This week, there was some interest in a post I made on social media regarding a "health" product containing an artificial sweetener. There was plenty of robust discussion on the article, with some leaping to the defence of artificial sweeteners in products. I thought it ideal to have a little discussion on this sweet situation, and talk about the elephant in the room, why are we replacing sugar with artificial sweeteners?
A Short & Sweet History of Sugar
Sugarcane (the main source for sugar) was first domesticated around 10,000 years ago in Papua New Guinea - from there it was transformed over the next 9,000 years from plant, to juice to sugar crystals. It escalated very quickly with the industrialisation of sugar production in the 19th Century, when sugar moved from being a rare, high-cost food to being produced on a large scale, and becoming a "staple" for many larders. Suddenly, the human diet had gone from having a scarce treat of sugar to having it freely (and cheaply) available. We went from a famine of concentrated sugars to a feast of immense proportions. Fast forward 200 years, sugar production (AND consumption) has rapidly increased with the improvement of production and processing.
The War on Sugar
In recent years there has been a war on refined sugars (and understandably so), as more and more of the processed foods we eat contain very high levels of processed sugar. The average world consumption for sugar is 66 grams (What the World Eats), this ranges from 19 grams in China to 166 grams in USA (and Australia with 127 grams), the World Health Organisation recommends approximately 35-50 grams for an adult person for free sugar intake. It is an absolute imperative that we reduce our refined sugar intake, so make sure you check your ingredient labels, and treat your sweet tooth to a real whole food piece of fruit! How do we "quit" sugar (as Sarah Wilson says) or at the very least bring our sweet tooth back a notch by significantly reducing our free sugar intake? Read on to discover how you can make a change.
The Hunger For Sweetness
As the world seeks to cut out processed sugars from our diet, there has been a massive increase in the availability of "sugar-free" products, which contain artificial sweeteners (more on the common artificial sweeteners can be found on another blog of mine here). Rather than change behaviour, food companies have sought to chase the sweet tooth of homo sapiens by replacing refined sugars with chemical sweeteners, which mimic the taste without the calories. It seems the effort involved in changing behaviour of both the consumer and the manufacturer is far too much, and non-food additives are now freely used (and accepted) in many foods.
Why do food companies still either load foods full of refined sugar or with chemical sweeteners? I can't answer that for all food manufacturers, but I know there is some primal triggers in our body that LOVE fats and sugars, this is because they are incredibly fast energy sources for the body. In nature to access fat and sugar, you would have to eat something whole to access the fat or the sugar. If you were to eat the equivalent sugar in a bottle of Coca Cola in the form of a whole apple, you would need to eat 3 APPLES! I don't know many people that would happily munch down on three apples in one sitting. By targeting the primal fat and sugar triggers in our brains, food companies have you coming back for more, so buyer beware.
I do know that with perseverance, consumer behaviour can be changed. That is part of my passion, I help people rediscover real, whole foods - without the need for refined sugars or artificial additives. If the companies who fill their processed foods with refined sugars or artificial chemical additives choose to hold their ground, they may get left behind as consumer behaviour changes...
My Take On The Debate
My take on sugars vs artificial sweeteners remains true to my view on all food. If you want something sweet to eat, then eat a piece of WHOLE fruit (yes, that includes all that awesome fibre and skin!).
If you are in a position where you presented with two options, a product that is sweetened with an artificial sweetener VS a product sweetened sweetened with refined natural sugar, AND you can't avoid it (no excuses or "I've been good" here people) then choose the lesser of two evils - have the refined natural sugar option. Avoid artificial sweeteners, and if you are avoiding refined sugars due to health conditions such as diabetes, stick to complete whole fruits and vegetables. Send the message to the food manufacturers that you want LESS sugar, not REPLACEMENT chemicals additives.
My sugar food option ranking:
1. Eat real whole foods, if you want something sweet, go for complete whole foods (e.g. fruit);
2. Avoid refined natural sugars, unless completely unavoidable (Note: unavoidable doesn't mean you should eat that crappy sugar loaded chocolate cake if it is the only option at the staff morning tea);
3. Completely avoid chemical artificial sweeteners.
I'd love to hear your thoughts, and I would love to see some robust discussion as I saw on social media this week!