Follow Mary Nash Stoddard on Twitter

Sunday, July 29, 2012


TEEN VOGUE MAGAZINE, September Issue, pgs. 341 and 368. Eva Chen


Is your favorite low-cal sweetener too good to be true? 
Eva Chen investigates.

They're everywhere you look, in Easter egg bright packets at your favorite restaurant, in your must have diet soda, and even in your mouthwash. Big business, it seems, has never been sweeter. More than 200 million Americans use artificial sweeteners each year, supporting a multibillion dollar industry that proponents argue is necessary for diabetics and the obese. But sugar substitutes have also found a cult following in an unexpected genre: teens.

"Regular sugar is my last resort," says Lauren, sixteen, from Tampa. "I'm a fan of Sweet 'N Low. It adds more sweetness than plain old sugar." On the surface, Lauren's enthusiasm seems innocuous enough. If a product looks like sugar and tastes like sugar, it's probably the same as sugar, right? Kim Collier, a Sacramento, California based sports nutritionist for AthletiCamps begs to differ. "There're not the same. I know I certainly wouldn't touch them. People who use these products think they are going to lose weight. Instead, they just mess up their bodies."

The three most popular sugar substitutes contain the chemicals aspartame [a main ingredient in Equal], saccharin [used in Sweet 'N Low], or sucralose [found in the country's current best seller, Splenda] as their main sweetening ingredients. They pack a punch: on average, saccharin is 300 times sweeter than sugar, sucralose 600 times as sweet, and aspartame 200 times as sweet. And while that might sound tempting to those afflicted with a sweet tooth, their origins are less than organic. All were discovered - by accident - in laboratories: aspartame by a scientist creating an ulcer medication; saccharin by a chemist working with coal tar derivatives: and sucralose by a researcher inventing an insecticide.

So how do they work? Some, like Equal [made with two amino acids and methanol] and Sweet 'N Low [made by combining two chemicals], are considered to be no-calorie because they're exponentially sweeter than real sugar [and therefore require less per serving]; others, like Splenda [which is made with two chlorine atoms], [Ed. actually, it's three chlorine atoms], tamper with the original molecular form of sugar to render it indigestible to the body.

"These products are hardly natural, even if they're marketed to be. Place a patch of any of them on the tip of your tongue," advises Collier. "It doesn't taste sweet - it's more like a chemical sensation. Do you want to put that in your body?" For Allie, fifteen, from Missouri, the answer is still yes. "I can taste the difference between Splenda and regular sugar, but it's worth it," she says. "Losing weight is more important."

Experts warn against Allie's mentality. "Girls think they can use four spoonfuls of fake sugar and it's better than half a spoonful of real stuff," notes Collier. "They're wrong. These sweeteners can be a lot worse for you." A 2004 study by Purdue University in Indiana backs up her theory, indicating that they may contribute to weight gain because the body becomes unable to gauge the number of calories consumed in other sweet tasting foods. "When you eat something sweet, your taste receptors signal to the brain that your body will have incoming nutrition," explains Collier. "When the body doesn't get the nourishment, it craves more food. Your body gets into starvation mode, holding on to every ounce of fat."

Some scientists caution that weight gain [and the less than attractive side effects of diarrhea and gas] could be the least of your concerns. Sugar substitutes have been at the center of controversy since their discovery: While all of the products are approved by the Food and Drug Administration [FDA], some studies seem to indicate that aspartame and saccharin could be carcinogenic. Most teens are surprised to hear the news. "How can small crystals cause cancer?" asks Lauren. "Even if they do, they still taste good." Aspartame, found in many diet sodas, was discovered in a 2005 Italian study to be associated with leukemia and lymphoma in rats that were fed the human equivalent of three cans of diet soda a day. Anecdotal evidence also has it associated with migraines, seizures, and Alzheimer's disease. "I have a college aged client who drank her first diet soda before class, had her second afterward, and, throughout the day, had two six packs," says collier. "She began displaying symptoms of multiple sclerosis. It may not be proven in studies, but I know that when she cut out diet pop, she got better."

Saccharin, one of the oldest artificial sweeteners, also has a checkered past. In light of studies from the 1970s in which rats developed bladder cancer after being fed high quantities, the FDA once sought to ban the additive. It's since been declared safe by the World Health Organization, but the National Cancer Institute and FDA stated [about three decades ago] that there was "suggestive evidence" that people who were heavy users had some indication of an increased risk of cancer. And while the jury's still out on America's favorite sweetener, McNeil Nutritionals [the maker of Splenda] is currently fighting lawsuits from the sugar industry for allegedly falsely advertising that Splenda is made from sugar.

According to Rebecca Appleman, R.D., a nutritionist based in New York City, just know what you're consuming. "The problem isn't having an occasional product that contains sugar substitutes," she explains. "It's that people are unaware of how much sugar - real and fake - they consume." As an alternative to adding sugar to your diet, she recommends choosing foods that are naturally sweet, like fruit. "I use raw honey as a sweetener," adds Collier. "As with everything else, be as natural as possible. You can't cut out all chemicals, but when it comes to food, why tamper with Mother Nature?"

- 30 -