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    Sharing Information on Non-Sugar Sweeteners and Ultra-Processed Foods

    by Ngozi Osuagwu, MD | June 4th, 2023

    Sharing Information on Non-Sugar Sweeteners and Ultra-Processed Foods

    Two headlines caught my attention, and I knew I wanted to read more and share the information with you. I heard about the World Health Organization’s (WHO) report on non-sugar sweeteners when listening to the evening news and the information on ultra-processed food while tuning into National Public Radio (NPR) while driving to work.

    World Health Organization’s (WHO) advises not to use non-sugar sweeteners for weight control in newly released guidelines

    I have never been a big fan of diet drinks. It stemmed from drinking diet soda when I was in medical school. I was gaining weight and decided that if I switched to diet drinks, I would lose weight. I started getting headaches in medical school. I thought it was due to the stress of school. It took a while, and with my course in pharmacology, I realized the aspartame in the diet drink was causing the headaches. I stopped drinking diet drinks and taking low-calorie food with no sugar. I also did not lose weight. Since then, many studies have linked artificial sweeteners to health problems.

    The World Health Organization (WHO) reviewed 283 research papers, and the conclusion is that non-sugar sweeteners may result in weight loss in the short term, but if you plan to use non-sugar sweeteners regularly for a long time, they are not good. It can lead to weight gain, type 2 diabetes, and heart disease. The bottom line is that unless there is a medical reason why you would be using non-sugar sweeteners, I would not use non-sugar sweeteners, and I would not eat any food that contains them.

    Non-sugar sweeteners include all artificial sweeteners and natural non-caloric sweeteners. They include Acesulfame K, Advantame, Aspartame, Cyclamate, Neotame, Saccharin, Steviol glycosides, and Sucralose. There are also sugar alcohols, which were not included in the study. Foods claiming to be no-calories, zero-calories, or no sugars, usually have non-sugar sweeteners. I would read the labels and see if they contain these non-sugar sweeteners and AVOID those foods.

    Ultra-processed food comprised 67% of the calories in kids’ and teens’ diets.

    When growing up, I always had a cooked meal. My parents believed going out was a waste of money. They splurged for my 8th-grade graduation, and we all went to a restaurant. We never went out again. We got food poisoning the next day, and you know how the rest of the story goes. When I heard ultra-processed food makes up a whopping 67% of the calories in kids’ and teens’ diets, I thought back to my childhood and appreciated my parents’ efforts always to have cooked meals.

    The NPR news discussed the following – ultra-processed foods are quick, convenient, ready-to-heat meals and packaged snacks. They are industrially formulated products mostly from ingredients extracted from refined foods. They are usually high in fat, added sugars, and salt. These foods often contain additives like colorings, flavorings, emulsifiers, or hydrogenated oils that transform food’s texture, looks, and flavor.

    Adults eating ultra-processed foods are at increased risk of hypertension, obesity, Type 2 diabetes, some cancers, and dying prematurely. Kids are at increased risk of weight gain and higher cholesterol levels. It is best to reduce the amount of ultra-processed food while they are young. Remember, kids will eventually become adults.

    What can we all do to decrease the amount of ultra-processed foods? Here are some suggestions:

    Learn to recognize ultra-processed foods.  You know the definition – see if it is packaged. It is ultra-processed.

    Beware of sneaky added sugars. Added sugars go by the following names – brown sugar, corn syrup, dextrose, and high-fructose corn syrup. Do not worry about the natural sugars in foods like fruits and dairy.

    Check the nutrition facts labels. Read the food labels. Know what is going into your body. A rule is to limit your packaged foods to those with six or fewer ingredients.

    Look for less-processed options with this database. There is an online database called True Food created by Northeastern University. Foods are scored from 0 (unprocessed or minimally processed) to 100 (highly ultra-processed)

    Fill your plates with fruits and vegetables. If you cannot get fresh, then frozen or canned will work. Regarding canned, you might have to wash off the syrup from the fruits and the salt from the vegetables.

    When shopping in the grocery store, avoid the middle aisles. The perimeter of the store has unprocessed or minimally processed foods.

    Use shortcuts to cook at home.  I know I usually do most of my food prep on Sunday. Click here for information on quick meals you can make.

    Do not try to be perfect. Aim for the 80/20 rule. Make an effort to be mindful of what you eat 80% of the time, and then 20% of the time, have fun with food. One day you 90/10.

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