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Artificial sweeteners or natural sugar

05/04/2018

A recent study suggests that artificial sweeteners aren't as great a substitute for sugar as originally expected. We spoke with Jill Reece, RD, a clinical bariatric dietitian at the Weight and Wellness Center how we can be more aware of our sugar intake and how much sugar we should be consuming each day.

Jill Reece is a clinical bariatric dietitian at the Weight and Wellness CenterHow much sugar is recommended to consume in a day?

It is difficult to make a recommendation for sugar intake without differentiating between "natural" and "added" sugar first. Naturally occurring sugars found in fruit, some vegetables, and milk do not carry the same health risk as added sugars. Plus these foods typically come packaged with additional vitamins and minerals as well as fiber which are an essential part of a healthy eating plan. Currently the American Heart Association recommends that men limit their intake of added sugar to 150 calories or 9 teaspoons per day while women limit their intake to 100 calories or about 6 teaspoons per day. Most Americans consume far more than that.

Do you recommend the use of artificial sweeteners over sugar?

Not necessarily. I generally recommend that whatever a person chooses to use they do so in moderation, or limit their intake wherever possible. For example, if I have a patient who drinks multiple cans of regular soda per day and is looking to stop, an artificially flavored beverage may serve as a good bridge to eventually drinking more water instead of soda or a diet beverage. However if I have a patient who is not currently using artificial sweeteners and wants to start drinking flavored beverages like sodas or juices, I try to suggest a no/low calorie alternative such as soda water or water infused with fresh fruit or herbs.

Aspartame can be found in soda products. Should these also be limited as a result of this study?

It's no secret that soda isn't exactly “health food” - it doesn't provide any significant source of vitamins or minerals and may come at the cost of lots of calories due to its high sugar content. Consuming one 20 ounce soda per day will put most people at the recommended limit for added sugar and that doesn't include other sources that they may already be consuming through breads, breakfast cereals, salad dressings, coffee beverages, yogurts, and snacks among other foods. Diet sodas, while far lower in calories, may prove to be no better than regular soda especially if consumed in large quantities. Regardless of whether a soda is regular or diet, it's probably best consumed infrequently.

If natural sugar and artificial sugar can contribute to cardiovascular problems, is the answer to cut all sugar from our diet?

Not necessarily. There are a number of foods that contain naturally occurring sugars such as fruits, vegetables and some dairy foods. Eliminating these foods from our diet for their natural sugar content would actually be detrimental to health as many of them - especially fruits and vegetables - help to fight chronic disease. Additionally, the Dietary Guidelines for Americans states that fruits, vegetables and dairy foods are part of a healthy eating pattern, further suggesting that fruits and vegetables should make up at least half of our plate when preparing a meal.

Should someone who eats/drinks artificial sweeteners be tested for health risks?

Speaking with your primary care physician (PCP) and attending a yearly physical appointment may be a good way to keep him or her informed of your lifestyle habits. In many cases there may be no additional testing required above and beyond what is routine for your visit. Until there is further research about the potential health benefit or risk of artificial sweetener use, it’s difficult to say whether future testing will evolve.

Who should be most conscious of their sugar intake? 

Whether male or female, young or old, all of us should be conscious of our sugar intake, especially added sugars in foods and beverages. Making a few simple changes to our diet can help to reduce intake. For example, swapping a soda for an unsweetened iced tea, or a cookie at lunch for a piece of fruit could easily eliminate a few teaspoons of sugar per day. People with additional health concerns such as diabetes or heart disease may want to pay special attention to these sources of added sugars as they can quickly spike blood sugar levels in the body.

How can someone be more aware of their sugar intake?

To learn more about the sugar content of a food, check the nutrition facts label of the product you are consuming. The amount of sugar in one serving of the food or drink will be listed in grams. With the recent changes to the nutrition label, identifying foods with natural vs. added sugars will become easier. Now there is a new section entitled “added sugars” that appears just under “sugar” on the label. By the year 2020-2021, all manufacturers will be required to transition to the new nutrition label. For foods that do not contain a nutrition label websites like CalorieKing.com or the USDA Food Composition Database can help to provide insight about the sugar content.