Hitting the Sweet Spot

For some people, their morning coffee or tea just isn’t complete without a few sugar cubes, a packet of artificial sweetener or spoonful of honey. But which choice really hits the sweet spot for your health?

Azita Madadi-Noei, a food science lecturer, explains the differences between sugars and sweeteners and why fears about artificial sweeteners like aspartame are unfounded.

Is there one sugar that’s better than the rest?

Nutritionally speaking, we want to reduce the amount of sugar we consume, mostly the purified form, altogether. With that said, when we talk about sugars – honey, molasses, brown sugar, white sugar – all of them will be converted to glucose in our blood system, raising insulin levels. Calorie-wise, they have slight differences but they’re inconsequential. For example, brown sugar and honey may contain healthy compounds, but you wouldn’t get enough in a spoonful to see the benefits. If you’re concerned about the amount of sugar or the amount of calories you’re consuming, it doesn’t really matter which sugar you use to sweeten your drink.

Are artificial sweeteners, like Splenda, a better alternative?

Splenda is made from sucralose, a synthetic sweetener, which the human body doesn’t recognize as sugar. It triggers the taste buds the same way as sugar and we perceive it as sweet. The body doesn’t metabolize sucralose, so it just passes through our system. For people with diabetes, using sucralose as a substitute for sugar has value as it has no effect on glucose or insulin levels. Technically, artificial sweeteners are unnecessary in our diets, but if you want your tea or coffee to be sweetened without adding sugar, they are safe to consume in moderation, like all foods. One misconception people have about artificial sweeteners is that it will help with weight control, but there are better nutritional methods to manage your weight.

What about aspartame? A quick search on the Internet brings up all sorts of pages about alleged dangers or harms.

So far, any claims about aspartame having ill effects are not substantiated. My advice to anyone is to consult with Health Canada and Canadian Food Inspection Agency. The approval process for any sweetener to make it to market is rigorous and thorough. Aspartame is a combination of two amino acids: aspartic acid and phenylalanine. The body recognizes it as a dipeptide and it will metabolize like any other food that contains peptides, like milk. The downside of aspartame is for people with a genetic malfunction called phenylketonuria, an inherited disorder diagnosed at birth. Those with the disorder can’t digest aspartame. That’s why it needs to be mentioned on the label as “Aspartame contains phenylalanine”.

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