Sugars have slowly and steadily found their way into every corner of Western nutrition. They're crammed into everything from cereals to sauces, yoghurts to fruit juices; they line our supermarket aisles disguised as biscuits or breads; they've even forced themselves into the so-called 'health foods'.
An ever-increasing demand for food has intensified a battle between corporate food manufacturers as they clamber for your loyalty. Sugar is one of a variety of weapons that they have in their arsenal. However, as consumers have grown more alert to the detrimental effects of sugar, food manufacturers have had to adapt their processes to maintain sales. Enter artificial sweeteners.
Artificial sweeteners have been punted as being 'all the sugar, without the sugar'. That is to say, they've got the sweetness without the calories. We'll explore the validity of this and its impact a little later. Suffice to say that things remain a little dubious.
Many of us will identify with the Spur, whose biggest market offer is being family-friendly. One of their most popular dishes are their ribs – wonderfully, delicious, succulent and saucy ribs. They even have 'All you can eat' specials, promoting their ribs once a week.
So here are a few simple questions, hugely pertinent to our topic: How how many ribs would people want to eat, if the ribs weren't covered in marinade? And what makes the idea of 'All you can eat' so appealing? The answers, we believe, lie in the sweetness of the marinade.
We are biologically wired with the capacity to enjoy a multitude of tastes. For each of these there is an optimal point of enjoyment.
This is our 'Bliss Point'– the exact amount of sugar, fat or salt needed in a food to trigger an 'I want more of that' response.
This 'Bliss Point' is regulated in the appestat. Located in the hypothalamus, the appestat is the part of the brain that moderates and controls our appetite. With proper-eating habits, the appestat tells us when we've had enough to eat. It prevents us from over-eating, which in turn regulates digestion and hormone-secretion.
Sugars and most artificial sweeteners send distorted messages to our appestat, triggering our 'Bliss Point', which in turn confuses our body into thinking that we need more of what we've just eaten, even when we don't.
Effectively, sugars deceive us into over-eating. This subconscious desire for more, once we've had our 'Bliss Point' tickled by something sweet, is what we call the sticky rib theory.
A lot of foods are thus manufactured with the idea to maximise their addictive potential, bringing consumers back to buy more – Spur ribs anyone?
The obvious response to this then is to cut sugars out of one's diet, but anyone who's a regular consumer of sugar will know that this has its challenges.
Sugar cravings and withdrawal are a significant part of the addiction process. Much like the dummy provides a baby with comfort and it cries without it, so our bodies react if we remove the sugar from our diets. If the sugar we consume is constantly massaging our 'Bliss Point', then we're bound to get a little uncomfortable when this stops. Headaches, fatigue, moodiness, dizziness and thirst are all a part of going 'sugar sober'.
The question then becomes: Are artificial sweeteners beneficial in the fight against sugars? The short answer is: It depends on which sweeteners. We've categorised the OK, the bad and the ugly ones in our food lists, but before we delve into this, it's worth clarifying a few terms that are often associated with the negative effects of sugar.
As far as blood sugar is concerned, we need to be aware of how quickly a food raises our blood sugar levels (glycemic index). The glycemic load of a particular food refers to the level of carbohydrate found in that food. The biological makeup of sugars means that they will spike our blood sugar levels and have a high glycemic load. These are terms that you should consider when deciding whether or not an artificial sweetener is a yay or nay.
With this in mind, we come back to our food lists and our classification of artificial sweeteners. We've categorised 3 different lists according to colour. Green means go for it, orange demands caution and anything in the red list should be avoided altogether.
Our green list sweeteners offer a way for 'sugar addicts' to wean themselves off of sugar. They massage the brain's 'Bliss Point' without overloading the body with carbohydrates.
It's important to understand that the sweeteners in this category should only be an interim solution. The full exclusion of sweeteners and sugars from your diet should remain the ultimate goal.
Erythritol and Xylitol are both sugar alcohols. That is, they're alcohols derived from sugar and devoid of ethanol (the stuff that makes you drunk). Sugar alcohols occur naturally and the structure of their molecules means that they stimulate our 'sweet' receptors without overloading us with calories. Erythritol, for example, has only 6% of the calories of table sugar, but still has 70% of the sweetness! What's more, these sugar alcohols won't spike your blood sugar or insulin levels. The other sugar substitute in our green list is Stevia. This natural herb is about 300 times sweeter than sugar and has absolutely no calories.
The artificial sweetener family does have a few problem children. Aspartame, acesulfame K, saccharin, sucralose, splenda, malt – these are all sweeteners that are highly toxic. The manner in which they're manufactured (often produced chemically) means that their inclusion in our diets interferes with our natural body processes.
When artificial sweeteners stimulate our 'sweet' receptors in the oesophagus and stomach, our pancreas anticipates a flood of 'energy' and releases insulin. As any good Banter knows, insulin is an important hormone for accumulating body fat and, without any actual sugar to regulate, the released insulin is stored. The result? You may be left feeling even hungrier, which can lead to weight gain.
Other problems arising from excessive artificial sweetener consumption include liver problems and insulin resistance, which is a major factor behind Type 2 Diabetes.
We're not for a moment suggesting that you go cold turkey from sugar, but you need to start somewhere.
Our green list sweeteners are a great alternative to copious amounts of sugar. We'll reiterate here that it's a starting point – a means to an ends. Reliance on artificial sweeteners for your daily 'sweet' fix should fit into the schedule, provided you're working towards removing the fix altogether.
If you're on the journey towards living a sugar free life, may these three simple sentences be your strength:
I can. I will. End of story.