Q: I know you’re supposed to eat sweet foods this time of year, but I don’t want all the calories! Is it safe to use artificial sweeteners—and more importantly, will they help me lose weight?
A: At 4 calories per gram—or 16 calories per teaspoon—it might seem as if sugar won’t add too many calories to your diet. Amounts this small won’t wreak havoc on a healthy diet, but when you consider the tzimmes, sweet challah and kugels—not to mention honey cake for dessert—well, I understand that you’d be looking to cut some calories this holiday season.
Americans consume too much sugar. In 2001, the average American took in about 31 teaspoons of added sugar a day. (Added sugars are those not found naturally in foods.) That’s nearly 500 calories a day from a substance that has no redeeming nutritional qualities. Plus, an extra 500 calories a day could add up to a pound of weight gain per week—something most Americans can live without.
Sugar also contributes to tooth decay. Yet it’s hard to give up that sweet taste we’ve all grown accustomed to; even babies show a preference for sweet foods.So it makes sense that many people want sweet foods without the sugar—which is where sugar substitutes come in.
If you’re the type who reads the nutrition labels at the grocery store (good for you, by the way), you’ve probably noticed that there are several types of sugar substitutes. Sugar alcohols like xylitol, sorbitol and mannitol (found in many sugar-free gums and candies) contain 4 calories per gram, just like sugar. However, because your body does not absorb them completely, you’ll only take in 2 calories per gram, on average, from sugar alcohol. While sugar alcohols do save you some calories, they can cause gastrointestinal side effects.
Non-nutritive sweeteners are another, probably more popular, sugar substitute. These are super sweet, so you only need a miniscule amount— which means a whole lot of sweetness for negligible calories. Plus, they don’t have the gastrointestinal side effects of sugar alcohols. Five nonnutritive sweeteners are approved for use in America: aspartame (Equal or NutraSweet), sucralose (Splenda), saccharin (Sweet’N Low), acesulfame K (Sunett) and neotame.
Sorbitol and the five approved nonnutritive sweeteners are on the Food and Drug Administration’s (FDA) Generally Recognized As Safe (GRAS) List. Xylitol and mannitol, while not on the list, are still FDA-approved food additives. (GRAS items are considered safe based on general scientific consensus, whereas FDA-approved additives are, as their name suggests, approved solely by the FDA based on research for their specific uses.) Stevia, a plant extract used as a sweetener, was recently approved as a food additive for limited uses. The FDA works in conjunction with other national scientific committees to determine Acceptable Daily Intake (ADI) levels, which are set at 100 times less than the smallest amount found to have any negative results in studies. In other words, this amount should be more than safe to consume.
The mainstream scientific community considers these sweeteners safe, and three of them—aspartame, acesulfame K and sucralose—are even considered safe for use during pregnancy (although many people still choose to avoid them).Approved nonnutritive sweeteners are safe for use by children as well. However, some parents prefer to keep their children away from such sweeteners. Even though research says they’re safe now, twenty years from now, science may discover that sweeteners do have some negative effects. My feeling is that you don’t need to be concerned if your child only has artificial sweeteners occasionally, but it is better for children to avoid having them on a regular basis.
The question is, are artificial sweeteners effective for helping you lose weight?
Foods high in sugar and calories have been linked to weight gain and obesity, so it seems logical that using sugar-free foods may help prevent obesity. Research seems to suggest that this might be true. One study, for example, demonstrated that obese women following a low-calorie diet lost more weight when they added aspartame sweetened products to their diet; the men in this study, however, lost more weight without the aspartame. Another study found that women who were encouraged to use aspartame while losing weight kept more of the weight off both one and two years later. An analysis that combined the results of 25 studies showed that people tend to reduce their calorie intake by an average of 10 percent when they use aspartame. Cutting calories by that much should enable weight loss of roughly a half pound per week.
However, for each of these positive reports, there are additional studies that found conflicting or less-than promising results. The fact that obesity rates have been increasing at the same time as artificial sweeteners are becoming ever more popular begs the question—do artificial sweeteners somehow promote weight gain?
Let’s suppose aspartame does promote weight loss, as found in the first few studies. This finding cannot be extrapolated to other artificial sweeteners, so it’s hard to say conclusively that artificial sweeteners assist with weight loss. One thing is clear—adding artificial sweeteners to your diet will not automatically lead to weight loss unless you reduce your calorie intake concurrently. Even in the studies that showed benefit, the use of aspartame was not the only step taken to lose weight; the sweetener was used in conjunction with a healthy, lower-calorie diet and increased physical activity.
The bottom line is, drinking diet soda won’t cancel out the doughnut you just ate. If you’re looking to lose weight—or at least maintain it—during the Yamim Noraim, you must pay attention to all the foods you’re eating and watch your serving sizes. If you do, you can probably avoid the apple dipped in Splenda.
Is honey better for you than sugar?
Not exactly. Honey does contain more calories than sugar because it is denser. A teaspoon of sugar is 16 calories while a teaspoon of honey is about 21. Of course, honey is sweeter than sugar, so you will probably want to use less honey than you would sugar. True, honey is less processed than sugar, but it still contains the same basic components as sugar–glucose and fructose, albeit in different forms. Honey may, however, contribute some health benefits. A review article published in the Journal of Biomedicine and Biotechnology discusses potential cancer-preventing compounds in honey. Further research is necessary to determine their clinical effectiveness in humans. Just a word of warning before dipping that apple: honey may contain spores of a poisonous bacterium called Clostridium botulinum, which is potentially fatal to infants (but harmless to others). Do not give honey to children under the age of one.
Instead of turning to diet soft drinks, try adding flavor to water or seltzer. And don’t forget to keep your drink in the fridge—it’s much more refreshing when it’s cold! Try adding the following:
• Lemon slices
• Mint (leaves or extract)
• Cucumber slices
• Small amount of juice, such as cranberry juice
• Herbal tea bags
Shira Isenberg is a registered dietitian and writer. She has a master’s degree in public health nutrition from Hunter College in New York.