Is sweet always nice? Not really.

Articles
February 20, 2009

Is sweet always nice? Not really.

Has the American palate become far too accustomed to sweetness? Have we blown our buds by sugar-coating them regularly, and then compounding that by using artificial sweeteners that taste many hundreds of times sweeter than the real thing? Surely, sugar still brings smiles despite such stacked competition. But do we appreciate other taste subtleties less as a result? Does the sweetness we crave turn us away from less-sweet healthful foods? And when we look at health issues beyond mere taste, what do we really know about artificial sweeteners? In a column this week, Jane Brody of The New York Times raised the issue of the role of federally approved non-nutritive sweeteners in appetite and weight control. “I am not alone in having noticed that many overweight people drink diet sodas as if they were water,” she wrote. “The question is: Does a weight problem prompt people to try to cut calories, or does the consumption of artificial sweeteners lead to their weight problem?”

Has the American palate become far too accustomed to sweetness? Have we blown our buds by sugar-coating them regularly, and then compounding that by using artificial sweeteners that taste many hundreds of times sweeter than the real thing?

Surely, sugar still brings smiles despite such stacked competition. But do we appreciate other taste subtleties less as a result? Does the sweetness we crave turn us away from less-sweet healthful foods? 

And when we look at health issues beyond mere taste, what do we really know about artificial sweeteners?

In a column this week, Jane Brody of The New York Times raised the issue of the role of federally approved non-nutritive sweeteners in appetite and weight control. “I am not alone in having noticed that many overweight people drink diet sodas as if they were water,” she wrote. “The question is: Does a weight problem prompt people to try to cut calories, or does the consumption of artificial sweeteners lead to their weight problem?”

Contradictory reports abound, was the conclusion of two professors—Richard D. Mattes of Purdue University and Barry M. Popkin of the University of North Carolina—who reviewed 224 professional studies of the effects of non-nutritive sweeteners on appetite, food intake and weight. Brody cited their report, which appears in the current issue of The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition. So what are people to think of aspartame (NutraSweet and Equal), saccharin (Sweet n Low and Necta Sweet), sucralose (Splenda), stevia (Truvia and PureVia), acesulfame potassium (Acesulfame-K, Sunett or Sweet One) or neotame (a relative of aspartame)?

According to the professors, “evidence suggests that…non-nutritive sweeteners…have the potential to aid in weight management.” Ah, except if they “do not overcompensate by eating lots of high-calorie foods,” noted Brody.

Three separate studies from Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center in Boston, Pennsylvania State University and Harvard University all pointed to potential weight loss in people who use non-nutritive sweeteners when they act as substitutes rather than excuses to eat more.

When SupermarketGuru.com examined this issue five years ago, editor Phil Lempert concluded, “when it comes to a table top sweetener used to add sweetness to beverages or on top of cereal or fruit, the differences are more about personal taste preferences than anything else. My personal preference…is…sugar….Which artificial sweetener as an ingredient is best? or worst? It is getting to be a more difficult decision as more food products are using blends of two or more…to maximize sweetness and reduce costs.” (Archived article of January 3, 2004 explains each artificial sweetener in detail.)

Brody reported that only 15% of Americans regularly consume foods and beverages that contain artificial sweeteners. That share might be higher if there was less confusion about them—or more targeted marketing to our growing legions of people with diabetes. For all the questions raised by the use of artificial sweeteners, their functional role in a diabetic diet might be a real saving grace after all.