Sugar is one of the biggest challenges in maintaining good oral health. Sugar fuels the oral bacteria that cause cavities and gum disease. But it’s also everywhere in our modern diets.
Even if you can can control your sugar cravings, your efforts to avoid sugar can be undone by the hidden sugars in many foods you wouldn’t expect. Because of the numerous places where sugar is hidden, Americans eat an average of 130 pounds of sugar every year!
But it seems unlikely that we’ll be able to quit sugar cold turkey. Although a few people are trying, the results show that it’s unlikely to catch on because people have grown used to the taste of sugar in all these places. In order to really avoid sugar and its dangers, we will likely need something to take its place. Unfortunately, acceptable sugar substitutes have turned out to be very difficult to find for a complex of reasons.
The Right Taste
One of the problems with sugar substitutes that have been developed is that they don’t taste quite right. Most of them have a bitter aftertaste that makes them undesirable for many people. The bitter aftertaste often has metallic overtones or gives a chemical taste to food that people dislike.
The other problem is that the artificial sweeteners can actually be too sweet, which throws people off.
There have been many attempts to make a sugar substitute, but despite all the research, it has proven impossible to eliminate the bad taste. For stevia sweeteners, researchers sorted through all the 40 different sweetening compounds in the stevia leaf, trying to figure out which ones gave the most sweetness with the least bitterness, but it turned out that both aspects of taste worked together.
The Right Texture
Another challenge in finding a substitute for sugar is getting the texture right. Sugar has properties that allow it to increase the viscosity of fluids. You can tell the mouthfeel of sugar from that of artificial sweeteners. The lack of mouthfeel is part of what contributes to the sense that artificial sweeteners are too sweet–it’s a disparity that trips a trigger in the brain to show us that something’s not right.
Another problem is cooking with sugar substitutes. Sugar’s ability to bind moisture helps the texture of baked goods, and when you’re looking to caramelize a sauce, you generally have to use some kind of sugar. People who advertise “sugar free” caramels typically rely on another natural sugar (e.g. palm sugar, maple syrup) that may masquerade as being different, but it’s really the same.
There are also persistent concerns that artificial sweeteners may be unhealthy. They have been dogged with health concerns since they were first introduced. Although some people assert the overall safety record of artificial sweeteners, it is hard to ignore the periodic studies that pop up showing that one or another of these sweeteners is connected with cancer. Even when, for example, you might have to eat 90 packets a day of an artificial sweetener to experience risk, that cumulative risk makes people uneasy.
When you combine the studies with the inherently “artificial” taste of the sweeteners, many people will just want to steer clear of the substitutes.
We Are Made for Sugar
In the end, there may not be any good way to develop a sugar substitute that completely fills our need for sweetness. That’s in part because hundreds of millions of years of vertebrate evolution have refined our tastes to distinguish true sugar from all the near sugar substitutes that are present in the world. It’s by design that we’re drawn to the calories, because our taste is supposed to direct us to food that is nutritive. Foods that mimic part of the taste but didn’t provide the calories could have literally been fatal at various points in our evolution, so we’ve learned to tell the difference.
While we may never be able to find a suitable substitute for sugar, it’s unlikely that food companies will stop trying. And it’s even more unlikely that we’ll stop craving sugar completely. So we’ll have to deal with the consequences of having sugar in our diet. Fortunately, if you make your regular dental visits, we can reduce those consequences in terms of cavities or gum disease.
If you are looking for a dentist who can help you maintain your oral health despite your sugar habit, please call (201) 343-4044 today for an appointment at River Edge Dental, New Jersey’s center for general & cosmetic dentistry.