Every month, I'm going to write an article that doesn't contain recipes! I know, weird for me. However, as well as a baker, I'm also a keen rock climber and runner, so nutrition is key for making gains in both of these sports. Sadly, this means I'm cutting down on cake (though don't worry, I still am making delicious cakes, just not getting to enjoy them myself as much as I used to).
This month, I'm focusing on sugar. I am a sugar fiend, and I don't mind admitting it. Through my University days, I tried to cut down, but ended up eating masses of fruit (which doesn't actually solve the problem). Then I drank sugar free drinks...this is what I want to discuss in this article.
If you normally drink sugar-laden drinks, sugar-free drinks are a good option for cutting down on calories (especially if you need to lose weight). A 500ml bottle of full sugar coca cola has 210 calories, and 53g sugar for instance. If you switched to coca cola zero, this decreases to zero calories or sugars.
These sugar-free drinks often contain several artificial sweeteners. Coca Cola Zero contains both asapartame and acesulfame K for example. Other common sweeteners include sucralose and saccharin.
There is plenty of research showing severe negative side of effects of many of the popular sweeteners.
The problem with sugar is that it obviously increases your blood sugar levels, making you feel happy and full of energy. This is only short term however, and you then suffer the crash we all know. This is even worse if you have caffeine filled drinks by the way.
Sweeteners like aspartame (I think this may be banned in the USA), sucralose and saccharin have all been shown to increase your blood sugar levels too. For artificial sweeteners like aspartame, this seems crazy - it's not sugar, so how is it doing this?
From reading some scientific papers (nicely summarised in Scientific American here), all of the above sweeteners have been shown to increase the risk of mice becoming diabetic or obese. Research suggests this is because of the bacteria in your gut (known as the microbiome) - sweeteners change the population of bacteria to that which more efficiently extract energy from food and convert that energy into fat.
Furthermore, it has been shown in a study that people taking (a daily safe level) of saccharin for a week (when previously they had not been consuming it), dramatically increased their blood sugar level (I watched this on a good BBC programme called "Trust me I'm a doctor" and here's their report on their findings). Having consistently high blood sugar levels can itself be indicative of diabetes, so this is definitely not a good thing! To all of the patients whose blood sugar level significantly increased, they all had a change in their gut bacteria. All of this made me want to quit sweeteners for good!
So, although there are no calories in sweeteners, these blood sugar level fluctutations may firstly cause bad sugar cravings, but also your gut may be changing to end up storing more fat than if you had actually had a sugary sweet!
I tested this myself accidentally. I'm a scientist and was helping students do a practical all about blood sugar control. The group was split into two - one half drank a sugary drink, another had water. To show the group how to use the glucose meter, I tested myself. Twenty minutes previously I had drunk a low sugar hot chocolate, containing a whole lot of aspartame. Lo- and behold, my blood glucose level was really high, as if I'd had a spoonful of sugar.
So if you can, drink water. If you live in the south of the UK, sorry guys...(they have super hard water, which makes the tea much worse than in the north! Just saying...). Filtered water is great if you don't like the taste of tap water, and there is research to suggest drinking filtered water is better than tap (not that I believe it entirely - I may write about it in a future post...)
There is one sweetener I turn to when the sugar cravings are high but I don't want to give in. Stevia is a natural sweetener, and all research on it has deemed that it doesn't cause these peaks in blood sugar - this was tested in the same study as the saccharin one mentioned above, and there was no change in blood sugar or gut bacteria following stevia consumption. It has however not been around that long for the majority of us, meaning a lot more research needs to be done. It could be too good to be true, if you get a nice brand (some have an odd aftertaste - my favourite is Truvia), you can have sweet coffee or tea, and not worry about having sugar crashes.
|My favourite brand of stevia to use in baking|
I stopped eating/drinking other sweeteners (wherever possible) since I read the research about them - so I switched to stevia 6 months ago, and very rarely drink sugar-free drinks (i.e. artificial sweetener filled ones). I drink water and coconut water instead. To my massive surprise, I have had some real benefits - I used to have a very sensitive stomach, I had become lactose intolerant and couldn't really handle any fatty foods. Now however, milk never sets me off (though I still have to be careful with high fat dairy products), and the number of times I've needed to lie down with a hot water bottle on my stomach drinking peppermint tea has decreased dramatically.
So yay! My stomach's all better (95% of the time), and although I still would like to eat less cake, I feel like my sugar cravings are far better than they used to be. Meaning that when I am trying to tone up (for my climbing or marathon training), I am actually toning up. That's the other benefit of cutting out the cordial and artificial sweeteners - water retention stopped being an issue.
So I love that I now don't consume artificial sweeteners, and am still hopeful about stevia as an alternative. What about you guys? What's the press like in the USA or in other countries about sweeteners?
Also, if you are diabetic, make sure to talk to your doctor before making any major decisions based on what I've written :) I'm not a doctor, just a curious scientist :)