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Is Your Sweet Tooth Killing You? Sugar & Aspartame Linked to Fatal Diseases

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For decades we've been told that saturated fat and cholesterol are the twin culprits behind heart disease, but a new study suggests that sugar may be at least as dangerous to the heart. The research published in JAMA Internal Medicine (online, Feb. 3, 2014) found that sugar could be a major contributor to death from heart disease.

Sugar is not the only sweetener under a cloud. In particular, the safety of aspartame remains controversial. An Italian team of toxicologists maintains that rodent research and an epidemiological study link aspartame to cancer. Their recent commentary in the American Journal of Industrial Medicine is titled "The Carcinogenic Effects of Aspartame: The Urgent Need for Regulatory Re-Evaluation."

Historical Perspective

For decades the only concerns raised about consuming sugary sweets had to do with cavities or obesity. When we asked a world-class diabetes expert 25 years ago whether sugar contributed to type 2 diabetes, we were told in no uncertain terms that any connection was no more than an old wives' tale. Now we know that sugar does contribute to insulin resistance, diabetes, dementia, cirrhosis of the liver, high blood pressure and heart disease.

The latest research analyzed sugar consumption in the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey (NHANES) and the risk of cardiovascular disease mortality. Tens of thousands of Americans were tracked for decades. The more calories people consumed in the form of sugar, the greater their likelihood of dying from heart disease.

Sugar consumption is way up in the U.S. Our great-grandparents looked upon desserts as a special treat. Today, sweets (containing sucrose and fructose) are a huge part of our daily diet. Americans consume sweetened fruit juice along with sugary yogurts and cereals for breakfast, donuts or pastries for mid-morning snacks, soft drinks at lunch and throughout the day along with a variety of sweetened snacks and desserts. It is not unusual for adolescents and adults to get 25% of their total calories from added sugar. When they do, they are getting the equivalent of 31 teaspoons of sugar.

No one could consume that much sugar at one sitting without feeling awful. But because it is hidden in so many different foods and beverages it sneaks up on us. Those who consume that much sugar are twice as likely to die from heart disease as those who get less than 10% of their calories from added sugar. Sugarholics who get one-third of their calories from sugar quadruple their risk of dying from cardiovascular causes.

Even though there are no federal guidelines on sugar consumption, less is best! Some experts are suggesting that added sugar should make up no more than 15% of total calories.

What About Aspartame?

Many people have responded to the advice to cut back on sugar by turning to artificial sweeteners. Aspartame, one of the most popular, has been available for over 40 years and is included in more than 6,000 products. It sweetens at least 500 different medications. One would assume that its safety is beyond question. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration has repeatedly affirmed that aspartame is safe. A recent risk assessment by the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) concluded that the compound is safe at current levels of exposure.

The new review by Italian researchers, however, calls for a re-evaluation of the data. The authors point to studies of carcinogenicity over the lifetime of laboratory animals. They argue that their lifetime exposure studies are actually more sensitive than typical two-year protocols because they reflect effects that may take a long time to show up.

Adding to the controversy, Harvard researchers published their epidemiological data in The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition (Dec., 2012). They concluded:

"In the most comprehensive long-term epidemiologic study, to our knowledge, to evaluate the association between aspartame intake and cancer risk in humans, we observed a positive association between diet soda and total aspartame intake and risks of NHL [non-Hodgkin lymphoma] and multiple myeloma in men and leukemia in both men and women."

The animal research also detected lymphomas and leukemia as well as liver, kidney and lung tumors. The Italian scientists wrap up their discussion of the safety of aspartame by calling for better research and protection of pregnant women and young children from excess exposure. You can listen to our interview with one of the authors, Dr. Morando Soffritti, here.

The Bottom Line

Despite reassurances by U.S. and European regulatory authorities, we are not convinced the final chapter has been written on aspartame safety. Substituting this artificial sweetener for sugar may not improve long-term health outcomes.

What can you do?

First, enjoy fruit as a better dessert. The epidemiological analysis from JAMA Internal Medicine did not show a hazard from the sugars inherent in fruit.

Second, try to retrain your taste buds. The less sugar you eat, the less you will crave its seductive flavor. A small amount of sugar from time to time as a special treat is not likely to pose a serious health risk. But when we consume the equivalent of 31 teaspoons a day, we are asking for trouble.

 

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33 Comments

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You know, it makes perfect sense; it is well documented that Type 1 diabetics are at high risk for coronary disease. Only about 10% of diabetics are Type 1 insulin dependent diabetics, and it was not caused by eating too much sugar, but by the islet cells of the pancreas ceasing to produce insulin.

