I get a lot of questions about sugar substitutes.
|What is the Truth About Sugar Substitutes?|
(photo by frankleleon, flickr.com, CC BY 2.0)
In general, sugar substitutes are allowed and even encouraged on low-carb diets. Low-carb diets claim that sugar substitutes don't raise blood glucose levels, and therefore, can't interfere with fat mobilization. The only caution I've heard over the years is to not use aspartame and count the little packets as 1 carb each. On Atkins Induction, the packets are also limited to 2 per day.
- But is any of that true?
- Are low-carb advocates telling us the truth about sugar substitutes?
- Or are they just trying to sell us something?
I'm a follow-the-money type of person. I'm always wary when it comes to those trying to sell me on an idea that is to their financial interest for me to swallow and believe. Because of that, and because it's been years since I wrote about the truth of sugar alcohols on this blog, I did a little more research into the whole topic of sugar substitutes over the past few days. I was looking for new information and concerns. While most of what I found, I already knew, there were a few surprises.
Can Sugar Substitutes Cause Weight-Loss Stalls?
Most of the people who write to me want to know if these substitutes could be causing their stall. They have been told by other low-carb dieters that giving them up can get the scales moving again. Unfortunately, anecdotal evidence within the low-carb community is mixed. Some dieters have found that sugar substitutes can interfere with weight loss. Others say they haven't experienced any problems from using them at all.
Me? After doing a round of the hHCG diet where I didn't use any sugar substitutes, I started severely reacting to all forms of artificial sweeteners, including stevia. For that reason, I don't use them today.
Determining whether sugar substitutes are interfering with weight loss isn't easy. There are a lot of factors involved.
- Which sugar substitute are you using?
- What form of that substitute do you use?
- What are the fillers and bulking agents in the particular brand you're using?
- How does your body react to a sweet taste in the mouth?
- Are you sensitive to GMO corn or sugar beets, wheat or rice?
- How much sugar substitute are you eating daily?
- Is your blood glucose response normal, or do you have pre-diabetes or diabetes?
- Do you have insulin resistance and/or metabolic syndrome?
- Do you have any autoimmune issues?
- Do you have food sensitivities?
Unless you're sensitive to corn or have autoimmune problems, most liquid forms of sugar substitutes come with a zero or nearly zero glycemic index rating and won't raise blood glucose levels. For that reason, they aren't supposed to interfere with weight loss, but balancing glucose levels is only one aspect of correcting metabolic issues. There are lots of other problems attached to sugar substitutes.
Sweet Taste Can Cause Insulin to be Released
|Sweet Tastes Release Insulin|
(photo by Tony Webster, flickr.com, CC BY-SA 2.0)
People who react to a sweet taste in the mouth will have a first-stage insulin response before they even swallow something that tastes sweet. Food and beverages don't have to have lots of carbs for the body to dump a hefty amount of insulin into the bloodstream. The taste itself tells it that sugar is on the way. Sometimes, just looking at food or browsing through food pictures is enough to trigger an insulin response. The danger is that excess insulin in those with normal blood glucose response will result in lowered blood sugar, which will set off hunger and cravings.
That's why some low carbers can give up drinking diet sodas or using sugar substitutes and find their weight-loss stall reversed. The body was preparing itself for a sugar load as soon as the diet soda or sugar substitute hit the mouth, even though no sugar was actually being consumed.
There is No Natural Sugar Substitutes
The word "natural" isn't regulated by the FDA. Manufacturers can use the term to mean anything they want it to. In the context of sugar substitutes, it generally means that a form of the chemical composition of the sugar alternative is found somewhere in the body, most likely in a much lower dose, but since it's there, somewhere, that means the concentrated form you put into your digestive system is also natural.
The body is truly miraculous at adapting to a wide variety of adverse conditions, but anything it deems to be foreign or unrecognizable, will be tagged for attack by the immune system. There is no workaround for that. Once a manufacturer extracts a chemical or natural substance from a particular food or plant, it is no longer natural. Especially, if they are concentrating it, refining it, and doing odd things to it after it's been extracted.
A good example of that is crystalline fructose. Fructose is a supposedly natural sugar found in fruit, but once it's extracted and concentrated, and then refined into a crystalline powder, the liver doesn't have a way to deal with the onslaught of that much fructose -- other than to store it as fat. In addition, all of the fructose produced in the U.S. today is made from GMO cornstarch or GMO beet sugar. It's not even made from fruit. The abnormal sugar is then enzymatically hydrolized to separate it into its two components of sucrose and fructose.
While some sugar alternatives are better than others, such as stevia, even stevia is hyped to be natural when the only forms available to consumers are either a highly-refined "white" powder (real stevia is green and bitter, not sweet) or a liquid concentrate. Truvia is advertised to be stevia, but is actually erythritol with a spec of ribiana added, just enough to legally say there is stevia in the product.
Sugar alcohols are tooted to be special cases since they generally pass out of the body completely intact, but that isn't always the case. Plus, sugar alcohols in the U.S. are not even made from plants. They are processed from sugars and starches. For instance, erythritol, the most popular low-carb sugar alcohol, is made from fermenting glucose derived from GMO corn with various yeasts. Supposedly, 90% of it is absorbed into the bloodstream before it passes into the colon, which is why low carbers find it attractive, but I have never found that to be the case.
