When I decided sugar was no longer going to be part of my life, I went cold turkey on it. Well, actually I didn’t. I did indeed stop eating (and more particularly in my case, drinking) sugar, but I couldn’t bring myself to pay good money for a bottle of water instead of my traditional Pepsi (or 6) a day.
I switched to Pepsi Max because it was the one that tasted (to me) the most like sugar. I didn’t make this decision based on science. I couldn’t find any that conclusively proved that sugar was addictive (this was 2004) let alone that substituting sucralose (the active ingredient in Pepsi Max) was any less addictive.
I just knew that I had to stop drinking sugar but that I just couldn’t get out of the habit of wanting a sweet drink, so Pepsi Max it was.
What I found was that swigging the Pepsi Max was only partially satisfying. It did nothing for how dreadful I was feeling – I was in the depths of sugar withdrawal and had the whole works -headaches, hunger and cravings. But what it did do was satisfy the habit part of my addiction. I was in the habit of having a sweet drink whenever I spotted a vending machine or when relaxing on a hot day. The ‘Max took care of the habit part of things.
I could still have my sweet drink as per my habit. It was nowhere near as satisfying, but it was enough to get me through withdrawal. The habit kept going, but it didn’t make me consume fructose. After the withdrawal period ended, the habit itself slowly died. The ‘Max started tasting more and more metallic as my previously fructose-blasted taste buds returned to working order. After about two months, I just switched to water when I was thirsty. And by then, the water was actually more refreshing than the (by then) strange tasting ‘Max.
So for me at least, I didn’t trade one addiction for another. The substitute was not addictive, despite what some particularly excitable websites maintained. But gee, it would have been nice to have some science to point to before suggesting my experiment was able to be generalised.
A great little experiment would be to get a group of people and remove their tongues (so you could be certain it wasn’t the sweet taste that was stimulating the dopamine response). Then give them unlimited access to solutions which were either sugar or sucralose based and note if they developed a preference for either (while measuring the dopamine levels).
Well the good news is that some researchers at Duke University in North Carolina have done just that. Ok they chickened out on the tongue removing thing and preferred mice over men, but they did manage to obtain a breed of mice that were genetically unable to taste anything. And guess what – they did in fact develop an addiction to the sugar solution but not the sucralose solution, even though (to them), they both tasted like water.
For me this study confirms that you can safely substitute (at least one) artificial sweetener(s) for sugar to help overcome habit driven access to sugar (see Part 4). Reassuringly, this backs up my own experience. But with the good news comes a caution. Not all artificial sweeteners are created equal.
Some of them follow exactly the same metabolic pathways as fructose and are therefore likely to be just as addictive. Some may not be addictive but do damage in other ways. In fact I can’t rule any out of the ones in this category altogether but there are some which I can definitely say should be avoided.
To help navigate the minefield, I’ve prepared some lists (as always, these are qualified by the weasel words to the effect that this is what I think the science supports at the moment, but it may be subject to new news):
Not addictive and not damaging (but also not sweet until you have broken your addiction):
Probably not addictive but possibly damaging in other ways (your best bet for substitution to break habits if glucose tastes bland to you):
- Acesulphame potassium (#950)
- Alitame (#956)
- Aspartame (#951)
- Aspartame-acesuphame (#962)
- Cyclamates (#952)
- Erythritol (#968)
- Neotame (#961)
- Saccharin (#954)
- Stevia (#960)
- Sucralose (#955)
- Thaumatin (#957)
- Xylitol (#967)
Probably not addictive but definitely damaging in other ways (see post on inulins):
- Wheat dextrin
Likely to be just as addictive as sugar (and therefore to be completely avoided):
- Agave Syrup
- Corn Syrup
- Fruit Juice Extract
- Fruit Sugar
- Golden Syrup
- High Fructose Corn Syrup
- Isomalt (#953)
- Lactitol (#966)
- Maltitol (#965)
- Mannitol (#421)
- Maple Syrup
- Sorbitol (#420)
- And, of course, Sucrose
Next Week – How to start withdrawal.