One of the best things you can do to keep your teeth and gums healthy is to limit sugars and other refined carbs while eating more nutrient-dense whole foods. In fact, research suggests that this alone may be enough to reverse gum disease, even if no other changes are made (such as better oral hygiene).
But human beings are hardwired to prefer sweetness – a taste that signals an easy form of energy. That served humans well thousands of years ago, when sweet foods were harder to come by. In our current environment, where sugar is everywhere, it sets us up for a host of health troubles: obesity, diabetes, and other chronic inflammatory conditions – not to mention cavities and tooth decay.
Unfortunately, artificial sweeteners such as aspartame, sucralose, and Ace-K cause their own problems and don’t necessarily solve all of those linked to sugar. For instance, some research suggests that, just like sugar, they can fuel chronic inflammation, leading to joint pain and other issues (including TMJ pain, which is why those with TMJ disorders are encouraged to follow an anti-inflammatory diet as part of their treatment).
And that brings us to a new study of these sugar substitutes, published late last month in PLOS Medicine. Specifically, it looked at the connection between synthetic sweetener use and cancer risk.
A group of researchers analyzed data from 102,865 adults who took part in a long-term French research initiative called NutriNet-Santé. They found that those who consumed more chemical sugar substitutes such as aspartame were more at risk for all types of cancer.
Aspartame was linked with a 22% greater risk of breast cancer. It was also linked to a 15% greater risk of cancers related to obesity (a collection of cancers with an elevated risk among all synthetic sweetener use).
While this study – like any study – has its limitations, it also confirms what some earlier research has shown.
It also might motivate some folks to go back to sugar – perhaps one of the “healthier” options such as local honey, molasses, agave, or various fruit purees. This is an okay option so long as you use them sparingly. Sugar is sugar, after all. Too much just isn’t good.
How much is too much? With respect to oral health, not very much at all. One study found that to prevent oral disease, you should get no more than 3% of your daily calories from added sugars.
To put that into perspective, let’s say you eat about 2000 total calories each day. Three percent is 60 calories, and that translates to just 15 grams of added sugar. That’s less than one-quarter of a 20 ounce bottle of Coke, a little more than half of a regular size Snickers bar, a tiny bit less than a single cherry Pop-Tart.
In other words: Not very much at all.
Fortunately, there are a few good zero-calorie sweeteners out there that can be good replacements for sugar and synthetic sweeteners alike.
Sugar alcohols are one option, but xylitol and erythritol are both especially good as they have been shown to actually prevent tooth decay, appearing to inhibit biofilm (plaque) formation. While sugar alcohols like these can cause some gastrointestinal woes if you ingest too much, you would have to quickly eat much more than you’d probably be comfortable eating to get to that point.
Another option is stevia, a plant-derived sweetener that’s hundreds of times sweeter than sugar, so you only ever need to use a small amount. Just be sure you read labels carefully, as some products are actually mixed with other ingredients. This is especially the case with powdered stevia. Stevia in the Raw, for instance – which you would think would be nothing but plain stevia – also contains dextrose (a simple sugar, chemically identical to glucose) derived from corn (most likely GMO, since the product isn’t labeled as organic). Instead, opt for 100% pure stevia extract or liquid stevia. You’ll find more buying tips and other info about this sweetener in this article by Dr. Axe.
Monk fruit is a third option. Derived from a small Asian fruit, it’s 150 to 200 times sweeter than sugar yet, like stevia and sugar alcohols, has no calories, as the body doesn’t metabolize it as sugar, excreting most of it before it can be absorbed. Monk fruit extract is simply blended with other ingredients – often, erythritol, sometimes stevia or other ingredients – to make it into an easy-to-use powdered form. So as with stevia, read labels carefully so you know what you’re getting. This site offers a good guide to help sort through all the options available.
Bottom line? Healthful eating doesn’t mean you have to forego every sweet. It does mean enjoying that which occurs in foods naturally, choosing the better alternatives to added sugar, and taking it easy so your palate doesn’t continually crave sweetness. Variety is the spice of life, after all…