Underscore: Is There a Place for Non-nutritive Sweeteners in a Healthy Diet?
Story by Elena Cornwell / Cover Image by iStock Photography
It’s a debate that seems to continue to crescendo since the first accidental discovery of saccharin by Constantine Fahlberg in 1879. Since then most would agree that the fascination and need for sweet foods has become a national problem.
And, although it appears that the addictive and health-related issues induced by sugar has only recently received more national attention, Ellen G. White counseled on that very topic before many even knew it was a problem. In Counsels on Diets and Foods, White admonished, “Sugar clogs the system. It hinders the working of the living machine” (p. 327).
Now her words ring true more than ever, but there is a new player in the sweets aisle—non-nutritive sweeteners—that requires some attention. The American Heart Association describes non-nutritive sweeteners as sweeteners that offer no nutritional benefits, like vitamins and minerals. They also contain low amounts or no calories at all. They are often used to replace sugar because of their low caloric levels.
Three professionals in fields of health across the Columbia Union weigh in on different types of non-nutritive sweeteners and compare them to natural sugar. Understanding how non-nutritive sweeteners affect the body is important to properly manage your diet, they say:
Kathleen Coleman Covers Splenda
Kathleen Coleman, faith community nurse, Health Ministries coordinator and cardiac and vascular outreach coordinator at Adventist HealthCare based in Gaithersburg, Md., breaks down the difference between sugar and non-nutritive sweeteners. “The biggest thing we are looking at is the effect on the raising of blood sugar and the response of the insulin,” she says. Splenda is made up of sucrose, but three of the hydroxyl groups in the molecule were replaced by three chlorine atoms. “It was actually found when British scientists were formulating a new pesticide, so its chemical construction does resemble a pesticide even more than food,” she reports.
When searching for the positives of using Splenda, not much will be found other than the low calorie levels it offers. Coleman, a member of Allegheny East Conference’s Emmanuel-Brinklow church in Ashton, Md., points out three areas of concern that have been found in research in the last few years: “Splenda reduces the quality and quantity of good bacteria in the belly by 50 percent or more, throwing off the fine balance in our system. It also restricts the absorption of therapeutic medications—rendering them less effective, such as those used for cancer and heart disease. Finally, it can modify the insulin response and blood glucose levels. These changes are even seen with low levels of intake … This, by far, is a serious issue.”
With all of the negative effects found with Splenda, Coleman cautions her patients to avoid using it, and instead substitute small amounts of honey or regular sugar in moderation. “No more than 100 calories (six teaspoons) per day, as recommended by the American Heart Association,” she says.
David Lee Explains Xylitol
David Lee, DDS, of Lee Dentistry in Maryland, is no stranger to the non-nutritive sweetener Xylitol, categorized as a sugar alcohol. Its molecular structure allows it to stimulate the sweet taste buds on your tongue, making whatever you eat nice and sweet, he says. Fruits and vegetables already contain small amounts of Xylitol themselves, allowing Xylitol to be considered a natural sugar.
“It is extracted from birch wood to make medicine and is widely used as a sugar substitute and in ‘sugar free’ gums, mints and other candies,” points out Lee, a member of Chesapeake Conference’s Baltimore Korean church in Ellicott City, Md. “Xylitol is not a synthetic sugar substitute like saccharine or aspartame and other synthetic sugar substitutes.”
With one-third fewer calories than sugar, Xylitol is safe for human consumption and has no known toxicity, he says. It can be toxic to dogs, however, even in small amounts. Typically, Xylitol is used in oral care products to prevent tooth decay and dry mouth. “When sugar is eaten, bacteria break down the sugar and the end product is acid,” explains Lee. Acid left on the teeth can cause tooth decay. Because harmful micro-organisms are starved in the presence of Xylitol, it allows the mouth to re-mineralize damaged teeth with less interruption.” This is why it is often suggested to chew gum with Xylitol, rather than harmful non-nutritive sweeteners, such as aspartame or sorbitol.
Juanita Weaver- Reiss Talks Truvia
Juanita Weaver-Reiss has spent 20 years working in nutrition, with 10 of those years spent at the Joslin Diabetes Center, an affiliate of Southview Medical Center, a hospital in the Kettering Adventist HealthCare system based in Kettering, Ohio. She suggests moderate use of non-nutritive sweeteners but realizes it is a personal choice. “I do have clients who desire to only use sugar and foods with natural sugars,” explains Weaver-Reiss. “These would need to fit into a meal plan to aid with glucose control. It is about balancing choices and deciding how foods should fit.”
Truvia, the second best-selling artificial sweetener on the market today, is made of three main ingredients, one of which is a compound separated from stevia, so it is not stevia. Often advertised as stevia, this misleading presentation of Truvia makes it hard for consumers to make informed decisions for their own health, she says. “Consumers should be label literate … and keep informed about current studies regarding food products.” adds Weaver-Reiss, a member of Ohio Conference’s Centerville church.
Weaver-Reiss compares the use of non-nutritive sweeteners to natural sugar for a diabetic person. “When a person has diabetes, the goal is to have carbohydrates eaten consistently during the day as a way to balance the blood glucose levels. Due to the fact that carbohydrates are changed 100 percent into glucose, when an excess of carbs are eaten, blood glucose values can rise above target ranges. Both foods that contain natural sugars and/or artificial sweeteners can be part of the meal plan.”
Truvia is relatively new to the market, having been introduced in 2008, so the research on its effects over long-term consumption is very limited. For example, some sources report that erythritol alcohol, the primary ingredient in Truvia, may be difficult for the body to digest.
Do Your Research
Leah Scott, Health Ministries coordinator for the Columbia Union Conference and Allegheny East Conference, says “the Columbia Union wants to continue to educate on health, but realizes that it is up to each person to become informed on how to correctly care for their body.” The tools to educate others on maintaining a healthy diet, including which sugar or non-nutritive sweetener is best to consume, are just a Google search or phone call away.
“If you are unsure of which sweetener to use in your diet, speak with your local dietician and find out. Making an informed decision is important and in your power,” Scott says.