Stern: A bittersweet love story

You might not expect that when you casually rip open that package of Splenda for your morning coffee today that you are in fact opening up a metaphorical Pandora’s box of potential physical and mental harm.

Human nature predisposes us to seek sweet-tasting foods because sugars provide the fuel necessary for physical energy, brain function and survival. But our conception of sugar and the amount we consume has become dangerously warped from generations past. This distortion is in part due to an excessive use of sugar additives, such as table sugar and sugar substitutes.

In American history, honey was the primary sweetener and refined sugar was considered a luxury. Modern America, by contrast, embraces a food and beverage industry that is overwhelmed by added sugars; today, more than 90 percent of Americans consume beverages with caloric sweeteners, such as Pepsi, and more than 66 percent drink those with alternative sweeteners, like Diet Pepsi, according to the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition. The latter may be one of the most serious threats to American health and diet habits.

Of all added sweeteners, the use of non-nutritive sweeteners is increasing the most in the U.S., and the food and beverage industry is increasingly replacing corn syrup and refined sugar with artificial sweeteners. Superficially, these chemicals, like sucralose and aspartame, may seem to solve the health problems associated with excessive sugar consumption. Artificial sweeteners provide high-intensity sugar taste without the health hazards of processed sugar consumption such as coronary heart disease, obesity and tooth decay. Why, then, are obesity and BMI levels still rising?

The answer lies in our mind-body connection. While recent research has focused on the potential toxicological effects of artificial sweeteners, less attention has been paid to the psychological harms that accompany these chemicals. Americans who consume artificial sweeteners are essentially living in a dream world, where we can — as Froyo World puts it — “Indulge yourself” without facing the physical consequences of sugar consumption. Consequently, these chemicals increase our tolerance of and craving for sugary foods. The use of artificial sweeteners “sugar coats” a fundamental problem of the American diet: our addiction to “sweet.” In fact, medical resources and physicians suggest that those seeking to decrease their consumption of sugar do so gradually — a kind of weaning off much like that suggested to addicts of alcohol, nicotine and coffee.

Given this candied food trend, it is not surprising that the use of artificial sweeteners has not decreased the amount of sugar we use, either. Between 1975 and 2005, the amount of added sugar in American food increased by 19 percent. The food industry and Americans themselves add sugar to everything that isn’t already artificially sweetened, like cereal: A 2008 report from Consumer Reports found that some Post and Kellogg’s cereals comprise more than 50 percent sugar. Government statistics show that the average American consumes more than 22 teaspoons of sugar per day — nearly quadruple the suggested six tablespoons suggested by the American Heart Association.

In addition to increasing sugar cravings, non-nutritive sweeteners may slow metabolism, increase appetite and cause overeating in general. Aspartame is about 200 times sweeter than refined sugar, yet it provides a comparatively insignificant amount of energy. Thus, our minds are trained to expect very little energy from a very sweet taste. Consequently, when we actually do eat naturally sweet foods, we tend to overeat, particularly when it comes to sweet foods.

This is not only true for sugary foods; the use of artificial sweeteners has been shown to increase energy intake in the diet, explaining why obesity rates have increased in concert with consumption of diet sodas. When consumed with non-energy yielding foods, like coffee, sugar substitutes have been shown to be ineffective in long-term weight management. They cause the metabolism to slow down for two main reasons: They cause the body to enter starvation mode due to caloric restriction, and they train it to maximally absorb calories.

On a larger scale, sugar substitutes shift American culture and tastes in a direction opposite to that which we should be moving in. As Michael Pollan argues in his book “The Omnivore’s Dilemma,” the American diet is approaching a tipping point; the health hazards produced from overeating over-processed foods are taking a serious toll on the health of our population. In order to rectify these mounting problems, Pollan proposes that the food industry go back to basics; we should eat “how our grandparents ate.”

Artificial sweeteners have created a nationwide sweet tooth. But enough of the psychotherapy session; next week I will examine what these chemicals are doing to your body. Current toxicology research suggests some terrifying long-term ailments, but — despite the physical and mental drawbacks — some surprising benefits as well.

rebecca stern is a junior in Berkeley College.


  • JLevinsonRD

    As a registered dietitian, I get asked many questions about sweeteners because there is so much misinformation on this topic. One of the common misconceptions is that artificial and low-calorie sweeteners cause people to overeat and crave sugary treats. This myth is one you highlight in your article and is simply not true. Several studies, including one from the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition in 2009, show there is no clear evidence that low-calorie sweeteners increase appetite or affect satiety and fullness. The American Dietetic Association has also found that low-calorie sweeteners do not increase appetite or food intake. Moreover, when no- and low-calorie sweeteners are used in place of higher calorie and higher carbohydrate options, they can actually help reduce overall food intake. As with all foods, sweeteners of any kind should be enjoyed in moderation as part of a balanced, healthy diet.

    Jessica Fishman Levinson, MS, RD, CDN
    Registered Dietitian and and Food & Beverage Industry Consultant
    New York City

  • Goldie08

    Now, I’m not ready to believe a beverage industry paid talking head or Ms. Stern right off the bat, but it would have helped to see actual results of some of the studies mentioned in the above comment. Also, the article could have benefitted from some actual evidence.

  • yalie13

    The author neglected to mention how we don’t understand how or whether these artificial sweeteners have an effect on the fact that now over 40% of Americans develop cancer throughout their lifetimes. The false advertising of these sweeteners to sound like sugar derivatives (like “sucralose” actually being “1,6-Dichloro-1,6-dideoxy-β-D-fructofuranosyl-4-chloro-4-deoxy-α-D-galactopyranoside”) was also not mentioned.

    “Questions about artificial sweeteners and cancer arose when early studies showed that cyclamate in combination with saccharin caused bladder cancer in laboratory animals. However, results from subsequent carcinogenicity studies (studies that examine whether a substance can cause cancer) of these sweeteners have not provided clear evidence of an association with cancer in humans. Similarly, studies of other FDA-approved sweeteners have not demonstrated clear evidence of an association with cancer in humans.”

  • nkennington

    The “more than 22 teaspoons of sugar per day” “that the average American consumes” is NOT “nearly quadruple the suggested six tablespoons suggested by the American Heart Association.” Any cook could tell you that 6 tablespoons = 18 teaspoons, which is just a little bit less than the 22 teaspoons the average American consumes.

  • AnotherYalie

    This article displays the best of armchair Wikipedia-ing—the author speaks as an expert but clearly isn’t and cites none.

  • gzuckier

    A couple of studies have demonstrated, weakly, a tendency to increase calorie consumption when diet soda is added to the diet; it’s more pronounced when there’s switching back and forth. This is all unconscious, double blinded studies, yadayadayada, from quite a few years ago. Some caveats: this was done in extremely obese individuals, people who were hospitalized.

    After all, unless you spend all your time eating, your caloric intake is not passive, it’s actively regulated by various bodily processes. The relative constancy of body weight suggests that your body regulates how many calories it’s taking in each day, and won’t be fooled the way your tongue is. However, one hypothesis for the above effect is that your insulin levels may get conditioned by experience to expect a rise in blood sugar when you taste sweetness (see Pavlov’s dogs) so that diet soda without that rise results in a drop in blood sugar due to the insulin overproduction; which makes you then go eat something to get back to normal.

    Even more telling is the absolute lack of any studies showing loss of weight or reduced caloric intake from artificial sweeteners. You just know they’re doing studies; it would be a huge marketing coup if they could demonstrate a beneficial effect. But the deafening silence speaks volumes.