Today’s situation is quite different. Sugar is practically ubiquitously available and affordable for everyone and has so become the culprit of significant health problems. Diabetes mellitus (type II) has become a widespread disease and presents a major risk factor for a heart attack or stroke. In addition to other causes (including lack of exercise, genetic disposition), nowadays the high consumption of sugar contributes to the emergence of diabetes.
The World Health Organization WHO recommends a daily amount of approx. six teaspoons of sugar, so 25 g daily – that’s a little more than 9 kg per year. In Germany, the per-capita sugar consumption in the late 19th century was approx. 6 kg per year. Today it has increased to approx. 35 kg per year.
And it is not even the consumption of sweets that poses the biggest problem. Two-thirds of the sugar consumed annually are added to industrially processed drinks, baked goods, dairy products and ready-made meals. For example, a tablespoon of ketchup contains one teaspoon of sugar, a fruit yoghurt contains about six teaspoons of sugar and in a can of lemonade there are about 10 teaspoons of sugar. So why not simply replace the unhealthy sugar by supposedly “healthy” sweeteners?
About a dozen artificial sweeteners have been approved for use in the European Union, for example cyclamate or aspartame, in addition to saccharin. These are available as tablets, granular and liquid sweeteners. Recently stevia has been heavily propagated as a “natural” sweetener, particularly by the beverage industry. Stevia consists of isolated steviol glycosides. The sweet-tasting, chemical compound is extracted from South American sweetener plants in complex chemical processes, during which its naturalness is virtually lost.
Synthetic sweeteners do not provide any food for caries bacteria. Their sweetening power is a hundred to a thousand times higher than that of sugar and has a low to zero physiological caloric value. Initial fears that sweeteners were carcinogenic could not be confirmed by any of the numerous studies carried out. Also, contrary to earlier beliefs, sweeteners probably do not have an appetizing effect.
The German Federal Institute for Risk Assessment has therefore declared sweeteners as non-harmful to health, as long as the defined maximum is not exceeded. Even if you use sweeteners generously, it is practically impossible to exceed this maximum in everyday life. The German Nutrition Society DGE therefore recommends that those who want to lose weight or avoid becoming overweight should use sweeteners. They represent a good alternative to sugar within a balanced diet.
This recommendation, however, is controversially discussed among nutrition experts.
The German Diabetes Society DDG, for example, takes a much more critical stance towards sweeteners and does not consider them particularly helpful for weight loss. As in relation to the number of calories saved, the expected weight loss should be much higher. According to experts, a possible explanation is seen in people overcompensating for the calories they have saved during their subsequent meals.
Another idea is that the consumption of a mere sensory component (sweet taste) without the corresponding caloric component (energy-rich molecules that are actually absorbed in the blood) may activate our innate food search behaviour without any orientation towards the actual energy demand.
In addition, a habituation effect might lead to the increasing desire for sweet food consumption. In addition, there are indications that sweeteners change the intestinal flora and contribute to the development of a glucose intolerance, the precursor of diabetes mellitus.
Another aspect that is not to be neglected is the fact that sweeteners end up in the environment after they have been excreted. They cannot be degraded through wastewater treatment systems and are found in varying concentrations in surface water and groundwater. The impact thereof cannot yet be clearly foreseen.
So what are our alternatives to sweeteners and sugar then?
Juice sirups are made by concentrating the juice of apples, pears or agaves to a thick liquid through a vacuum process. This way, important trace minerals and, to some extent, high-quality secondary plant compounds are maintained. These concentrates, however, contain a large amount of fructose, which seems to taste even sweeter than household sugar. But the supposedly “healthy” fruit sugar leads to an even higher insulin resistance and thereby promotes the development of a fatty liver – even more so than our conventional household sugar. This phenomenon, of course, also applies for all other foods to which fructose is added as a sugar substitute. For those that suffer from fructose intolerance, this leads to flatulence and diarrhoea.
Sugar substitutes such as xylitol are sugar components that occur in many plants and in the human metabolism as an intermediate. Clinical studies point out that xylitol can protect your teeth against against tooth decay, which is why this sugar substitute is added to chewing gum, for example. The industry likes to promote xylitol as a natural sugar won from Finnish birch wood. Often, however, it extracted from the waste product of corn cobs. Xylitol has the same sweetness, but only half as many calories as household sugar. When consumed in larger quantities, it has a laxative effect and can cause flatulence.
According to manufacturer’s specifications, coconut blossom sugar has a much lower glycemic index than household sugar. That means blood glucose levels do not rise as high and insulin levels remain constant. In addition, coconut blossom sugar contains relevant amounts of minerals and vitamins. This type of sugar would actually be ideal. But it is harvested manually by small-scale farmers in Asia and currently costs up to EUR40.00 per kilo. That makes it a luxury product, just like in the Middle Ages. In addition, the import routes are very long, which has a negative impact on the eco-balance.
The last and probably best alternative is to reduce the need for sweetening foods in general. By sweetening everything, no matter whether with sugar, artificial sweeteners or sugar substitutes, you do not only overpower the natural flavour of a food, but “devalue” its quality as a food.
Permanent conditioning to sweet tastes does not make sense for those of us who want to lose weight or for anyone really. Conditioning to “less sweet” tastes would be much better for us and should start during our childhood. For adults, this new conditioning process cannot be achieved from one day to the next, but requires a gradual, consistent change to eating habits over several months. It should be accompanied by greater awareness during meals and a focus on the nutritional value of the foodstuff.
It is also important to pay attention to when a pleasant sense of satiety is reached.
Regarding weight control, the importance of physical activity should not be underestimated. Saving calories is an important contribution to weight loss. However, most important for optimal energy burning is regular exercise of at least two to three hours per week, spread across several training units. This will not only help burn away problematic (visceral) abdominal fat, but at the same time improves personal fitness and quality of life.
That’s something the sweeteners can’t do!