For many of us, the quest for a sugar alternative to satisfy our sweet cravings knows no end.
A parade of faux sugar options has been rolled out by food companies since the accidental discovery of saccharin in a lab well over a century ago. However, none of these sweeteners has escaped controversy, not even the ones touted as “natural.”
The latest sweetener to come under fire is erythritol, a sugar alcohol found in small amounts in fruits and vegetables and often blended with popular plant-based sweeteners such as stevia and monk fruit in a litany of products geared to a health-conscious crowd. It is often listed on product packages under a generic term, such as “reduced sugars,” so it may have been consumed without realization.
Last month, a scientific report linked erythritol with higher rates of blood clots, heart attacks, and strokes — the very ailments that we were thinking it might help prevent. Industry reps pushed back, claiming the findings were contrary to decades of scientific research attesting to its safety.
Cautioning that “more study is needed” before jumping to any conclusions, outside nutrition experts hedged. Confused consumers vented frustration in failing to get a straight answer as to whether their coffee sweetener of choice posed a legitimate safety risk.
Fresh in our mind are the years when fat, not carbs, was deemed the root of all dietary evil. Soggy toast slathered with watery “light” margarine for breakfast was endured and the fat-free cookies on the office snack table were helped to, all the while wondering why our pants kept feeling tighter.
It was surprising to learn that research in the 1960s implicating saturated fat as a cause of heart disease was funded by the sugar industry, and that in 2015, scientists were enlisted by Coca-Cola to convince us that too little exercise was more to blame for extra pounds than sugary sodas.
Zero-calorie versions of sodas may save us calories in the short run (140 per can), but they do nothing to curb our sweet tooth or hunger. Any kind of sweetener — fake or real — may in fact be exacerbating the problem, as extremely sweet or fatty foods captivate the brain’s reward circuit in much the same way that cocaine and gambling do, according to a 2016 Scientific American article.
The term “hedonic hunger” was coined by Michael Lowe, a clinical psychologist at Drexel University, to refer to the pleasure-driving eating people do after they’ve met their energy needs. According to Lowe’s research, the brains of overeaters demand a lot more sugar and fat to reach the same threshold of pleasure as they once experienced with smaller amounts of foods.
While artificial sweeteners may be able to satisfy our taste buds’ initial desires for sugar, a 2022 study indicates that 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 these 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 has become increasingly complicated to keep track of how much is going into our bodies.
It is important to keep in mind that not all sugars are equal. 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.” Additionally, fruit should not be demonized for having too much sugar, as it comes in a nutrient-rich package of naturally occurring sugar, water, fiber, vitamins, minerals, and phyto (plant) nutrients that support good health.
Less-processed sweeteners such as honey, agave, maple syrup, and coconut sugar may contain some trace nutrients, but they are not health foods or superfoods, as some claim. They’re all sugar, and we still need to keep the amount we use in check.
So how then are we supposed to apply the ever-evolving information about sugar and its stand-ins to our daily lives?
We should remember that the research linking sugar to every chronic disease is observational and shows a correlation, not a causation. In animal studies that show a harm of sugar to health, the animals are given doses hundreds of times that a human would consume. The key is the amount of sugar we eat and how it fits our entire dietary pattern.
One thing is certain: there can be no question about the need to reduce our sugar intake. We’ve been listening to that obesity rates are through the roof and rising for years, along with the myriad life-threatening conditions associated with them, such as heart disease, type 2 diabetes, stroke, certain types of cancers, and more. Sugar is a major contributor, and we are well aware of this fact.
When it comes to suggestions that we should replace ultra-processed food with fresh food and diet soda with water or unsweetened tea, we tend to meet them with eye-rolls. However, it can be done.
The main trick for weaning ourselves off sweet stuff has been turning the focus to wholesome food with savory — or at least not so sweet — flavors, we like just as much. There’s plenty to choose from in the produce aisle.
There was a time when starting our day without cereal or a granola bar and orange juice seemed impossible. When we realized how much sugar was in both, a new morning habit was adopted: a bowl of frozen, unthawed blueberries or cherries mixed with full-fat plain Greek yogurt sprinkled with nuts and drizzled with a tiny bit of honey. It’s better than ice cream! (OK, maybe that’s a stretch.)
For savory dishes, if carrots or cauliflower don’t excite us, we can try tossing them in a little olive oil and seasoning and roasting them in a super-hot oven until they begin to naturally caramelize. We just may become converts.
And bottled dressings laden with chemicals should be avoided. Instead, we can toss our salads with flavorful oil, a splash of vinegar or citrus, and salt and pepper – no need to mix or measure. If we don’t have time to cook, a roasted rotisserie chicken from the deli can provide us with satisfying low-carb protein for days.
It should be noted that we are still very much pro-dessert. We simply opt for smaller portions. Unless ganache is involved, in which case all bets are off.
“In today’s world, it is almost impossible to completely eliminate sugar and making our own ketchup is not something we will do! Sometimes, a spoonful of sugar really does make our lives sweeter and helps medicine go down,” Rosenbloom explained.