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Susan B. Dopart, M.S., R.D., C.D.E. Headshot

Sugar or Sweetener? Your Body Knows What's Right

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Have you ever been sitting in a restaurant and watched someone add multiple pink, blue or yellow packets to their food or drink? Whenever I see one of these "packet aficionados," I just want to lean over and ask, "What's wrong with good old-fashioned sugar?"

Some days I feel like I am "sweet talking" all day long. Many clients I see in my practice have come to believe that artificial sweeteners are a healthier way to satisfy their cravings for sweet. Unfortunately, they're not.

As a culture, how did we get so sweet obsessed, anyway? Like MTV, The Simpsons and Cyndi Lauper, they came to fame in the 1980s.

How Sweet is Sweet Enough?

In the 80's, the fat-free revolution hit the shelves. We were told fat was the villain -- as long as you avoided fat, all would be well. But, what happens when you take away fat (and its resulting flavor)? Manufacturers were left with a handful of options to flavor their products -- namely sugar or non-nutritive artificial sweeteners, thereby creating a generation who preferred sweet and sweeter.

This conditioning has led us to where we are today -- wanting to satisfy our sweet tooth without ramifications. The result? More and more new sweeteners are born each decade.

Non-nutritive sweeteners range from half as sweet as sugar to many times sweeter than sugar, with the average being 200-300 times sweeter than sugar. Which leads me to ponder: just how sweet does sweet need to be?

Fuel, Don't Fool Your Body

Today, many well-known diet programs and health care professionals advocate the use of sweeteners to decrease the amount of sugar and calories a person takes in. What's interesting, however, is that the longer these sweeteners have been on the market, the more obese our nation has become.

When you are consuming alternative sweeteners, you are trying to fool your body. And guess what? It doesn't work. Your body knows what you are giving it is fake, so instead of being satisfied, it continues to send the signal that it wants to consume something sweet.

Sharon Fowler, MPH, and her colleagues at the University of Texas Health Science Center, San Antonio, collected data for eight years that was reported at the American Diabetes Association's annual meeting in San Diego in 2005. What they discovered was that people who drank diet soda did not lose weight, but rather gained weight.

"What didn't surprise us was that total soft drink use was linked to overweight and obesity," Fowler said. "What was surprising was that when we looked at people only drinking diet soft drinks, their risk of obesity was even higher. There was a 41 percent increase in risk of being overweight for every can or bottle of diet soft drink a person consumes each day." These products create the illusion that you can eat or drink more of them and not gain weight.

HFCS & Agave - Inexpensive and Trendy Substitutes

What about caloric substitutes for sweetness? High fructose corn syrup (HFCS) was developed in the '70's from cornstarch made from genetically modified corn. This process results in a less expensive product than sugar and is now used by major food companies to sweeten anything from sodas to jam, ketchup, juice, yogurt, and processed foods.

In the 30 years since HFCS was injected into our food supply, rates of obesity and diabetes have reached phenomenal levels. Whereas regular sugar has a breakdown of 50 percent fructose and 50 percent glucose, HFCS has higher levels of fructose (55-60 percent) and lower levels of glucose (40-45 percent).

When fructose is attached to whole fruit, it is safe. However, if it is extracted out of the fruit or vegetable, such as corn for HFCS, it gets metabolized by the body differently. Instead of being used by all the cells of the body for energy, which is the case with glucose, fructose goes directly to the liver. This results in higher triglyceride levels, fatty liver, insulin resistance, increased hunger levels and a plethora of other health issues you'd rather avoid. High levels of fructose make your brain deaf to leptin, the hormone responsible for making you feel full.

With Agave syrup, the percentages are altered more significantly, with the breakdown being 85-90 percent fructose and 10-15 percent glucose. The processing of the Agave plant concentrates it into a syrup for the desired sweetness. Rather than being natural, it is actually a processed food with few quality controls.

Solving for Sweet

So, how do you satisfy those sweet cravings? How can you truly taste and enjoy the real flavor of foods? Here are some tips to keep your sweet cravings in check:

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