How much sugar should we eat? The World Health Organization and Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommend that added sugars make up no more than 10 percent of your daily calorie intake. (Added sugar is sweetness not from the food itself, like raisons.) The recommendations mean that someone on a typical 2,000 calorie a day diet should only derive 200 calories a day from sugar—equal to one, 16-ounce soda. Yet most Americans consume at least twice the recommended amount and few people who have the soda “habit” only drink one soft drink a day.
Once upon a time, “sugar” meant sugar from sugar cane or sugar beets. But since 1980, soft drink producers have favored high fructose corn syrup (HFCS) and they have been followed by most major food producers and processors. Trade restrictions in other countries to protect local sugar production made sugar more expensive to use even as U.S. farmers were growing copious amounts of corn because of farm subsidies. HFCS is also cheaper to produce, store and ship.
While many say HFCS does not taste the same as the “real” sugar it replaced, the most concerning issue with HFCP is its links to obesity, diabetes, liver damage, memory problems and even possible mercury contamination. A Harvard study found men who drank the most sugar-sweetened sodas, mostly with HFCS, were 20 percent more likely to suffer coronary heart disease. The finding was true regardless of their age, diet, family history, smoking or alcohol. Almost ninety percent of U.S. corn is also genetically modified.
As HFCS has become a bad guy, Pepsi, Mountain Dew, Gatorade, Ocean Spray cranberry juice, Snapple, Wheat Thins, Kraft, Starbucks, Pizza Hut and other food producers have rolled out HFCS-free products. But the HFCS trade group, the Corn Refiners Association, fought back. It launched an ad campaign called “your body can’t tell the difference” (meaning the difference between HFCS and sugar) that was so over the top, it was spoofed on Saturday Night Live.
Naturally, the questions about HFCS have driven sales of artificial sweeteners but the safety of artificial sweeteners is not completely established either. “Scientists disagree about the relationships between sweeteners and lymphomas, leukemias, cancers of the bladder and brain, chronic fatigue syndrome, Parkinson’s disease, Alzheimer’s disease, multiple sclerosis, autism, and systemic lupus,” wrote the American Association of Occupational Nurses journal. The substances may have undesirable effects on glucose regulation, the journal added.
Nor are artificial sweeteners necessarily even effective in reducing obesity. An increase in the use of aspartame, found in Diet Coke, and sucralose, found in Pepsi One, actually correlated with a rise the number of people who are obese reported the Yale Journal of Biology and Medicine.
So how can people enjoy something sweet without the risks of HFCS and chemical artificial sweeteners? They can pursue agave nectar, erythritol (from melons, pears and grapes, monk fruit), tagatose, a milk sugar and stevia, a sweet plant found in the tropics. But be aware that just because a food contains a natural sweetener does not mean it is free from controversial sweeteners too. Manufacturers can add aspartame, sucralose, neotame, acesulfame potassium (also called Ace K) and even HFCS to improve its taste, cut costs or both. Those seeking more natural sweeteners need to be beware.
Health professionals and nutritionists give different advice, however. Rather than seeking new sweeteners they advise people to “slay the sweetness dragon” by avoid sweets all together for at least two weeks. A sweetness “holiday” will revive your taste buds to enjoy foods in ways you may be never have before, they say.
Martha Rosenberg is author of the award-cited food exposé “Born With a Junk Food Deficiency,” distributed by Random House. A nationally known muckraker, she has lectured at the university and medical school level and appeared on radio and television.