In this blog entry I am going to do something different. While I usually answer a reader question, this time I am going to answer a question of my own. In the beginning of March, at the young age of 64 my dad was diagnosed with glioblastoma, a form of brain cancer. He is undergoing chemotherapy and radiation right now and fighting this devastating disease one day at a time. The day that my family got the diagnosis, I parked myself in front of the computer and spent countless hours online in search of answers. (Disclaimer: If you choose to use the internet as a resource, you have to be very good at differentiating the good creditable information from the bad … as there is a lot of misinformation and opinions out there that may appear to be fact upon first read.)
There is no genetic link to brain cancer and there is no history of brain cancer in my family, so I was really looking for anything that may provide an answer to why this has happened. While I still cannot come up with a conclusive piece of evidence, I did come across some articles and blog posts linking artificial sweeteners to the development of cancer and I have heard many people ask this before: So just how safe are artificial sweeteners?
There are many types of artificial sweeteners on the market today. Often found in products labeled “diet” or “sugar-free”, these sugar substitutes come in the form of Aspartame (Nutrasweet or Sweet n Low), Acesulfame Potassium (found in many diet sodas), Saccharin (found in sugarless chewing gum), and Sucralose (Splenda). Artificial sweeteners began to get a bad rap when saccharin, one of the very first sugar substitutes was linked to the development of bladder cancer in rats. Years later, scientists were not able to provide conclusive factual evidence that saccharin led to the development of cancer in humans and saccharin was once again deemed safe.
In the 90’s, concerns were raised about the safety of the sugar substitute Aspartame when a report suggested that an increase in the number of people with brain tumors between 1975 and 1992 might be linked to the introduction and popularity of the use of Aspartame in the United States. Later on, a review of statistics proved that overall, the incidence of brain cancer began to rise prior to the introduction of aspartame and that this rise was primarily in people age 70 and older, an age group that was not exposed to the high use of aspartame as a sugar substitute (source: The National Cancer Institute, www.cancer.gov).
Sugar has gotten a bad rap over the years, but not at sugar’s own faults. This is simply because Americans simply consume too much of it, which has led to an overwhelming amount of products across all product categories that contain calorie free sugar substitutes. These days, you can’t go three feet in a grocery store without finding one of these artificial sweetener ingredients in something. Over the past couple of years, the sweetener Stevia (Truvia) has also become quite popular. Marketed as an all-natural sweetener, Stevia sweeteners are manufactured from naturally occurring carbohydrates in plants, creating a non-calorie sugar substitute that fits into the category known as sugar alcohols. Despite the name, sugar alcohols are non-alcoholic as they do not contain ethanol, the derivative found in alcoholic beverages. Despite being all natural, moderate to high doses of sugar alcohols can have a laxative effect causing bloating, intestinal gas and diarrhea. (source: www.mayoclinic.com) Because sugar alcohols are less sweet than sugar and artificial sweeteners like Aspartame, products containing sugar alcohols often contain large amounts of the substance to create the desired sweetness, causing horrible belly pain and frequent trips to the bathroom! I don’t know about you, but this sounds like an unpleasant way of curbing your sweet tooth!
Regardless of what people’s opinions are or the rumors you may read online about artificial sweeteners, there aren’t ANY studies out there that back up the claims that they are unsafe. There are a lot of opinions, blogs, etc that claim this … but when it comes down to sorting out the facts, there is absolutely no factual scientific data that shows this. Does this mean they are 100% safe? Maybe … Maybe not? I personally do not think there is enough research to prove either way. With any new substance (because, in the big scheme of things, all of these substances are fairly new) there is always a lot we do not know … and time will most likely tell the whole story.
It is my personal opinion that it might be a good idea to keep an eye on the amounts of artificial sweetener ingredients you are consuming and work toward getting away from the heavy reliance most of us have developed on them. With that being said, it’s almost impossible and highly inconvenient to try and cut everything out completely. It just isn’t practical for most people, and that’s not what I’m advocating. Trying to do so and maintain a healthy diet will set most people up for certain failure. I AM advocating that the over use of almost anything isn’t good for you. Making better choices is always the key!
Although I have always been a healthy eater overall, I used to use artificial sweeteners in almost all the food I was eating when dieting. I would drink tons of Crystal Light and sweeten my oats with multiple packets of Splenda. These days I opt for unsweetened water with lemon and add a small amount of honey or agave nectar to sweeten my foods when I need it. I basically limit my artificial sweeteners to the occasional glass of Crystal Light or what I get in my protein shakes (where I get a lot of my sweet fix) and by doing so I feel I am making better choices for myself.
In general, I haven’t missed my sweeteners at all and honestly do feel better. Try making simple changes – instead of drinking gallons of Crystal Light or six diet sodas a day … switch to water. Instead of 4 packs of Splenda in your oatmeal, try a dab of honey instead. The next time you are looking for a sweet fix, reach for a piece of fruit or a delicious Level-1 shake! I’m a firm believer that it’s always a good idea to work to become more aware of exactly what it is you are putting in your body and try to not over consume anything! Life is a heck of a lot more practical (and you’ll achieve far more success with your meal plan or diet) when you exercise moderation instead of trying to rule your life by a lengthy list of extreme “do’s” and “don’ts.”
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