Sugar is increasingly considered to be the most harmful and in some ways addictive of substances we consumer in our daily diet, the most dangerous effects being weight gain and blood sugar levels in diabetics. Increasing awareness among consumers as well as government policy around penal taxation on sugary products have resulted in the sugar substitute or artificial sweetners becoming ubiquitous.
“By 2019, 60% of all the soft drinks sold by Coca-Cola and 83% of those sold by Pepsi were sugar-free. Today there are even sugar-free “energy drinks” such as Monster Absolutely Zero and Lucozade Zero Pink Lemonade – a puzzling concept, given that sugar is usually what provides the energy in an energy drink.
“Sweeteners” is a catch-all term for a diverse range of chemicals, most of which are far sweeter than sugar, gram for gram, but contain few or no calories. One sweetener approved for use in the US, advantame, is 20,000 times sweeter than sugar. Other sweeteners, such as xylitol, which is commonly used in chewing gum, are comparable in sweetness to sugar.”
However, last July, the WHO issued draft guidelines stating “that non-sugar sweeteners should “not be used as a means of achieving weight control or reducing risk of non-communicable diseases” such as diabetes or heart disease” based on research that counters claims of the sugar free industry.
“Contrary to the claims so often made for them, the researchers found consistent evidence that consuming a lot of sweeteners was associated with an increased risk of type 2 diabetes (as well as higher risk of heart disease). Similarly, when it came to weight, they found that people who consumed a lot of sweeteners were more likely to gain weight over the long term”
The primary basis for the use of sweeteners was that they were metabolically inert i.e, they deliver the sweet taste without being absorbed by the body and hence causing no harm. New research seems to question that claim as well as studies show an increase in blood sugar as well as affect the gut bacteria.
Why are these studies coming now when sweeteners have been around for decades?
“…for most of their history, the question of whether artificially sweetened low-calorie drinks really helped with weight loss and blood sugar management was hardly examined. There was a more pressing issue to clear up: did they cause cancer?”
Why the focus of research on sweeteners was on its carcinogenic capabilities goes back to the fascinating story of the origin of sweeteners:
“The origin story of many of the most famous artificial sweeteners tends to start with a lab experiment gone awry. This pattern was set in 1879 when a chemist called Constantin Fahlberg was working with coal tar derivatives at Johns Hopkins University in the hope of discovering a new food preservative. The legend goes that one day, after finishing a series of experiments, Fahlberg licked his finger and was amazed to discover how sweet it tasted. He started to work in secret to perfect the product, which he named saccharin. When he finally launched it at the World’s Fair in Chicago in 1893, Fahlberg marketed saccharin as a “perfectly harmless spice”, 500 times sweeter than “the best sugar”. The word “spice” cleverly hid the industrial origins of saccharin and the fact that it was made from coal tar: a sticky dark liquid that is a byproduct of burning coal.
Saccharin had a mixed reputation from the beginning. In the early 20th century, it was a byword for cheap and sickening fakery, as opposed to the all-natural properties of sugar, which was not yet seen as a problematic food. In 1908, Harvey Wiley, who was then the head of the US Food and Drug Administration, sought to have saccharin eliminated from the food supply as an impure additive. But President Theodore Roosevelt, who used saccharin after his doctor prescribed him a sugar-free diet, personally intervened to prevent it being banned. In 1977, the FDA once again attempted (and again, failed) to ban saccharin after studies showed that high doses caused bladder cancer in rats.”
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