September 24, 2021

I, Science

The science magazine of Imperial College

Angelina Chrysanthou and Stephanie Sammann battle it out over which of these everyday foods really presents the greatest health risk.

1024px-Cotton_candy_girlAngelina Chrysanthou backs sugar

Sugar is one of the oldest cooking ingredients, dating back to 326 BC. Since then it has been successfully used for many different purposes: in healing wounds, growing penicillin, leather tanning, printer’s inks, dyes and even to prolong the life of freshly cut flowers. But how beneficial is the consumption of suger for human health?

Simple sugars are composed of monosaccharides (glucose, fructose and galactose), while granulated sugar, most commonly used in food, is composed of sucrose – which is broken down to glucose and fructose once it enters the body. In the last few decades, the food industry has started producing synthetic food additives that mimic the sweet taste of sugar: now widely known as artificial sweeteners. At the same time, granulated sugar has been characterised by both scientists and nutritionists as a harmful and dangerous ingredient that should be avoided, while they have encouraged the consumption of artificial sweeteners. But to what extent is this perspective true?

Both sugar and artificial sweeteners are composed of glucose and fructose, though fructose levels are ~5% higher in the majority of artificial sweeteners. Since fructose does not have any significant impact on leptin (the hormone responsible for regulating the sensation of hunger), you may still feel hungry after consuming products containing artificial sweeteners compared with products containing sugar. This could lead to the over-consumption of food containing artificial sweeteners which can result in obesity.

F800px-Sucrose2or many decades, scientists and dentists have supported the statement that the consumption of sugar increases the risk of tooth decay, whereas the consumption of artificial sweeteners does not have any negative impact on oral health. However, new studies from Johns Hopkins University have demonstrated that the regular consumption of artificial sweeteners can cause dental erosion.

Glycolytic acid, found in sugar, is very beneficial for the maintenance of healthy skin. Due to its hydrating effect, it can diminish blemishes and treat sun-damaged and aged skin. More specifically, skin products containing simple sugars draw moisture from the environment which nourishes, hydrates and restores the balance of oil in the skin.

Sugar is also very beneficial during exercise. The consumption of carbohydrates in the form of simple sugars during exercise increases the durability of performance. This is because sugars are quickly absorbed in the gut, transported into the muscle and transformed into energy. In contrast, artificial sweeteners are composed of long acting and complex carbohydrates which decrease endurance; they are absorbed gradually and first must be transformed into sugars before they can be transported into muscles and metabolised into energy.

granulated sugar crystalsSugar contains elements that are beneficial to our health, including magnesium, potassium, iron, calcium and phosphorous, which we can easily metabolise. In contrast, artificial sweeteners are industrially processed and do not contain great quantities of natural elements. This can cause digestion problems. Additionally, most artificial sweeteners contain aspartame which causes headaches after long-term consumption. There is also evidence that the long- term consumption of artificial sweeteners can cause bladder cancer in laboratory animals; however the outcome from subsequent carcinogenicity studies of artificial sweeteners has not provided strong indication of a link with bladder cancer in humans. Accordingly, sugar consumption is both beneficial and essential for the maintenance of our health. As usual though, it’s best to take ‘everything in moderation’, as excessive sugar intake usually results in severe health problems.

Angelina Chrysanthou is studying for an MSc in Molecular Medicine

Splenda sucraloseStephanie Sammann backs sweeteners

The debate over artificial sweeteners and cane sugar seems endless. Some say that artificial sweeteners are worse than real sugar because they are “just chemicals”. Others seem to understand the enormous amount of calories in even the smallest amount of sugar. Some say artificial sweeteners cause cancer, while others say it is cane sugar that in the end gives you cancer. Is there any weight to these claims? Is one option measurably healthier and safer than the other?

The answer is, yes, most likely. Despite the numerous assertions in both directions, scientists, nutritionists, and doctors have seen the evidence that refined sugar is far more likely to cause long-term health problems than artificial sweeteners. In a world where more than 35% adults are overweight, and 350 million people suffer from diabetes, artificial sweeteners are clearly something to consider.

According to sugar and diet researcher David Gillespie, the average Briton consumes more than a kilo of sugar a week. This comes from products containing corn syrup, agave or maple syrup and honey. The food industry loves these sweeteners, especially high fructose corn syrup because it makes every type of food more palatable – from soup to cereals, ketchup to bread. What we see as every day essentials are pushing us over the healthy limit for sugar intake. This is worrying when obesity rates are continuously rising.

Currently 26% of Britons are obese, and half are overweight. This problem extends to more than just personal health. The direct costs caused by obesity are now estimated to be £5.1billion per year. Obesity is associated with cardiovascular risk, cancer, disability during old age, decreased life expectancy and serious chronic conditions such as type 2 diabetes, osteoarthritis and hypertension. This puts a big strain on the economy, and on the happiness and livelihood of the population.

800px-Aspartame-residuesBecause our sweet tooth seems insatiable, it seems implausible that everyone will realize the cost of sweetness and erase it from their diet. Instead, it may be time to put the myths about the dangers of artificial sweeteners to rest and incorporate them more heavily into the national diet, giving people their sweet fix while keeping some of those ill effects at bay. While it is essential to consume artificial sweeteners in moderation, just like anything else, they could help many people cut out sugar from their diets.

There are three main types of sugar substitutes: artificial sweeteners such as aspartame, sugar alcohols such as sorbitol, and novel sweeteners, which are derived from stevia. Each of these has low or no calories, do not raise blood-sugar levels, and are safe for diabetics to consume.

If you are worried about the health risks of sweeteners listen to this: the idea that sugar substitutes are carcinogenic first surfaced in the 1970s when saccharin (found in Sweet’N Low) was discovered in one study to raise the risk of bladder cancer in rats.

A wealth of later research in humans has found no link. Similarly, aspartame, the most commonly used sweetener, was blamed in 1996 as the cause of the spike in brain tumours in Americans between 1975 and 1992. Again, further studies have found no connection. Many scientists and nutritionists say we should take the claims of the cancer causing properties of sweeteners with a grain of salt.

While switching to these sugar-free products should be paired with a low-fat diet and regular exercise, it can be a way to kick-start a healthy lifestyle.

Stephanie Sammann is studying for an MSc in Science Media Production

Images:  Cotton candy girl – Wikipedia; Sucrose/Sucralose adapted from Wikipedia; Pure Carbs – Granulated Sugar Crystals Up Close and Personal by John Britt91/365+1 Splendid by Dave Crosby; Aspartame adapted from Wikipedia