However, due to the daunting task of trying to eat and administer doses of insulin to keep their blood glucose in a "normal" range, it does make them high risk for all of the diseases mentioned. If it is true for this segment of the population, it would be true for the rest of us that consume a lot of sugar and assume our pancreas and liver are handling it just fine!

Agree with your info on sugar. If I eat sugar it causes itching in my legs at bedtime. Very unpleasant & disturbing to sleep. Would like to know why this happens.

I think that the problem is that people aren't being told by doctors what a healthy daily limit for sugar is. Last year, I read an article that quoted the American Heart Association's recommended limits--for men, it's 30gms of sugar a day and for women, it's 24gms a day.

When I started looking at just the sugar grams on food labels, I found that my daily intake was around 60gms, which was too easy to reach. So I started consciously aiming for 30gms a day and, within six months, I noticed that 15 lbs of flab around my midsection disappeared!! So not only is sugar detrimental to health, it's probably the primary creator of flab and the obesity epidemic. Just one 12-oz can of Coke has 39gms of sugar and people who drink that aren't being told that they're going over a healthy limit with that one item.

are there any similar studies for Splenda?

What about honey? That is a natural sweetener and have been thinking it was better for me than sugar, splenda, truvia or the like. Can you clarify? Many thanks.

I am wondering how to get less sugar into my diet. I want to see what
other readers do to achieve this as I know I have too much sugar in my diet.

Barbara

This is why I am educating my young children (ages 8, 8, and 6) about sugar on a daily basis.

It's so sad to see what young people are bringing for school lunches and how much sugar is contained in just that one meal. On top of it, schools are serving chocolate milk for snacks and lunches, motivating children to learn with sugary treats, rewarding them for good behavior with more sweets, and finding a reason to add sweet treats to every party and celebration.

I'm writing my first book about how I have educated my family and taught my children to make healthy choices and enjoy healthy foods. The chapter on sugar is near the beginning of the book because it's so important for parents to understand what they are doing to the beautiful bodies and minds of their little people. (On the flip side, I do believe a little bit of added sugar is ok... but a little bit means about 3-4 teaspoons/day, NOT 31!)

I'm a big tea drinker, and used to put sugar in my tea. When I realized how much trouble sugar can cause, I started drinking unsweetened tea. At first I didn't like it. But I wanted my tea, and kept drinking it unsweetened. Before long I preferred it that way.

I got most of the sugar out of my diet by first gradually substituting dried fruit for the cookies, etc. I was eating. I must emphasize that I had to do this gradually, or I found myself bingeing on sweets. Later on I was able to gradually reduce the amount of dried fruit. Now I rarely crave sweets.

However, if I have a dinner with a large portion of meat I seem to crave ice cream. I think this has something to do with yin/yang balance. If I think ahead, I try to head off this reaction by including some fruit with dinner.

I don't drink or eat any, or very, very little processed foods. I eat fruits, vegetables and meat, basically a Mediterranean diet. After a few weeks of little to no sugar, you stop graving it. When out at parties, I will consume a small homemade dessert if offered.

Remember, if you don't buy it, you don't have the temptation to eat sugar and other bad foods.
Betsy

Was diagnosed with Fibromyalgia/Chronic Fatigue Syndrome 17 years ago by Cleveland Clinic Neurology department. When I eat much sugar or white flour, I feel like I have been run over by a truck (more than the usual feelings) and have the beginnings of a cold. There is a definite bad side to sugar.

I'm very glad to see this story. I would just like to add that it's really not very difficult to train one's taste buds to not crave sugar. You only need to go a month or two without eating any sugar and throwing sugary foods in the garbage to end craving sugary foods as such cravings are most likely vestiges of childhood. Think of sugar as something that Only causes dental carries.

Aspartame is another problem altogether since one must read the very fine print on food containers to even become aware it's there. It's wonderful for The Peoples Pharmacy to publish this research and I will start taking more time to read labels more carefully with an eye to spotting the word "aspartame" and not buy or discard those products as well. I just wonder what widely-used food additive is hiding in the wings, waiting to be discovered as a top carcinogen!
tutorjb

Which brands of the artificial sweeteners that are commonly available are made with aspartame?

Growing up in the depression of the 30s, we ate a heart healthy diet most of the time. We had little meat. The animals were sold to support 7 children. We separated our milk and drank skim milk then sold the cream. We ate fruits and vegetables fresh in the summer and preserved in the winter. Yes the fruit was preserved with sugar but not an excessive amount. We had sugar on our cereal but were only allowed 1 tsp. The only dry cereals at the time were cornflakes and bran cereals. Those were a treat so we didn't have them often. Our candy was made from the molasses our Dad made and we frequently had lard instead of butter. The lard was the result of the one butchered pig we kept and the bacon was salted away. When we used the bacon we only had one piece each. I could go on but won't. Perhaps this kind of life (yes, we had to work on the farm too) is what helped me to live to 83 and still going. I love sugar, but still don't use much and make most of my food from scratch.

