Friday, April 10, 2009

An Artificial Paranoia?

Perhaps you've heard, among the whispers of health nuts and the nutritionally-conscious, of the so-called taboo surrounding artificial sweeteners. As runners, we are typically more aware of what we put into our bodies to achieve optimum performance, and thus this question looms large in the minds of many. Are artificial sweeteners, such as Splenda or aspartame, really so bad?

No, says the American Council on Science and Health, an organization known for debunking such myths. Several of the studies that have aroused this artificial sweetener scare should be looked at with skepticism and caution, as many are funded by rival organizations to companies like Splenda. For example, one study conducted at Duke University that found Splenda both destroyed good intestinal bacteria and caused weight gain was funded by the Sugar Association (who knew such a group existed?).

This experiment was performed on rats, and later dismissed by the FDA and Splenda, as it did not follow the FDA's standards for Good Laboratory Practices and used questionable methodology. There was also a margin of error these scientists did not account for, such as the fluctuation of the rats' weight over the course of the day. Also, it is interesting to note that the rats given the largest doses of Splenda per day (1,000 mg/kg) gained weight less rapidly than those who consumed lesser amounts, including the control rats who were given no Splenda. According to the paper's author, "At the lowest Splenda dose level of 100 mg/kg, rats showed a significant increase in body weight gain relative to controls; the changes at 300 mg/kg, 500 mg/kg, and 1000 mg/kg did not differ significantly from controls." The data these researchers present is not clear, and it is apparent the such conclusions they make against Splenda are largely ungrounded.
Of course, when consuming artificial sweeteners, one must be aware of the concept of moderation, as anything in such great quantities can have ill effects in one way or another. Even soy, a long-touted super-food, can be detrimental when consumed in large amounts. The FDA has established guidelines for acceptable daily intake (ADI) for each sweetener, which is calculated to be 100 times less than the smallest amount that might cause health concerns. According to Mayo Clinic, for aspartame (AKA NutraSweet or Equal), this amount is 50 mg/kg of body weight, approximately comparable to 18 to 19 cans of diet soda for an 150-pound individual. The ADI for saccharin (AKA Sweet'N Low or Sugar Twin) is 5 mg/kg, or 9-12 packets of sugar for this same individual. For acesulfame-K (AKA Sunett or Sweet One), the ADI is 15 mg/kg (30-32 cans of diet lemon-lime soda), and for sucralose (AKA Splenda), the ADI is 5 mg/kg (6 cans of diet cola).

However, it is doubtful consuming large amounts is entirely realistic, considering the fact that artificial sweeteners are much sweeter than sugar and thus much less is required to achieve the same taste. Aspartame is 180 times as sweet as table sugar, and Splenda 600 times sweeter, to name a couple.

In response to the widespread artificial sweetener backlash from critics, Truvia, a so-called "natural" sweetener, was launched. The "natural" label, interestingly enough, seems to have a more positive psychological influence on people than the term "artificial" placed on Splenda and aspartame. However, this title has no bearing on the truth of the matter, as a natural product is not automatically safer or superior to its artificial counterpart. Here lies a misconception that even the most nutty of self-proclaimed health-nuts are not necessarily aware of.

With that said, who's to say the consumption of an artificial sugar is any worse than table sugar (which, might I add, goes through an "unnatural" refining process)? Artificial sweeteners have been studied thoroughly in search of carcinogenic properties, but the National Cancer Institute, who has performed studies on the matter, assures there is no scientific evidence that any of the artificial sweeteners approved in the U.S. (aspartame, acesulfame-K, neotame, saccharin, and sucralose) cause cancer. In addition, dentists advocate chewing sugar-free (i.e. artificially-sweetened) gum, as it does not result in the cavities that chewing sugared gum can bring about. Most of these sugar substitutes are also good alternatives for diabetics because they alone don't raise blood sugar levels.

To consume or not consume artificial sweeteners is a rather prominent question in the sphere of dietary health - something that has been receiving an ever-increasing amount of attention as numbers of overweight and obese individuals continue to grow exponentially. This debate may be long-lasting until conclusive evidence can put to rest various rival hypotheses, but until that day comes, I will wait in eager anticipation on the sidelines, sipping an ice-cold Diet Coke.

1 comment:

  1. very interesting post as usual. i love splenda/sweet 'n low over regular sugar, especially in my coffee. mostly for the lower calories, but also because they are sweeter than regular sugar. guess that might be part of how the cals are less since you don't have to use as much to get the same level of sweetness. i've pretty much ignored the "they're bad for you" headlines, but it's nice to see some talk about how they aren't bad for you. obviously as fitness freaks we should be holding back from sugars anyway, but at least the 'fake' ones are a small step in the right direction.