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.