You’ve heard the warnings about artificial sweeteners: Saccharin causes bladder cancer. Aspertame leads to brain tumors. Mannitol and sorbitol give you diarrhea. But are these sugar substitutes really any worse for you than the real thing? Researchers are now saying no. According to recent research, sugar is worse, particularly for the heart.
Sugar becomes dangerous when people consume too much added sugars — not those naturally occurring sugars like those found in fruit. While the American Heart Association (AHA) recommends no more than five teaspoons of added sugars daily for women and nine teaspoons daily for men, Americans tend to exceed those recommendations significantly. According to research published in the journal Circulation, Americans consume about 22 teaspoons of added sugars daily, with boys ages 14–18 consuming an average of 34.3 teaspoons each day.
Is Sugar Really That Bad?
For years, research has shown that the empty calories in sugar lead to weight gain and cavities, and the American Diabetes Association (ADA) tells us that Type 2 diabetes — a condition at least partially caused by obesity and lifestyle decisions — has been linked to sugar-sweetened beverages. Sugar also causes an increase in blood sugar and raises cholesterol, both of which are detrimental to heart health. Recent research published in JAMA Internal Medicine has linked excessive sugar consumption with dying of heart disease.
In the study, researchers reported that those who consume about 25 percent of their calories each day from sugar were two times as likely to die of heart disease as those who only got about 7 percent of their daily calories from sugar. The United States Department of Agriculture recommends a sedentary 50-year-old man eat 1,800 calories daily. If he were to consume 25 percent of his daily calories from sugar (450 calories), he would be getting 30 teaspoons of sugar — way over the AHA’s daily recommendation. Thirty teaspoons of sugar seems like a lot, until you realize that a 12-ounce can of cola contains 33 grams of sugar, about nine teaspoons’ worth. Add to that the sugars found in snacks and even everyday foods that don’t seem unhealthy, such as breakfast cereals, yogurt and granola bars, and it’s easy to see how added sugars add up.
The study also revealed that the risk of dying of heart disease increased based on the amount of sugar consumed — regardless of other factors such as age, body-mass index, sex and exercise level.
What Should You Do?
When you’re looking at foods, read the labels. Be on the lookout for added sugars — including white granulated sugar, confectioner’s sugar, brown sugar and raw sugar — as well as syrups and ingredients that end in “–ose” like dextrose and fructose. The amount of sugar (in grams) will be listed on the food’s Nutrition Facts label, and it only takes about four grams of sugar to equal a teaspoon.
Artificial sweeteners have been under intense scrutiny for decades, and the Food and Drug Administration and the National Cancer Institute both say there is no clear evidence linking cancer with artificial sweeteners. In a joint scientific statement, the AHA and the American Diabetes Association cautiously recommended the judicious use of nonnutritive, artificial sweeteners to reduce added sugar intake.
Diet isn’t the only risk factor for Type 2 diabetes. If you’re worried about your risk for diabetes, take the Texas Health Diabetes Risk Assessment.
Physicians on the medical staff practice independently and are not employees or agents of the hospital or Texas Health Resources.