Iced Tea

Sweetness and Light, Bias and Fear

Canada's Food GuideCanada’s latest dietary guidelines make it clear. Cut the sugar. Avoid any other sweeteners. Water should be what you’re drinking. And also, enjoy your food. Dietary guideline writers don’t have much of a taste for sweetness these days. But humans do.

How shall we cope?

The Rising Bias Against Sweeteners

The prevailing bias holds that sweeteners are bad for you. Sugar is toxic, says a devoted group of crusaders. On top of that, a long trail of observational studies has created a strong bias of familiarity against low calorie sweeteners. By beating a correlation to death, repetitive studies have convinced many people that sweeteners must be bad for us. And thus the Canadian Food guide tells us to avoid all sweeteners.

This bias flies in the face of both human nature and a critical analysis of the data. Humans have an innate and universal preference for sweet foods. Telling people to cut it out won’t change that.

On top of that, recent research confirms a perfectly reasonable proposition. Not all sweeteners are the same. In a 12-week RCT, researchers found significant differences among sugar, saccharin, sucralose, aspartame, and a sweetener in stevia – rebaudioside A. Subjects in each different arm of the trial drank beverages sweetened with one of these sweeteners.

People who drank beverages sweetened with sugar or saccharin gained weight. The others did not. In the sucralose group, the average weight was significantly lower after 12 weeks than for all other subjects receiving low calorie sweeteners. People in the sucralose group also consumed fewer total calories during the trial. Different sweeteners have different effects on people and their weight.

Differences in U.S. and Canadian Guidance

The Canadian guidance to avoid all sweeteners is new. It’s part of the 2018 edition of Canada’s Food Guide. Current U.S. guidelines tell us that sugar substitutes may help some people reduce the calories they consume, though questions remain about their effectiveness for weight management.

A new edition of the U.S. guidelines is due in 2020. No doubt they will caution people about consuming too much added sugar. They might even add further caution about other sweeteners. But they will be skating on rather thin evidence.

“That it will never come again is what makes life sweet.” – Emily Dickinson

Click here for another perspective on U.S. and Canadian guidance about sweeteners. For the RCT of different effects for different sweeteners, click here.

Iced Tea, photograph © Steven Depolo / flickr

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June 4, 2019

2 Responses to “Sweetness and Light, Bias and Fear”

  1. June 04, 2019 at 5:41 pm, Mary-jo said:

    In initial dietary guidelines, writers were focused on low-fat, fat-free, avoid fats as much as possible. In the most recent renditions, sugar and sweet are recommended to be avoided like the plague. Writers seem to be reactive to arguments and research de rigeur. I’m hopeful. In next iterations, perhaps, ‘balance’ will finally prevail.

  2. June 04, 2019 at 6:11 pm, Ted said:

    Amen, Mary-Jo!