Doug: Thanks for the ice cream, Moll. It’s delicious! And sweet. I guess I’m allowed some sugar at my birthday dinner.
Molly: I’m glad you like it, Doug. It’s a new recipe that I’ve been concocting at home.
Doug: Oh you’re saying, you made it by yourself?
Molly: You bet I did!
Doug: I’ll have to ask you for the recipe in that case.
Molly: It’s my secret sauce! I’m going to start selling it commercially. I have a name and everything. I’ll call it Soma. You know the happy pill in Huxley’s Brave New World? Yes, that’s what it’s going to be called! But it’ll have a positive connotation.
Doug: Oh you nerd. As your beta customer, I at least deserve to know the ingredients.
Molly: Here, take a look.
Doug: 0gm sugar? That’s baloney! I could taste the sweetness!
Molly: Aha! I got you! I used Allulose, a sugar replacement.
Doug: You mean one of those artificial sweeteners? Hmm, I heard that they can be bad for you, no? Why wouldn’t you just use sugar?
Molly: Oh now you’ll get me going again! Don’t get me started on why sugar can be so bad for you1. Experts such as Dr. Robert Lustig will argue that sugar can actually be toxic for us and should be viewed in the same category as cigarettes and alcohol2. He’d argue that it is not only contributing to obesity, but could be the cause of chronic ailments such as heart disease and cancer. Increased consumption of sugar is also what’s causing the diabetes epidemic3. Most of us know that sugar is bad for us, but new research is showing that it can be worse than we initially thought. I’m not going to harp on it now, but if you want to learn more on the toxicity of sugar, a good place to begin would be this Dr. Lustig’s lecture.
Doug: That’s terrifying to hear! I have a sweet tooth and knowing that sugar can be as harmful as cigarettes is concerning. Okay, wait, but what about these artificial sweeteners?
Molly: Yes, so a lot of food manufacturers will now add what are known as artificial or non-nutritive sweeteners which have zero calories but still add sweetness to the food or drink. For example, Diet Coke has zero calories, but still tastes sweet. It’s because of the use of Aspartame, an artificial sweetener. Coke will want you to believe that since you are ingesting no calories, there is nothing wrong with the drink. But you must wonder: A sweet drink with no calories - what’s the catch? The catch is that a lot of studies suggest that even though artificial sweeteners do not contain calories, they lead to weight gain by stimulating our appetite, they can cause damage to the gut microbiome and could also lead to heart diseases and depression. However, the evidence is not entirely conclusive and there are studies that show that the side effects associated with sugar substitutes may be overblown. Yet, almost everyone would agree that if you want to be very careful, you are better off eliminating sugar and sugar substitutes.
Doug: You mean completely eliminate sugar and artificial sweeteners? Are there no sugar substitutes that might potentially be less harmful?
Molly: Oh Doug! You and your sweet tooth! Haha, well that is a great question though. I know it can be hard to completely eliminate sugar and you might want that occasional sweetness. In those cases, you ask if there are any good replacements to sugar, since we have established that sugar is toxic.
Doug: Yep, yep I’d love to know..
Molly: Yes, in fact, there are some artificial sweeteners that might not be so bad for you, and in some cases might be totally okay or even good. I’ll tell you about three of them: Allulose, Stevia, Xylitol.
Allulose is a sugar substitute that may even have certain positive effects4. Some animal studies show that allulose may help with insulin resistance, blood glucose reduction and antioxidant enhancement5.
Stevia is a plant based sugar substitute and is ~200 times sweeter than sugar, so be careful with your proportions! While some scientists will vouch for it (certainly over sugar), the truth is that the consensus on stevia is not yet out. Mice studies show that stevia has no negative side effects, and in fact can help control their blood sugar levels6. However there is not enough data from human studies to show its impact either way. But if you are okay with relying on mice studies for now, occasional stevia is probably fine and should certainly be better than sugar.
Xylitol is interesting as studies show that it can actually prevent tooth decay and cavities!7 A lot of sugar-free chewing gum contains xylitol and some people (including health expert Dr. Rhonda Patrick) have anecdotally claimed that chewing on xylitol gum has even gotten rid of their existing cavities!
Doug: Ha! I should be chewing on xylitol gum in that case!
Molly: Haha, yeah, eat sugar, develop cavities, and then chew on xylitol gum. That’s one solution.
Doug: It indeed is!
Molly: So Xylitol might be safe in small doses, say 30-40gm / day but beyond that it can cause gastrointestinal issues such as diarrhea, bloating, and gas8. Here’s another fun fact about xylitol: it’s dangerous for your dog. The FDA has stated: “Paws off Xylitol!”9
Doug: That’s a clever way to put it, FDA! Okay, so what’s the takeaway?
Molly: Why are you always looking for summaries, Doug! Anyway, here it is and it’s simple. Avoid sugar at all costs and as much as you can. If you do want some sugar, try to replace it with allulose, stevia or xylitol. I’d probably go for allulose over the other two. But note that most of these studies have only been done on animals and even these artificial sweeteners can have some side effects such as microbiome issues. But, but, but. They are still safer than sugar and some of the other artificial sweeteners10 like aspartame11 (contained in Diet coke).
Doug: Thanks Moll! I learned something today. This whole time, I was drinking Diet coke and thought there was nothing wrong with it. But as you say, it’s never too late to change and going forward I’m going to avoid all the toxicity caused by sugar. But all this learning has made my brain want some sugar now. I mean alternative sugar. (*wink wink*) I think I’ll have some more of your delicious Soma with allulose in it!