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Food Substitutes

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Nutrition Library: Food Substitutes

Sugar Substitutes

"Sugar in the morning, sugar in the evening, sugar at suppertime ..."

The lyrics of that old song go a long way toward describing the cravings of many Americans. A bowl of sugary breakfast cereal may be followed by a mid-morning donut, a lunch time soda, ice cream at supper, and, in between, snacks of pudding, pie or pastry. Not to mention all the goodies that are part of Valentine's Day, Halloween, and the year-end holiday season. It all adds up to one massive national sweet tooth.

So much so that the average American eats the equivalent of 20 teaspoons of sugar a day, according to figures from the most recent federal Continuing Survey of Food Intakes by Individuals (1994-1996). Nearly 60 percent of this intake, says the trade group The Sugar Association, is from corn sweeteners, used heavily in sodas and other sweetened drinks. Another 40 percent is from sucrose (table sugar), and a small amount comes from other sweeteners, such as honey and molasses.

"Anything that can help people cut back on [excess] calories is good," says Adam Drewnowski, Ph.D., director of nutritional science at the University of Washington. He emphasizes that weight loss is complex and can't be attributed to any one food product. But existing studies, some of which he has conducted, show that sugar substitutes can help certain people maintain a weight loss. Because sugar substitutes, also called artificial sweeteners, are many times sweeter than sugar, it takes much less of them to create the same sweetness.

Two approved sugar substitutes, saccharin and aspartame, have been the subject of ongoing controversy that, in the case of saccharin, dates back more than 20 years. Questions still linger about whether saccharin may cause cancer in humans, and though the sweetener is still widely used, it carries a label that warns of its potential risks.

Aspartame has come under fire in recent years from individuals who have used the Internet in an attempt to link the sweetener to brain tumors and other serious disorders. But FDA stands behind its original approval of aspartame, and subsequent evaluations have shown that the product is safe. A tiny segment of the population is sensitive to one of the sweetener's byproducts and should restrict intake. However, the agency continually monitors safety information on food ingredients such as aspartame and may take action to protect public health if it receives credible scientific evidence indicating a safety problem.

Other organizations give aspartame and the other approved sugar substitutes a thumbs up. For example, the American Heart Association endorses their use by diabetics and those on weight-loss diets. The American Diabetes Association calls sugar substitutes "free foods" because they make food taste sweet, but they have essentially no calories and do not raise blood sugar levels.

More Than a Century of Use

The granddaddy of all sugar substitutes is saccharin. Discovered in 1879, it was used during both world wars to sweeten foods, helping to compensate for sugar shortages and rationing. It is 300 times sweeter than sugar.

The Aspartame Controversy

While questions about saccharin may persist, the safety of another artificial sweetener, aspartame, is clear cut, say FDA officials. FDA calls aspartame, sold under trade names such as NutraSweet and Equal, one of the most thoroughly tested and studied food additives the agency has ever approved. The agency says the more than 100 toxicological and clinical studies it has reviewed confirm that aspartame is safe for the general population.

Though sugar substitutes have a long history of controversy, the Calorie Control Council says Americans are continually searching for good-tasting, low-calorie products as part of a healthy lifestyle. Market surveys show that calorie-conscious consumers want more low-calorie foods and beverages. And though artificially sweetened products are not magic foods that will melt pounds away, they can be, experts say, a helpful part of an overall weight control program that includes exercise and other dietary factors.

Reprinted with permission from the United States General Services Administration

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