Editor’s note: Susan Puckett is a James Beard Award-nominated food journalist and editor and has written or collaborated on more than a dozen books. She was the food editor for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution for nearly two decades. The views expressed in this article are her own. Read more views on CNN.
For many of us, the search for a sugar alternative to satisfy our sweet cravings is never-ending.
Food companies have made a parade of fake sugar options since the accidental discovery of saccharin in a lab a century ago. But none of these sweeteners have escaped controversy, not even those advertised as “natural.”
The latest to come under fire is erythritol, a sugar alcohol found in small amounts in fruits and vegetables and often mixed with popular plant-based sweeteners like stevia and monk fruit in a litany of products aimed at a health-conscious crowd. It’s often labeled on product packages with a generic term like “reduced sugars,” so you may have been consuming it without realizing it.
But last month, a scientific report linked erythritol to higher rates of blood clots, heart attacks and strokes — the very diseases we thought it could help prevent. Industry representatives pushed back, claiming the findings ran counter to decades of scientific research attesting to its safety.
Outside nutrition experts weighed in, warning that “more study is needed” before reaching any conclusions. Confused consumers expressed their frustration at not being able to get a straight answer about whether their coffee sweetener of choice posed a legitimate safety risk.
I can empathize. Having been immersed in food journalism for four decades, including a stint as a health editor, I tend to be skeptical of any new nutrition study that comes out, so I didn’t pay much attention to it at first. I think it’s just a matter of time before someone else comes along to disprove it.
Fresh in my mind are the years when fat, not carbohydrates, was considered the root of all nutritional evil. We endured soggy toast with watery “light” margarine for breakfast and helped ourselves to fat-free biscuits at the office table while wondering why our pants kept feeling tighter.
What a surprise, then, to learn that the research in the 1960s that implicated saturated fat, not sugar, as the cause of heart disease was funded by the sugar industry. Or that in 2015, Coca-Cola recruited scientists to convince us that too little exercise is more to blame for those extra pounds than sugary sodas.
A 12-ounce can of Coca-Cola contains 39 grams of sugar (which amounts to about 10 teaspoons) in the form of high-fructose corn syrup. Drinking zero-calorie versions instead seems to give us permission to gorge on them guilt-free, as I did for years. But here’s the rub: while they may save us calories in the short term (140 per box), they do nothing to curb our sweet tooth or hunger. Studies have shown, in fact, that any kind of sweetener—fake or real—can actually make the problem worse.
A 2016 Scientific American article reveals how “extremely sweet or fatty foods capture the brain’s reward circuitry in the same way that cocaine and gambling do.” Michael Lowe, a clinical psychologist at Drexel University, coined the term “hedonic hunger” to refer to the pleasure people eat when they have met their energy needs.
According to Lowe’s research, “the brains of overeaters require much more sugar and fat to reach the same pleasure threshold they once experienced with smaller amounts of food.”
And while artificial sweeteners may be able to satisfy our taste buds’ initial cravings for sugar, a 2022 study shows that our guts know the difference and communicate their preference for the real thing to our brains.
The food industry provides us with a cheap and steady supply of these options at every turn, in places we don’t necessarily expect, like sandwich bread and lunch meat. Because sugar and other sweeteners come in an increasing number of forms — often with very hard-to-pronounce names that often end in “-ose” — it’s becoming increasingly complicated to keep track of how much is entering our bodies.
And it’s important to keep in mind that not all sugars are created equal.
“Lactose, the sugar in milk, is less sweet and is a natural component of dairy milk and yogurt,” Christine Rosenbloom, a registered dietitian, nutrition consultant and professor emeritus at Georgia State University, explained in an email.
“And I hate to see fruit demonized as having too much sugar. Fruit comes in a nutrient-dense package of natural sugar, water, fiber, vitamins, minerals and plant (plant) nutrients that support good health.”
Natural and less processed sweeteners such as honey, agave, maple syrup and coconut sugar may contain some trace nutrients. But “they are not health foods or ‘super foods’ as some claim,” Rosenbloom noted. “It’s all sugar and you still have to keep a check on how much you’re using.”
So how are we supposed to apply the ever-evolving information about sugar and its ingredients to our daily lives?
“I think it’s important to remember that the research linking sugar to any chronic disease is observational, so it shows an association, not a causation,” Rosenbloom explained.
“And, in animal studies showing that sugar is harmful to health, animals are given doses hundreds of times what a human would consume. The key is how much sugar you eat and how it fits into your overall eating pattern.”
One thing is certain: There is no doubt about the need to reduce sugar intake. We’ve been hearing for years that obesity rates are through the roof and rising, along with the myriad life-threatening conditions associated with them: heart disease, type 2 diabetes, stroke, certain types of cancer, and more. Sugar, we well know, is an important factor.
Suggestions that we should replace highly processed foods with fresh foods and diet sodas with sugar-free water or tea tend to be met with a frown. But as a recovered vegophobe and Diet Coke addict, I speak from experience when I say it can be done — as long as you do it gradually.
My main trick for weaning myself off sweets was to focus on healthy foods with salty – or at least not so sweet – flavors that I like just as much. There are many to choose from in the produce aisle.
There was a time when I couldn’t imagine starting my day without cereal or a granola bar and orange juice. When I realized how much sugar was in both, I adopted a new morning habit: a bowl of frozen, unthawed blueberries or cherries mixed with full-fat Greek yogurt, sprinkled with nuts and drizzled with a little honey. It’s better than ice cream! (Okay, maybe that’s a stretch.)
For savory food, if the thought of carrots or cauliflower doesn’t excite you, try tossing them in a little olive oil and seasoning and roasting them in a very hot oven until they start to caramelize naturally. You just might become a convert.
And stop buying the chemical-laden bottled dressings and toss your salads with flavored oil, a little vinegar or citrus, and salt and pepper — no mixing or measuring required. No time to cook? A roast chicken from the deli can supply you with satisfying low-carb protein for days.
Make no mistake: I’m still very much in favor of dessert. I just choose a smaller portion. Unless ganache is involved and then all bets are off. And Rosenblum heartily approves.
“In today’s world, it’s almost impossible to completely eliminate sugar, and I’m not going to make my own ketchup! Sometimes a spoonful of sugar really sweetens our lives and helps the medicine go down.”