Sweet Stuff : How Sugars and Sweeteners Affect Your Health

Health news

Most of us
love sweet foods and drinks. But after that short burst of sweetness, you may
worry about how sweets affect your waistline and your overall health. Is
sugar truly bad for us?
How about artificial or low-calorie sweeteners?
What have scientists learned about the sweet things that most of us eat and
drink every day?

Our bodies
need one type of sugar, called glucose, to survive. “Glucose is the number one
food for the brain, and it’s an extremely important source of fuel throughout
the body,” says Dr. Kristina Rother, an NIH pediatrician and expert on
sweeteners.

But
there’s no need to add extra glucose to your diet.

Your body
can extract glucose from the sugars and other carbohydrates in your food. It
can also produce new glucose, mostly in the liver. That’s why you can survive
for a long time without eating.

Some sugars
are found naturally in foods, such as fruits, vegetables, and milk.

“These
non-processed natural foods are healthful additions to your diet,” says Dr.
Andrew Bremer, a pediatrician and NIH expert on sweeteners. “When you eat an
orange, for instance, you’re getting a lot of nutrients and dietary fiber along
with the natural sugars.”

Although
sugar itself isn’t bad, Rother says, “sugar has a bad reputation that’s mostly
deserved, because we consume too much of it. It’s now in just about every food
we eat.”

Added
Sugars

Experts
agree that Americans eat and drink way too much sugar, and it’s contributing to
the obesity epidemic. Much of the sugar we eat isn’t found naturally in food
but is added during processing or preparation.

Sugars
are usually added to make foods and drinks taste better.
But such products can be high in
calories and lack the healthful benefits of fruits and other naturally sweet
foods.

Sugar-sweetened
beverages like soda, energy drinks, and sports drinks are the leading source of
added sugars in the American diet. Juices naturally contain a lot of sugar. But
sometimes, even more is added to make them taste sweeter.

“Juices
offer some vitamins and other nutrients, but in general, I think those benefits
are greatly offset by the harmful effects of too much sugar,” Bremer says.

Over time,
excess sweeteners can take a toll on your health. “Several studies have found a
direct link between excess sugar consumption and obesity and cardiovascular
problems worldwide,” Bremer explains.

Cutting
Back

Because of
these harmful effects, many health organizations recommend that Americans cut
back on added sugars. About 15% of the calories in the American adult diet now
come from added sugars. Experts recommend a daily limit on added sugar of no
more than 10% of calories.

But added
sugars can be hard to identify. On a list of ingredients, they may be listed as
sucrose (table sugar), corn sweetener, high-fructose corn syrup, fruit-juice
concentrates, nectars, raw sugar, malt syrup, maple syrup, fructose sweeteners,
liquid fructose, honey, molasses, or anhydrous dextrose. Added sugar can also
be listed with any word ending in “-ose,” the chemical suffix for sugars. If
any of these words are among the first few ingredients on a food label, the food
is likely high in sugar. To find the total amount of sugar in a food, look for
“Sugars” on the Nutrition Facts label under the category “Total Carbohydrate.”

Many people
try cutting back on calories by switching from sugar-sweetened to diet foods
and drinks that contain low- or no-calorie sweeteners. These artificial
sweeteners—also known as sugar substitutes—are many times sweeter than table
sugar, so smaller amounts can create the same level of sweetness.

People have
debated the safety of artificial sweeteners for decades. To date, researchers
have found no clear evidence that any artificial sweeteners approved for use in
the U.S. cause cancer or other serious health problems like birth defects in
humans.

But can they
help with weight loss? The scientific evidence is mixed. Some studies suggest
that diet drinks can help you drop pounds in the short term. But their
long-term effects on weight—and other health aspects—are unclear. Rother and
other NIH-funded researchers are now working to better understand the complex
effects that artificial sweeteners may have on the human body.

Studies of
rodents and small numbers of people suggest that artificial sweeteners can
affect the gut microbes that help us digest food. This in turn can alter the
body’s ability to use glucose, which might then lead to weight gain. But until
further studies are done in people, the long-term impact of these sweeteners on
gut microbes and weight remains uncertain.

Beyond
the Gut

“There’s
much controversy about the health effects of artificial sweeteners and the
differences between sugars and sweeteners,” says Dr. Ivan de Araujo at the
Mount Sinai Icahn School of Medicine. “Some animal studies indicate that
sweeteners can produce physiological effects. But depending on what kind of
measurement is taken, including in humans, the outcomes may be conflicting.”

De Araujo
and others have been studying the effects that sugars and low-calorie
sweeteners might have on the brain. They are finding that sugar and sweeteners
tap differently into the brain’s reward circuitry, with sugars having a more
powerful and pleasurable effect.

“The part of
the brain that mediates the ‘I can’t stop’ kinds of behaviors seems to be
especially sensitive to sugars and largely insensitive to artificial
sweeteners,” de Araujo says. “Our long-term goal is really to understand if
sugars or caloric sweeteners drive persistent intake of food. If exposed to too
much sugar, does the brain eventually change in ways that lead to excess
consumption? That’s what we’d like to know.”

Some
research suggests that the intensely sweet taste of artificial, low-calorie
sweeteners can lead to a “sweet tooth,” or a preference for sweet things. This
in turn might lead to overeating. But more studies are needed to confirm the
relative effects of caloric versus non-caloric sweeteners.

Don’t
Sugarcoat It

“In the long
run, if you want to lose weight, you need to establish a healthy lifestyle that
contains unprocessed foods, moderate calories, and more exercise,” Rother says.

When kids
grow up eating a lot of sweet foods, they tend to develop a preference for
sweets. But if you give them a variety of healthy foods like fruits and
vegetables early in life, they’ll develop a liking for them, too.

“It’s
important for parents to expose children to a variety of tastes early on but
realize that it often takes several attempts to get a child to eat such foods,”
Bremer says. “Don’t give up too soon.”

The key to
good health is eating a well-balanced diet with a variety of foods and getting
plenty of physical activity. Focus on nutrition-rich whole foods without added
sugars. Get tips on healthy eating and weight control.

SourceNIH News in Health

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