March 1, 2018

Sugar and Sweeteners

Are they all safe to use?

Peter N. Landless & Zeno L. Charles-Marcel

Q:Please explain some of the issues about sugar, fructose, and artificial sweeteners.

A:We were made with a natural affinity for sweet-tasting foods, and sugars are part of the natural composition of milk, honey, and higher plants (fruits, vegetables, and flowers as nectar). Table sugar is made from sugarcane and sugar beets. High-fructose corn syrup (HFCS), the most abundant sweetener in the American’s diet, has fructose, glucose, and sucrose just like sugar and honey, but is made from cornstarch and has up to 90 percent fructose in the final product.

HFCSs are cheaper than sugar and easier to use in food processing. The 55 percent fructose variety is in most soft drinks. A 12-ounce can of regular cola has about 39 grams, or 9 teaspoons, of “sugar.” A recent study reported that one or two sugary drinks a day raised the risk of type 2 diabetes by 26 percent, compared to just one a month.

Sugar-containing foods in their natural form, such as whole fruits, are nutritious and packed with essential nutrients, phytochemicals, and fiber. Refined, highly processed foods with added sugar and consumed in large amounts rapidly increase blood glucose and insulin levels. They also increase blood fats and naturally occurring destructive chemicals, as well as the risk for diabetes, heart disease, and other chronic illnesses.

Added fructose is a potentially dangerous chemical. Fructose is processed by the liver, and although it does not have a significant effect on blood sugar or insulin levels at first, it can later, through its effect on blood fats and chemicals that stimulate the liver to ignore insulin and produce more sugar.

The more than 200 nonnutritive sweeteners (NNSs) now known may occur naturally in plants, may be produced by chemically modifying natural substances, or be completely synthetic. Apart from stevia, a green herb native to South America, nonnutritive sweeteners are synthetic. They may cause nervous disturbances, cancer, and disturbance in the body’s food and energy processing when consumed at or above the acceptable daily intake (ADI).

In healthy subjects, appetite and short-term food intake, risk of cancer, and the risk of diabetes may be altered with NNS use, but evidence is inconclusive. In the Multiethnic Study of Atherosclerosis, however, individuals who consumed diet drinks every day had a 36 percent greater risk for developing a syndrome associated with many deadly diseases and a 67 percent increased risk for type 2 diabetes—the very conditions that diet drinks and NNSs are supposed to help us prevent!

For persons with chronic diseases or their precursors, avoidance of added sweeteners of all kinds is definitely warranted. The key for them and otherwise healthy individuals may be in retraining the taste buds to enjoy and savor lower, more natural amounts of food sweetness. Then, the avoided (i.e., not added) sugars and NNSs will have a minimal effect, whether they prove to be detrimental or not.

We cannot really improve on God’s packaging of our food.

Peter N. Landless, a board-certified nuclear cardiologist, is director of the General Conference Health Ministries Department. Zeno L. Charles-Marcel, a board-certified internist, is an associate director of Adventist Health Ministries at the General Conference.