If this sounds familiar, it should – we went down the same path with aspartame, the main ingredient in Equal and NutraSweet. Almost all of the independent research into aspartame found dangerous side effects in rodents. The FDA chose not to take these findings into account when it approved aspartame for public use. Over the course of 15 years, those same side effects increasingly appeared in humans. Not in everyone, of course — but in those who were vulnerable to the chemical structure of aspartame.
As food additives, artificial sweeteners are not subject to the same gauntlet of FDA safety trials as pharmaceuticals. Most of the testing is funded by the food industry, which has a vested interest in the outcome. This can lead to misleading claims on both sides.
But one thing is certain – some of the chemicals that comprise artificial sweeteners are known hazards – the degree to which you experience side effects just depends on your individual biochemistry. Manufacturers are banking on the fact that our bodies won’t absorb very much of these compounds at any one time. And many of us don’t. But what happens when we are ingesting a combination of artificial sweeteners like Splenda dozens of times a week through many different “low–sugar” or “sugar–free” products?
People have been using artificial sweeteners for decades. Some react poorly, some don’t — the problem is, you never know until you’re already sick. Scientists are calling Splenda a mild mutagen, based on how much is absorbed. Right now, it’s anyone’s guess what portion of the population is being exposed to the dangers of Splenda or already suffering from Splenda side effects. Until an independent, unbiased research group conducts long-term studies on humans (six months is hardly long-term!), how can we be certain? With all the new Splenda products on our shelves, it looks as if we are now in the process of another grand public experiment — without our permission. And we may not know the health implications for decades. As with all things, time will unveil truth.
So I urge you to be concerned about the potential dangers of Splenda — as with any unnatural substance you put in your body. And I am especially concerned about its use for children, which I recommend you avoid. But unlike many holistic practitioners, I do think artificial sweeteners can serve a purpose for some women. And that has to do with the old question — which is better, sugar or an artificial sweetener? Let’s start with sugar, where the problems all begin.
Sugar and insulin: the energy rush
Like Pooh Bear and the honey jar, sweet treats are the comfort food of choice for most of us. Usually we’ve had powerful emotional incentives set up in childhood — like getting a lollipop after a doctor’s visit — and most of us unconsciously associate sugar with love, pleasure, and reward. Why else would we call our dear ones “honey,” “sugar,” and “sweetie”?
There’s an equally strong biological urge here that’s hard-wired. We’re predisposed to seek out sugar when we can find it. After all, sugar (sucrose) is a carbohydrate. It’s metabolized directly into blood sugar, or glucose, which fuels our brain and muscles. The purer the source, the faster it gets into the bloodstream, bypassing much of the digestive process.
Eating sugar shoots our blood sugar levels up and triggers a spike in the hormone insulin, which is needed to prep our cells to absorb the sugar. If there are no other nutrients to sustain our blood sugar level, it crashes as quickly as it rises — and we crave another hit. This is how sugar addiction begins.
Moreover, sugar floods us with pleasure by stimulating the release of the neurotransmitter serotonin, and probably other mood-elevating substances. Scientists report that eating chocolate initiates a brain response similar to falling in love.
And so our brains have learned over time to equate the taste of “sweet” with a rapid infusion of energy and pleasure — a good thing when food was hard-won and life a battle to survive. Even now when we eat sweet foods, special taste buds trigger enzymes that prime our brain to anticipate this extra boost. With a balanced diet and a healthy metabolism, a calorie–control mechanism kicks in after a few minutes to regulate the desire for more food, including the satiety hormone leptin. But with too much sugar, we eat and eat and can’t get satisfied. For more on this process, see our article insulin resistance.