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


  1. hair...really?! That's nuts. But, I'm not surprised. Local raw honey is my personal sweetener of choice, although I sure do love the taste of agave in my smoothies and my dessert of choice is air popped popcorn with peanut butter/maple syrup combination drizzled over - yeah, I know...you want some now, huh?!

    I've been doing research on xylitol and erythritol more recently and even though they claim these are very natural, I can't help but wonder the extensive processing they go through (just as refined white sugar).

    great topic!

  2. I can't even imagine what that ingredient was??? Human hair-really? I like your list of suggestions to avoid artificial sweeteners. I always sub out sugar and use agave or honey. Water is my drink of choice. I agree with you-avoidance is the healthiest choice.

  3. Thanks for visiting my blog. I always learn lots about easy ways to be healthy and green from reading your blog. You are doing a great job of sharing information.

    I'm off to find your followers button so I won't miss a post.

  4. Both! I buy organic food, make most food from scratch and if I want soda I go for natural sodas in glass bottles or more often I make my own using my SodaStream.

  5. Lori and Nisha, it's true. I wish my sister could remember the exact ingredient. Maybe it was this: L-cysteine. That's what I came up with when I googled food ingredient derived from human hair. Apparently they can make that one other ways too (pig hooves, etc.). Apparently, a common dough conditioner.

    Thanks, Jessica!

    Lisa, I love the idea of making your own soda. Personally, I never could handle carbonation, but for the soda lovers out there, a great option.

  6. Betsy: We love it. I even found soda flavor mixes that are natural and made in the US and are in glass at William Sonoma.

    It's also great because you can add just as much carbonation as you want. I make some for my MIL and she can't handle a lot of carbonation so I just lightly carbonate her's.

  7. That hair story is so disgusting!
    My biggest issue with soda is that it doesn't actually quench my thirst, it just makes me thirstier. I'm all for a tall glass of ice water.

  8. Jessica, I don't have a followers widget, but you can subscribe by RSS feed (in the top of my right sidebar).

  9. Just a clarification from your vegan sister... L-cysteine, which is found in many store-bought white breads (good sourdough or Grandma Sycamore being exceptions) is not always made from human hair. Many sources say it can be made from human hair, chicken or duck feathers, or other ingredients often used to make gelatin, and that the source usually depends on the country of origin (meaning you won't know unless you call each company and ask). So people who don't have issue eating gelatin may not find issue with eating L-cysteine.

    Vegetarian Resource Group (VRG) has a good explanation of L-cysteine.
    VRG says that synthetic sources are available, but are used less frequently because of their expense (although this may change over time as consumers call companies and tell them they don't want to eat human hair or chicken or duck feathers).

    Wikipedia says "L-Cysteine was once obtained industrially by hydrolysis of hair and keratin. The main contemporary route involves fermentation utilizing a mutant of E. coli. Wacker Chemie introduced a route from substituted thiazolines. Following this technology, L-cysteine is produced by the hydrolysis of racemic 2-amino-Δ2-thiazoline-4-carboxylic acid using Pseudomonas thiazolinophilum." HUH?!?! So maybe E.coli instead of animal hair. What a relief! The point is, I don't feel I should have to RESEARCH every ingredient in my food. Why are there ingredients in there that no one can pronounce?

    L-cyteine has long been on our list of to-avoid "ingredients" (or "food stuff" as my sister-in-law calls non-food in food), which is why we almost exclusively eat homemade wheat/flax bread at our house. My kids consider Grandma Sycamore white bread (mostly air and probably nutritionally void) a dessert or treat.

  10. Thanks, Natalie. The point, IMO, is that if your food contains L-Cysteine, you don't really know (unless you call the manufacturer and also trust that they can accurately tell you the derivation, which I doubt they can) whether it's derived from human hair, chicken or duck feathers, E. coli or something else. Still disturbing in my book. Personally, I would never have guessed that ANY food ingredient was EVER derived from human hair. One site I said they used to sweep up hair from Chinese salons to use. I mean, who thinks of this stuff?

    Isn't it fun to be vegan? (I'm not vegan, by the way.) Vegans were aware of the weirdness of many processed food ingredients long before the rest of us. This is the mixed blessing of having special dietary needs -- you actually bother to research what your food is made of. I think parents whose kids have allergies also find this to be true.

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