Watch Out for Bulking Agents and Fillers
This is where a lot of low-carb dieters get taken for a ride. A particular sugar substitute, such as sucralose, is zero or nearly zero on the glycemic index. It is advertised as such. It won't raise blood glucose, therefore you can use it freely. However, once it's packaged, it's bulked up with maltodextrin and/or dextrose, which sends it's glycemic index and ability to raise blood glucose and insulin levels through the roof.
Dieters are chowing down on sugar substitutes in baked goods, candies, and desserts thinking they are doing their body a favor. They're following their low-carb diet. They're only eating 20 net carbs a day, or less. But are they? Did you know that bulk Splenda has 24 grams of carbohydrates per cup? And that when you mix sucralose with maltodextrin, the highest glycemic ingredient there is, the glycemic index jumps from almost zero to 80?
The global market for sugar substitutes is HUGE. It's worth over 9 billion dollars per year. These manufacturers have a vested interest in keeping you ignorant to the truth about sugar substitutes and thereby keeping you fat. That's how they make their money. They don't really care about your health. Their only interest is to convince you that using sugar alternatives is to your advantage, so you'll buy and keep on buying their product.
Maltodextrin and dextrose are not your friend. They are made from GMO corn, the same as Erthyritol, Maltitol, Sorbitol, and Yacon syrup. In addition, maltodextrin is absorbed through the gut and processed in the liver, like fructose, so it is metabolized slower than dextrose is. That's why there is a lot of misinformation on the web. Manufacturers of Splenda will tell you that the rise in blood sugar you get from using their product is negligible, but that's deceptive.
The blood sugar rise from Splenda comes hours after normal testing. Like Dreamsfield pasta, the maltodextrin in Splenda will eventually be turned into glucose and processed, but that doesn't usually happen before the traditional 2 hour post-meal testing period. If you're only testing your blood sugar 2 hours after eating it, the test won't be accurate. The glucose bonds have to be broken down in the liver first, so it's digested slower.
|Chocolate Cake Low Carb|
(photo by Deb Nystgrom, flickr.com, CC BY 2.0)
The Glycemic Index of Sugar Substitutes
The glycemic index measures how blood glucose responds to food and beverages. The index ranks foods on a scale of 1 to 100, with 100 being glucose for comparison purposes. However, maltodextrin and maltose tested above 100. Foods and beverages that fall below 55 on the scale are considered low-glycemic. This is where the idea of berries and other low-glycemic fruits being okay to eat during the weight-loss phase of Atkins came from, and why Dr. Atkins has always said that carbohydrates are not alike. Foods and beverages that rank 70 or above are considered high-glycemic and should only be used with extreme caution.
In real life, the glycemic index of a food, beverage, or ingredient depends on the amount of carbohydrate that is in the serving, the type of carbohydrate you eat, and the presence of fat and fiber -- which slows down digestion. Some sugar substitutes, including liquid ones, have fiber added to slow the rate at which they are digested, but carbohydrates are still metabolized as carbohydrates, and they will eventually produce a blood glucose effect.
More important than the blood sugar rise is what this index shows about the average person's insulin response. A healthy insulin response will have your blood glucose level back to normal by the 2 hour testing period, whether you've eaten food, beverage, or straight glucose, but that isn't what those doing the testing are seeing.
Sucrose/table sugar 65
Caramel coloring 60
HFCS - 55 58
Maple Syrup 54
Cane juice 43
Barley malt syrup 42
Coconut palm sugar 35
Brown rice syrup 25
Agave syrup 11
Yacon syrup 1
The values above can be quite deceptive if you ignore the bulk fillers and the fact that a lot of popular sugar alternatives contain a high concentration of fructose. While I don't believe that fructose is as dangerous as most low-carb advocates claim, it will be stored as body fat once your glycogen stores are refilled, the same as any other carb.
The Bottom Line
Sugar alcohols, which are quite low on the index, have a reputation for providing severe digestive distress if taken in more than minute quantities. Most of the substitutes are made from corn, wheat, rice, potatoes, sugar beets, and other sugar and starches, so they are not going to be suitable for those allergic or sensitive to those foods. If you have autoimmune issues, you might find sugar alternatives extremely problematic since the body is already primed to seek out, attack, and destroy anything it doesn't recognize.
One of the biggest problems I see with the use of sugar substitutes is that too many dieters try to use them to imitate the diet that got them fat in the first place. Unable to leave their favorite foods behind, they turn to sugar alternatives to help them create delicious cakes, cookies, and other low-carb desserts. Unfortunately, the body was never designed to handle sugar or sugar substitutes in the forms and amounts we ask it to handle today, and that includes the better sugar alternatives. Plus, long-term use of substitutes has been known to cause serious issues with liver, kidney, and thyroid function even if they are low-glycemic.
That's not to say that sugar substitutes don't have their place in a low-carb diet. The truth about sugar substitutes is that they should be used mindfully and with care. Take the time to thoroughly investigate the sugar alternative you're using or thinking of using. Look at the research. Look at the ingredients, and then make the best choice for you.