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Which is Worse: Aspartame or High Fructose Corn Syrup?

Is the artificial sweetener aspartame bad for you?  The FDA and food industry think it is A-OK.  But some researchers have linked aspartme to cancer, neurological problems, and preterm delivery.  For me, it's really a non-issue whether government regulatory bodies and researchers ever reach a consensus on the safety of artificial sweeteners like aspartame.  As a general rule, I try to eat only food, not substances never found in nature that were synthesized in a laboratory (a.k.a. food additives).  This is surprisingly difficult if you shop in an American supermarket.  Lots of ingredients in processed foods fall into this food additives category: artificial colors, artificial flavors, preservatives, artificial sweeteners.  I avoid them all.

Somewhat related rant/ true story: my vegan sister has long been an avid ingredient reader.  She told me that recently she looked up an unfamiliar ingredient (L-cysteine) listed on a loaf of white bread at my mom's house to see if her kids could eat it.  The unfamiliar ingredient, she discovered, was derived from human hair.  So, as a vegan, she couldn't eat it (since humans are animals, after all).  But, seriously, what is that doing in a loaf of bread???  What I'm saying to you is, there are a lot of non-food ingredients in "food" these days.  Maybe the government thinks they are OK, and maybe researchers haven't found anything wrong with them (yet).  I think you should avoid them.

Are artificial sweeteners better than processed sugars such as refined white sugar and high fructose corn syrup?  To answer this question, let's consider another mind-boggling dilemma: trans fat or preservatives (both used to extend shelf life)?  I wouldn't spend too much time or energy deliberating over these questions.  To me, the answer is very simple, if not always easy.  Eat real food.  Avoid highly processed foods with no nutritional value (soda, Oreos, Cheetos, etc.).  Any time you spend in the grocery store aisle agonizing over whether to purchase diet or regular soda could be better spent learning to cook.  It's true that we should all be eating less processed sugar, but I don't think you are doing yourself any favors by eating artificial sweeteners instead.

Tips to Reduce Consumption of Processed Sugar 
(without artificial sweeteners)
  • Drink water.  If you skip the soda and other beverages, you save yourself oodles of money, calories, and massively reduce your consumption of sweeteners whether natural, refined or synthetic. 
  • Eat fruit when you crave something sweet, or as dessert after a meal.  This is what all those slim Europeans do.  Keep lots of fresh fruit in highly accessible locations in your kitchen all the time. 
  • Use sugary foods as special desserts instead of snacks throughout the day.  My goal is to eat dessert once a week (and fruit the rest of the time).
  • Make your own food.  If you buy packaged food, read the ingredient list carefully.  
  • If you make a recipe often, experiment with reducing (or eliminating) the sugar.  For example, you could probably cut 1/4 of the sugar in your cookie recipe without even noticing.
  • When you need to use a sweetener in a recipe, use a natural sweetener, like honey, agave, or maple syrup.  You may have heard that a calorie is a calorie, but your body processes different calories differently.  Refined sugar and high fructose corn syrup are not "natural," and I think it just makes sense that your body will be happier digesting foods that exist in nature and have been eaten for thousands of years, like honey and maple syrup.  When substituting one of these liquid sweeteners for sugar, remember to reduce the other liquid in your recipe.  Just this morning, I took my own advice and used 1T honey instead of 2T white sugar in my whole wheat pancakes.

What do you think, readers: Which is worse, artificial sweeteners or processed sugar?

And what are your best tips for avoiding BOTH?

Additional Resources

Photo credit: globochem3x1minus1