Opinion: Artificial sweeteners can be worse than the sugar they replace. Here's a better alternative

Food writer Susan Puckett says the quest for a sugar alternative to satisfy our sweet cravings knows no end, but the solution is probably not an artificial sweetener manufactured in a lab.

Opinion: Artificial sweeteners can be worse than the sugar they replace. Here's a better alternative

Susan Puckett, a James Beard Award-nominated food journalist and editor, has authored or collaborated on more than a dozen books. She was the food editor for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution for nearly two decades.

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Many of us are on a quest to find a sugar alternative that will satisfy our sweet cravings.

Since the accidental discovery of saccharin in a lab well over a century ago, food companies have rolled out a parade of faux sugar options. But none of these sweeteners has escaped controversy, not even the ones touted as 'natural.'

The latest to come under fire is erythritol, a sugar alcohol found in small amounts in fruits and vegetables. It's often blended with popular plant-based sweeteners such as stevia and monk fruit in a litany of products geared to a health-conscious crowd. Often, it's listed on product packages under a generic term, such as 'reduced sugars,' so you may have consumed it without realizing it.

Last month, a scientific report linked erythitol with higher rates of blood clots, heart attacks, and strokes. The findings were contrary to decades of scientific research attesting to its safety.

Although some experts were hesitant to say definitively, most agreed that more research is needed to understand the implications of coffee sweetener consumption. Many consumers were upset because they felt they could not get a clear answer about the safety of their preferred coffee sweetener.

I understand where you're coming from. I've been working in food journalism for four decades and I used to be a health editor, so I'm naturally skeptical of every new diet study. I figure that sooner or later, another study will come out that disproves it.

I remember the years when fat was deemed the root of all dietary evil. We endured soggy toast slathered with watery 'light' margarine for breakfast and helped ourselves to the fat-free cookies on the office snack table, all the while wondering why our pants kept feeling tighter.

What a surprise then, to learn that research in the 1960s implicating sugar, rather than saturated fat, as a cause of heart disease was funded by the sugar industry. Or that in 2015, Coca-Cola enlisted scientists to convince us that too little exercise was more to blame for those extra pounds than sugary sodas.

A 12-ounce can of Coca-Cola contains 39 grams of sugar (which amounts to 10 teaspoons) in the form of high-fructose corn syrup. Although drinking zero-calorie versions saves us calories in the short run, it does not curb our sweet tooth or hunger. Studies have suggested that any kind of sweetener - fake or real - may actually be exacerbating the problem.

An article from Scientific American in 2016 reveals that foods that are extremely sweet or fatty can captivate the brain's reward circuit in a similar way to how cocaine and gambling do. Michael Lowe, a clinical psychologist at Drexel University, coined the term 'hedonic hunger' to refer to the pleasure-driven eating that people do after they've met their energy needs.

Lowe's research found that brains of people who overeat require more sugar and fat to reach the same level of pleasure as they did when they ate less.

A 2022 study indicates that while artificial sweeteners may be able to satisfy our taste buds' initial desires for sugar, our guts know the difference and communicate to our brains their preference for the real thing.

The food industry provides us with a cheap and steady supply of those options at every turn, in places we don't necessarily expect, such as in sandwich bread and lunch meat. Because sugar and other sweeteners come in a growing number of forms, often under names too difficult to pronounce that frequently end in '-ose', it's become increasingly complicated to keep track of how much is going into our bodies.

It's important to remember that not all sugars are the same.

According to Christine Rosenbloom, a registered dietitian, nutrition consultant and a professor emerita at Georgia State University, lactose, the sugar in milk, is less sweet and a natural component of dairy milk and yogurt.

I hate seeing fruit demonized for having too much sugar. Fruit comes in a nutrient-rich package of naturally occurring sugar, water, fiber, vitamins, minerals and phyto (plant) nutrients that support good health.

"Natural" sweeteners like honey, agave, maple syrup, and coconut sugar may have some trace nutrients, but they're not as healthy as some people claim, Rosenbloom noted. "They're all sugar, and you still need to be careful about how much you use."

How are we supposed to apply the ever-evolving information about sugar and its stand-ins to our daily lives?

Rosenbloom explained that the research linking sugar to every chronic disease is observational, so it only shows a correlation, not causation.

'Animal studies that show sugar to be harmful to health give the animals doses hundreds of times what a human would consume. The key is the amount of sugar you eat and how it fits your entire dietary pattern.'

It is certain that we need to reduce our sugar intake. For years, we have been hearing that obesity rates are rising, along with the myriad life-threatening conditions associated with them: heart disease, type 2 diabetes, stroke, certain types of cancers and more. Sugar is a major contributor.

Suggestions to replace ultra-processed foods with fresh foods, and diet sodas with water or unsweetened tea, are often met with eyerolls. As a recovered vegetable-phobe and Diet Coke addict, I can speak from experience that it can be done gradually.

My main trick for weaning myself off sweet stuff has been turning the focus to wholesome foods with savory or at least not so sweet flavors I like just as much. There's plenty to choose from in the produce aisle. For example, I love adding roasted Brussels sprouts to my breakfast bowl instead of a sugary cereal.

There was a time when I couldn't imagine starting my day without cereal or a granola bar and orange juice. When I realized how much sugar was in both, I adopted a new morning habit: a bowl of frozen, unthawed blueberries or cherries mixed with full-fat plain Greek yogurt sprinkled with nuts and drizzled with a teeny bit of honey. It's better for me than eating ice cream! (OK, maybe that's a stretch.)

If you're not excited about carrots or cauliflower, try roasting them with a little olive oil and seasoning. You might change your mind after you taste how good they are.

Instead of buying chemical-laden bottled dressings, toss your salads with flavorful oil, a splash of vinegar or citrus, and salt and pepper. You don't need to mix or measure. If you don't have time to cook, a roasted rotisserie chicken from the deli can supply you with satisfying low-carb protein for days.

"Make no mistake: I am still very much pro-dessert," she said. "I just opt for a smaller portion. Unless ganache is involved, and then all bets are off," she added with a laugh. "And Rosenbloom heartily approves."

In today's world, it's difficult to eliminate sugar completely and I for one will not be making my own ketchup! Sometimes a spoonful of sugar really does sweeten our life and help the medicine go down.