Honey IS sugar; the body treats it just as it does any other sugar. Other sugars come from beet, cane, and corn. All natural, and all sugar.

I have some questions. This same information appeared in the Dallas Morning News a day or so ago, and they left out what I consider important information. What kind of sugar are we talking about? Our candy, soft drinks, breads, canned goods, cookies, etc. are absolutely loaded with high fructose corn syrup or fructose. If it's on the label, I won't let anything come into my house that contains high fructose corn syrup or any other fructose sweetener. Nor will I buy anything that contains maltitol, xylitol (except toothpaste) or other of the alcohol sugars or aspartame. Never have; never will.

I have watched in utter dismay while young women carry 2-liter bottles of Dr. Pepper or diet Dr. Pepper or Coke about while they weigh well above any normal limit. They fill their grocery carts with soft drinks, juice drinks, cookies, cakes, breads, soups, etc., all of which contain sweeteners of various sorts but mostly high fructose corn syrup.

But that leaves honey, saccharin and a couple of other sweeteners and cane sugar. It also leaves me with the fact that when we shop at Whole Foods or Natural Grocers, we have never seen anyone shopping there who is overweight. If we shop at Walmart or other chain stores in the area, we see dozens of 300 to 400 pound people, some riding the powered carts because they are too heavy and too disabled to walk. I am thinking "empty calories" and "cheap calories" because those who shop at Whole Foods and its ilk have to be able to afford it. Lower incomes support lots of cheap food.

I think, perhaps, just telling people that "sugar" will kill them is a bit of an overstatement. Too much of anything can cause ill health, of course. I agree. But I don't think the final word is in on diabetes and obesity and the many different kinds of sugars. I am convinced that our overuse of high fructose corn syrup contributes to the health issues.

Thirty-three years ago, my midwife warned me against aspartame. I've avoided it ever since. Sugar and artificial sweeteners are indeed hidden in many of our foods. Label reading is essential.

I recently discovered that the ONLY cough drops that my local drug stores carry that DON'T have either sugar or aspartame in them are Fisherman's Friend.

I removed as many artificial sweeteners and sugar from my diet as possible, along with lots of other things that are processed and prepackaged, and I feel much better for it. When I first heard this report about Sugar and cardiovascular disease, I couldn't help but wonder if consuming excess sugar is not the only culprit, and that people who consume this much sugar may have an overall unhealthy diet with excesses of lots of things that can contribute to health issues. Once again, the media (mostly TV reporting) of these latest studies focuses on whatever will be hyped. I continue to be surprised by the medical correspondents that make these reports and don't put the report into the context of real life. People who address their sugar and artificial sweetener consumption but replace it with something else or don't also address the excess fats and fillers in processed foods may not decrease their risk of disease of any kind. I always appreciate the balanced information we get from the Peoples' Pharmacy!

What about Sweet 'n Low? I have been using this for almost 40 years, so I'm a bit concerned. I do know I have to wean myself off sugar, but I'm addicted to it, so how does one do this?

Have they done like studies regarding Splenda?

Interesting article. I've been reading about the Paleo diet since November. It has been eye opening to me how insulin is regulated in our bodies. I would highly recommend reader's doing their own research. This method sure makes sense to me. Since I have stopped eating sugar and wheat, I feel a lot better.

Very well stated Betsy! It takes a lot of discipline at the start.

Please find for us some articles that give accurate information about sugar replacements. I suffered from urgent cravings for sweets when used Stevia. I would very much like to have medical/biochemical information made public about sugar replacement sweeteners.

Hi, in my nonscientific opinion, eating honey --- especially locally-produced honey -- has to be better than processed sugar. However, honey keeps your sweet cravings high.

Does anybody remember Gloria Swanson's groundbreaking book SUGAR BLUES? Boy was that woman ahead of her time!

I consulted a nutritionist through Swedish Hospital in Seattle, two years ago, for advice on controlling my elderly mom's Type II diabetes.

This expert counseled that sugar is not the problem! She said carbohydrates are the problem!

Even a layperson like me knew she was wrong. Carbos are a problem, but sugar is not a diabetic's friend.

Really, the medical community is failing us.

This is such important info! What about Splenda. Has it been evaluated?

I am currently taking allergy shots after severe asthma attacks fall 2012 and last spring. I tested positive to ragweed, among other things.

Stevia is in ragweed family, see webmd caution under side effects, also in same family with daisy and marigold.

I have switched to monkfruit in the raw.
Some brands of monkfruit are mixed with other artificial sweetness, or stevia, read ingredients.

