Why the War on Sweet?

By Keith Ayoob, EdD, RDN, FADN —

October 23, 2020 — I don’t mean sugar, or what we think of as “sweets”, like pastries, candy, cookies, and the like.  I mean the entire phenomenon of sweet taste.

Sugar per se, including white sugar, brown sugar, honey, corn syrup, and all the sugar equivalents like dextrose, glucose, etc., seems to have become the new trans-fat, meaning that there’s nothing good about them. 

The “keto” craze takes it to the max, demonizing carbohydrates in general, but in all low-carb diets added sugar is the first thing to go.  Any of the popular, dare I say, “fad”, diets also demonize sugar. 

The “culture of sweet” seems to have changed, such that even having a fondness of sweetness is frowned upon.  Watch a judged cooking series (other than those specifically about desserts) for very long and you’ll often find a chef on the panel who claims he’s “not really a sweets guy, I’m a savory guy,” or something similar. 

When sweets are eaten, they must be enjoyed with guilt:  a delicious dessert is “sinful” or it tastes so good it “should be illegal.”  Sweetened beverages have taken much of the criticism in the war on sweetness.  Merely mention soda and people not only wince, but feel righteous about saying they never drink soda and would never allow their kids to drink them. 

Sugar: We’re Eating Less

In 1999, we ate an average of 90.2 pounds of sugar per year As of 2017, we reduced this to 75 pounds per year, or about 373 calories per day.  Better, but still too high.

The 2015-20 US Dietary Guidelines for Americans recommended having no more than 10% of our total calories from added sugars, or about 200 calories in the 2000-calorie reference diet.  The Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee recently submitted their recommendations for the 2020-2025 US Dietary Guidelines and took things to the next level and lowered the recommendation to 6% of total calories, about 120 calories per day in the reference diet. 

This calls for a drastic reduction from current consumption.  Basically, one 12-oz soda and it’s over.  No sugar in your coffee or tea, definitely no sweet desserts.  Clearly, careful “spending” of sugar calories is required. 

It’s About More Than Sugar

Despite their lack of calories, LNCS haven’t escaped the evil eye in the war on sweet, even though most LNCS are, dietetically, calorie-free.  A recent article in the New York Times pointed out that LNCS have not been able to solve the obesity crisis, and that more LNCS options have accompanied a continued rise in obesity rates.

This “association” makes no sense because no single intervention should be held responsible for solving the obesity crisis.  LNCS were intended to be a tool for use by anyone wanting less added sugars in their diets, regardless of weight status. This might be an overweight person, a person living with diabetes, ora healthy-weight consumer who would simply like some variety in their choices of beverages and foods but with less added sugar.   

Bottom line: LNCS are a tool.  All tools have to be used judiciously and with purpose.  They can help eliminate excesses of added sugar, but not excesses of total calories if other areas of the diet are providing that excess.  Using them to cut back on added sugar will not help your waistline if you overeat in other areas of the diet or are not also more physically active.

On the other hand, LNCS can be a safe and useful tool to help you cut your intake of added sugars down to the recommended maximum of 6% of total calories.  They can also help you enjoy nutrient-rich foods like sweetened yogurt with less added sugar.  Years of robust research has shown them to be safe and beneficial for helping people improve their diet quality.   

As for worrying that the use of LNCS will “dumb-down” your taste buds and having you wanting sweeter and sweeter foods, relax and try this test: Can you still eat a piece of fresh fruit or a fruit salad without wanting it sweeter?  Do you still willingly drink water?  If your answer is “yes”, then your taste buds are fine.  If you answered “no”, then you taste buds may need a reset.  Keep in mind however, that even persons who prefer foods that are more savory than sweet can have “dumbed-down” taste buds and need some healthy moderation.

Keith Ayoob, EdD, RDN, FADN, is an Associate Clinical Professor Emeritus at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine. As a pediatric nutritionist and registered dietitian, Dr. Ayoob is also a past national spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. Dr. Ayoob is a consultant with the Calorie Control Council Advisory Board and the Global Stevia Institute (GSI), GSI is supported by PureCircle Ltd, a global leader in purified stevia leaf extract production.

faq2Do you have questions about low-calorie sweeteners? Want to learn more about maintaining a healthy lifestyle? You asked and we listened. Our resident Registered Dietitians answered the most popular questions about low-calorie sweeteners.