Sweet and loaded

SweetenersArtificial sweeteners are typically off the list of foods recommended by holistic nutritionists for many reasons. Historically these have largely been to do with neurological, metabolic or carcinogenic concerns.

Here’s a new mouse study on Sucralose (trade names Splenda, Zerocal, Sukrana, SucraPlus, Candys, Cukren, Nevella) which says that it probably does cause or contribute to tumour growth. As we have been learning in recent years, gut bacteria in the human microbiome are instrumental in protecting us from pathogens, including carcinogens.

We’re also finding that artificial sweeteners are causing glucose intolerance – meaning they likely play a role in actually causing Type 2 Diabetes. This is due to their role in altering the gut microbiome.  In a troubling irony, artificial sweeteners remain in the dietary recommendations of the Canadian Diabetes Association, declared safe by Health Canada.

Which is one of the problems with the speed of knowledge advancement in science. We’ve only been aware of the importance of the human microbiome for a matter of years, not even decades, so it’s no surprise that public health policy can’t keep up.

But it’s not just our health we’re risking. Some of these sweeteners pass through the human digestive system – which is one way they don’t affect our blood sugar – and end up in our water systems, through the wastewater treatment system, which doesn’t screen them out. This means they’ll also end up in soil and groundwater.

So really. If these synthetic substances are probable carcinogens, cause glucose intolerance, and are harmful to our own gut bacteria, it seems pretty irresponsible to be sharing them with the wild aquatic and bacterial populations in our environments. A failure of holistic thinking, as usual, at work here, as we also don’t know to what extent these substances will work their way through the food chain, or what effects there may be upon the ecosystems affected.

The only viable alternative to artificial sweeteners, so far, is stevia extract, but even here there are cautions. Avoid highly processed, flavoured or alcohol-based versions: go for the purest version you can find. You may even wish to grow it yourself, and dry and grind the leaves.

Obesity: So many causes, so few solutions

SugarGood to see The Lancet looking critically at obesity – which will cripple public health systems in the years to come, through its association with diabetes, cancers and other chronic conditions.  Sugar taxes, the article notes, are not the only solution. (Personally I think they’d be a helpful start, given the rampant consumption of needlessly sweetened foods and beverages in the Western world. On the other hand, added sugars are only part of what the body metabolizes as sugar: processed carbohydrates are surely having an equal effect, and are harder for consumers to recognize as problematic.) Clearly dietary, environmental, commercial, metabolic, microbial and lifestyle causes and solutions need urgent study by government funders and health researchers.

The UK report referenced in The Lancet’s article, Sugar Reduction: The Evidence for Action (October 2015) lays bare a number of relevant issues and is worth a read. But even it ultimately bangs its head on the desk in dismay: no easy solution, it says. “No single action will be effective in reducing sugar intakes. This is too serious a problem to be solved by approaches that rely only on individuals changing their behaviour in response to health education and marketing, or the better provision of information on our food.”

To put it mildly, as the Lancet does:
“Obesity needs much more serious attention than countries and global health organisations are currently prepared to give.”

Sweet peril

Sugar’s the new bad. Well ok, maybe not new but definitely bad, and the top choice of something to avoid if you want to be healthier, slimmer, happier, wealthier… It appeals to us because of its addictive properties, explained in some detail and complexity – and length – in Robert Lustig‘s now-famous talk Sugar: The Bitter Truth. Here’s a shorter, simpler version that explains the mechanics of sugar metabolism, and why it’s such a compelling taste:

If you’re wanting to cut back but are used to eating lots of sweets, you’ll have to re-train your palate to expect less sugar with each mouthful. Here are some suggestions for getting the sweetness you crave while minimizing the harm:

  • Be an educated consumer: read up on natural sweeteners. Some are better than others.. but they’re all sugar of some kind.
  • “Sugar-free desserts” are often in the realm of  ‘too good to be true’. They usually rely upon artificial sweeteners (bad!) or natural sweeteners (see above) so approach with caution.
  • Retrain your palate Cut the amount of sugar called for in baking recipes by 1/3 and taste; if it’s not sweet enough for you try 1/4 and then gradually reduce each time you make it. Raisins can add a little sweetness to muffins and cookies so you don’t need as much sugar.
  • Use naturally sweet foods as sweeteners: add a few raisins, fresh berries or some diced cooked sweet potato to your hot cereal instead of sprinkling on the sugar.
  • When you do need a treat, try to stick to high-fibre sweet treats, like fresh fruit or (strictly limited quantities of) high-fibre baked goods (Nairn’s ginger oatcakes spring all-too readily to mind).