I was encouraged to eat sugar as a child because my parents thought I was underweight, not knowing sweets would make this worse. In my old age, I am now paying a high price for my earlier addiction to carbs and sugar.

Good reinforcement for something I've been trying to do over the last few years...decrease sugar as much as possible. In my case, after seeing a few articles about sugar being an inflammatory agent, I experimented to see if reducing sugar would lower my arthritic pain in my shoulders, a pain most severe at night in bed. It worked! My pain is vastly less now, and I can tell, especially during the holidays when I cheat, the pain returns right on cue. I LOVE my estevia as a sweetener; I buy it in the one pound jar from Amazon. And my "craving" for sugar has continued downward; maybe that's my advancing age, but whatever...it works.

I have a very skinny husband, with a tiny stomach, and no appetite, who subsists on Coke and Snickers all day long. He will not go to a doctor, except for his pain meds. Since he has pain all thru his body, he was diagnosed with fibro and severe arthritis over ten years ago and was put on opioids. And went out on disability; which was when his appetite dropped by at least half.

His work was physical and he was always eating. And drinking Coke. Recently he switched from baked goods for brunch to potato chips. He will be 62 Monday coming. He takes a lot of pain meds, which might contribute to his poor appetite.

I am 76, in poor health, so he does some work around the house and gardens all year long. We live in CA. He is happiest when outside with his hands in the dirt. Grounding?

The foods he likes the most are loaded with carbs. I am a diabetic, thank you doctor!, but to keep him eating at dinnertime, have been preparing "his" foods, eating them too, no good for me. I am not in a position to cook two separate dinners; I do eat lunch by myself and that is usually salad.

I fear for his health; but if I say anything, it angers him. So, for the most part, I am hands off. However, I need to go back to a better way of eating; his way has brought me ten pounds of additional weight, so now I need to lose twenty pounds!

As for artificial sweeteners: I use saccharin, tho I would, and did, prefer cyclamates. At most I use a packet a day, in my second cup of coffee, my afternoon treat. Stevia does not taste sweet to me, I am afraid of aspartame and splenda. Recently, some afternoons I have a cup of miso instead of coffee. One less packet of saccharin.

Sugar and pain go hand in hand. Sugar is the Number One thing that creates an abundance of inflammation in the body (processed wheat is Number Two) and inflammation leads to pain. I have proven this myself when I reduced my sugar intake. Also, my massage clients have also proven it to themselves after I shared that with them. Too much sugar = more pain. If he'd like to take less pain meds, maybe he'd be open to reducing his sugar intake (or at least trying it for a week or so).

Helen, I don't like to interfer in other's lives, but after reading your comment I have to say something. First off, if your husband is not going to do anything about his health, you can't worry about him. I know easier said than done, but he's not making any efforts to take care of himself, so you have to think about yourself. You have health problems you want to fix, but you have to stop catering to your husband at your expense. Make meals that are good for you (and also him) and if he complains, let him know you're not his slave and he can either eat what you make or make his own. Good luck to you and I hope your health improves.

God bless you Helen. Take care of yourself first, that is the only way you can be of help to anyone else. Your husband seems happy doing what he is doing. I say, leave well enough alone. No use making him unhappy. That will be harder on you.

Want to cut sugar? Try different brands of stevia. Some are liquid, some are powder. Some of the liquids are flavored--English Toffee seems to be the favorite of people who use stevia. I think stevia works great with fresh lemon or lime juice mixed with lots of water. It also works for coffee or tea and can be added to seltzer waters with fruit juice if you must have fizzy stuff. I also buy plain yogurt or kefir and add my own sweetener (stevia of course) and vanilla or fruit.

Thank you Nancy and Kathleen. In my head I know I must put my own health first; my heart is another story.

I don't like stevia and I have tried several. Including flavored ones - thrown away money.

I do like fruit, especially in the summer, but have to be careful because of my diabetes. Dr. Mercola dislikes even the fructose in fruit and advises against more than 15 grams a day when you have health issues. I have some fruit at night only, used to have it three times a day. And I try to stick with berries. If we have citrus I have one section only. Bananas are a fond dream.

Right now I am coming out of a bad fibro flare and in two or so weeks will be weaning off of prednisone. The prednisone helps with the spinal stenosis, but increases my fatigue and depletes my potassium. For years potassium has been doing a vanishing act inside me; perhaps because of celiac. My hope is that once I feel better, away from the side effects of prednisone, since the good effects wane anyway, I can become more disciplined about my care.

As I read these comments, the bad stuff others have, and what has helped, my heart bleeds for all the pain out there, but also rises with hope that I can find something to help me feel better, do something productive with my days.

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