‘Real’ versus ‘fake’ sugar: What are the risks?

How are you doing, sweetie?

We consume a lot of sweets in this country. According to a study by Harvard School of Public Health, Americans consume enough soda to average one 12-ounce can per American per day — 10.4 billion gallons annually. From grandma’s baking to packaged foods to engineered restaurant portions to genetically modified concoctions out of corporate farm labs, the American sweet tooth is well-fed, but in decay.

Artificial sweeteners have come a long way in the past few decades. The FDA has approved five artificial sweeteners used in food processing today. Each feature their own varying chemical makeups:

  • acesulfame potassium (Sunett, Sweet One),
  • aspartame (Equal, NutraSweet),
  • neotame (a chemical derivative of aspartame),
  • saccharin (SugarTwin, Sweet’N Low), and
  • sucralose (Splenda).

Let’s face it. These five substances don’t sound like appetizing foods. That’s because they are not foods, but chemicals — and are prevalent in many foods we eat. Mothers and other health-conscious consumers are faced with a dilemma: “real” sugar or “fake” sugar? Unfortunately, for all the detriments inherent in these “fake” sugars, “real” sugar is often not much better.

Although we would like to believe that natural sugars are safer, “real” sugars found in fruit juices, molasses, honey and maple syrup frequently undergo processing and refining long before they get to your kitchen, as reported by the Mayo Clinic. As a result, the vitamin and mineral content of processed table sugar provides little substantial difference from these “fake” sugars.

We’ve long been uncomfortable with our sugar consumption. “Sugar-free” or “diet” are two of the most common marketing hooks in the food business. “Fake” sugar has become a preferred alternative in the American diet because of calories saved. High-fructose corn syrup has become the sweetener of choice because of its low cost to produce and integrate into foods, compared to “real” sugar.

Many medical experts have warned against consuming “fake” sugars. Unfortunately for consumers, the distinction between “real” and “fake” sugars is a blurry line. In recent years, American and EU consumers have been given the option of an additive called stevia, which is positioned by its manufacturers as a “natural” sweetener. However, it is highly processed and refined. Conversely, some artificial sweeteners are derived from common, natural substances, such as sucralose, which comes from sugar.

Sugars — “real” or “fake” — trick your body. According to Dr. Hans-Peter Kubis, the director of Health Exercise and Rehabilitation at Bangor University, regularly drinking sugary soda can not only cause weight gain but can change your body’s metabolism. Amino acids found in aspartame and neotame are believed to stimulate the release of insulin and leptin — two hormones that regulate our bodies’ satiety, fat storage and metabolism.

The final scorecard is the same for both categories of sweeteners, despite their varying chemical makeups: reduce sugar consumption wherever possible. Both pose serious health risks if consumed regularly. According to the Mayo Clinic, the chief dangers for sugars and sugar substitutes are:

  • weight gain,
  • type 2 diabetes,
  • metabolic syndrome, and
  • high triglyceride levels.

All of these boost your risk of heart disease. If you’re concerned about your health — particularly as it pertains to weight gain and diabetes — the smart move is to cut back on added sugars, regardless of the type.

An earlier version of this article was first submitted to amgcare.com, August 2013.