Sugar is a simple carbohydrate. When we think table sugar we are actually referring to sucrose. This type of sugar occurs naturally in a number of fruits, veggies and grains. Once your body ingests this sugar, it forgets what the source was, in fact all carbohydrates (except fiber) are broken down by the body to the same base constituents, absorbed into the blood stream, transported to the cells to be converted into energy.
Sugar is the whipping boy of today's nutrition industry. You've probably already heard enough about how bad it is for your body on a whole host of levels (inflammation, blood sugar response, insulin resistance, cancer correlated, fat storage inducing). This list just keeps going.
Sugar in things like pop and candy are 'empty calories' that don't have any vitamins minerals or anti-oxidants associated with them. That's why they end up on nutrition and fitness coaches naughty list.
On the other hand, Artificial sweeteners are synthetically derived products, many orders of magnitude sweeter than sugar and as a result you can use less without encountering significant (read -- measurable) amounts of calories. In most cases these compounds are so sweet that they need to be diluted with other solvents, typically dextrose or maltodextrin. These starch based sweeteners still rely on an insulin response to be metabolized by your body (more on that in a bit).
One of the biggest concerns people have about artificial sweeteners are their correlation to cancer. Aspartame has been the topic of intense debate regarding its potentially carcinogenic nature since it's approval as a consumable product in 1981.
There has been some pretty good science done on artificial sweeteners -- try typing in artificial sweetener health risk in Google Scholar and see how many studies pop up. The conclusion from the majority of observational studies is that artificial sweeteners do not cause cancer.
One study did find a weak correlation between artificially sweetened drink consumption in men and non-Hodgkins Lymphoma and Multiple Myeloma. The results of this study were weakly correlated, to the point that the researchers had to concede that the relationship could be non-causal i.e. chance.
Some researchers have suggested that of those who consume artificially sweetened drinks, the highest risk populations are the fetus' of pregnant women. This is based on the link found between high dosages of sweetener (aspartame in this case) and lymphomas/leukemias in rats. Unborn babies are so small that even small concentrations may exceed the currently accepted daily intake limits of 50mg/kg.
The currently available medical evidence cannot find conclusive correlation between artificial sweeteners and carcinogenic risk -- though, women should consider giving up their diet drinks during pregnancy, given the more recent thoughts on risks to the fetus. But, do AS drinks really help you lose weight? That's usually the goal, right? Replace calories but still satisfy that sugar craving that you need??
It turns out that not only are artificially sweetened drinks not correlated with weight loss, they may actually cause weight gain!
Another Study showed sweetener users had a higher likelihood of obesity in initially normal weight study participants. Already overweight participants showed an even higher likelihood of becoming obese if they consistently drank AS drinks. The study of over 5000 participants saw that over a seven year period, BMI increase was 47% higher in AS users vs non-users.
So why would a 'non-caloric' sweetener cause us to gain weight?
The answer is in your head, literally.
Sugar and artificial sweeteners both activate 'functionally connected primary taste pathways' -- It tastes sweet to your mouth. The difference is in the way it interacts with your dopaminergic midbrain (oh baby, we're getting serious now). Sugar triggers the release of dopamine -- the feel good hormone, where as artificial sweeteners do not! So even though you taste the 'sweet' your mind doesn't recognize it.
Researchers argue that the absence of 'feel good' response in your brain leaves you unconsciously unsatisfied. The craving continues to develop internally and eventually you end up giving in, eating something sugary, and usually in larger amounts because you've delayed gratifying that craving.
Artificially sweetened drinks may not be helping your diet, they may be hurting it!
Another thing to consider is that new research is showing that AS drinks may also raise your blood glucose more than sugar sweetened drinks! WebMD has a great article on this where they outline the results of both rat based and human based studies that showed exactly this. The response of blood glucose to non-carbohydrate artificial sweeteners is thought to be driven by complex interactions between your digestive microorganisms and the AS.
Whew! That was a lot of info, hopefully most of it was digestible (terrible, terrible...). In the end what you hopefully have taken away is that both sugar and artificial sweeteners can have a negative impact on your body. Artificial sweeteners do not appear to be correlated to cancer at this point, so in that way it wins out over sugar. If you find you need that sugar fix, a diet soda isn't going to kill you -- but it's probably not going to have the positive benefits that your hoping for either.
For those looking for an alternative, some brands of pop do sweeten with naturally sourced sweeteners like Stevia. In fact, Coca-Cola recently released a new product in Argentina and Chile that's sweetened with Stevia, and it will be rolling out in the states within the next year
The whole topic of sweeteners and sugars is an intriguing one because sugar has been shown to have such a negative impact on health. Finding a healthy alternative that still satisfies the craving is a big deal, and we're going to keep posting material on the subject, so stay tuned. Keep your eyes pealed for our post your healthiest sweetening options! Until then,
Live your best Life!