays a major role, but these agencies place no limits on the daily intake of erythritol. The level of exposure and the associated risk depend on the amount of erythritol ingested. But another major concern is that many people often can’t tell how much of these foods they’re eating.

“The FDA does not require disclosure of erythritol content in food products, making its levels in foods as an additive difficult to track,” the Cleveland Clinic researchers wrote. “The current findings highlight the need for establishing reporting requirements, safety profiles and daily intake margins as general consumption continues to increase. Public policy decisions must be evidence-based and better informed.

As Salon reported, the FDA may soon change its definition of what constitutes a “healthy” food, which could eventually address the common practice of adding sugars to low-fat food products and labeling them as nutritionally healthy. beneficial. But some companies such as KIND, a New York-based snack food company, have opposed these proposed changes, saying it would encourage companies to use artificial sweeteners. The FDA does not intend to regulate these alternatives.

In a way, we may think that alternative sweeteners are closer to medicine than sugar, if not downright. These are foreign chemicals that profoundly alter our biochemistry, as demonstrated by a study published last August in the journal Cell Press. In a randomized controlled trial with 120 adults given four sweeteners – including stevia, aspartame, saccharin or sucralose – researchers from the Weizmann Institute of Science found that these additives significantly altered the human microbiome, microbes residents of our intestines deeply associated with our health.

The implications of this research are still unclear, but it is yet another indication that sugar alternatives are not without consequences. It also doesn’t mean that these products are “unsafe” or radioactive, but given the extent and severity of the tendency of companies to load food products with artificial sweeteners, consumers could use better information and better science to inform their food choices.

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