Keep It Simple: Why we Avoid Non-Nutritive Sweeteners, Additives, and Dyes
Art by: Mitevol
We are only being honest to say that just about everything has changed concerning human food consumption as compared to our nomadic ancestors– lest the standing truth that all energy on earth comes from the sun. We digress, running on a system hundreds of thousands of years in the making, the commercial and industrial revolution has absolutely outrun our bodies’ evolution. What this means is the way our food is packaged, preserved, altered and managed can bring some new chemistry to the table that our body and metabolism are not exactly equipped to handle. But, Hey! It's not all bad, many of our current food practices have allowed us to avoid food borne illness, extend shelf life, and provide energy rich foods to support the development of our big-ol’-brains. That said, here at Skratch we like to keep it simple, leaving out any of the unnecessary chemistry. That’s why we avoid non-nutritive sweeteners, food dyes, and added preservatives.
Non-nutritive sweeteners have been around for over 100 years, and they come in many different structures. These are the different packets you would find on the table at your favorite breakfast joint- Equal, Sweet n’ Low, and Splenda. Stevia and Monk fruit, although coming from a plant and not marked as “artificial” on packaging, are also considered non-nutritive sweeteners (NNS). What these NNS have in common is zero (or markedly reduced) calories as compared to table sugar (sucrose). NNS have become popular in recent years with the hope that sweet taste combined with no calories would help to manage weight gain and diabetes. In turn, there is a lot of fear mongering around sugar going around.
There is a lot of controversy about sugar in our diet. While we don’t disagree that an excess of anything is not great for us, we do believe that the role that sugar plays in health and performance (not to mention, joy) is about context. In the context of an active lifestyle and more specifically during prolonged or very intense exercise, sugar can be critical to helping to maintain one’s blood sugar, to keeping oneself fueled, and along with sodium can significantly improve the transport of water into the body.
Here’s our piece: our bodies were engineered to handle sugar. In fact, even metabolic pathways using fat and protein for energy end up converting those materials to glucose before they are shuttled through your cells’ power plant organelles. Sugar (or glucose) is ultimately the fuel that our body uses, and more specifically, the primary source of fuel for our brain, nervous system, and red blood cells. What’s more, we at Skratch provide fuel. That means sugar is calories, and calories are work, and work is hauling it up a huge hill or finishing up a big project at the office. Providing products with NNS would directly oppose our goal to fuel our people!
What’s more, NNS have been implicated in many studies as a major player in metabolic dysregulation and other health consequences 1,4,11,12,14,15,17 . While more studies are needed to yield more conclusive results in humans, there is serious biochemical evidence to support damning claims. The hormonal and intestinal response to handling carbohydrates goes beyond having sugar in your blood. In fact, there are mechanisms that anticipate a glucose load before the food even hits your stomach. NNS are able to bind the sweet- taste receptors T1R2 and T1R3 which can raise incretins (which stimulate insulin release and favor fat deposition) as well as prematurely raise insulin itself 1,7,9,11,14,15 . Spiking insulin, especially when exercising, could turn your body toward build mode, when you should be burning! When eating real sugar, the sweet receptor response helps maintain energy balance and prepare the body for food, but when no energy is coming in, your body becomes dysregulated. In fact, animals fed a high NNS diet were less able to handle a real-sugar load and exhibit hyperglycemia 9. Beyond this, the microbes in your gut love to munch sugar. As NNS are not absorbed, they often sit in the lumen of the gut where many of these bacteria live. NNS have been shown to disrupt the gut microbiome of consumers17, leading to a less diverse set of good- bacteria, which has been linked to metabolic syndrome and dysregulation as well as poor performance 2,5.
We are not saying NNS are going to kill you, or totally ruin your next big event. We are just saying we like to keep it simple, and want to give you the permission to eat sugar and not look back.
Artificial dyes have been used to enhance the color of foods that would normally be colorless or would lose color sitting on store shelves. These chemical dyes have been used in chips, candies, pastries, and even salad dressings, fruits, and vegetables.
Many of these common dyes are banned in countries around the world due to their links to behavioral disorders in children and developments of certain cancers 10. However, in the US, many of these dyes are permitted for use in certain amounts as stated by the FDA.
Despite FDA allowance, we try to avoid these for a number of reasons. Some dyes cannot be absorbed and remain in the gut, leading to GI distress and watery stools. Others have been shown to cause constipation in animals 16. Food dyes have also been shown to activate the immune system: recognized as foreign by the body, many may cause unnecessary inflammation. For example, a yellow food dye has been linked to significant gut inflammation and recruitment of immune cells in humans 6, which is connected to mood, performance, and an unhealthy microbiome 2,5.
While more studies should tease out specific effects here, we have decided to take a “come as you are” approach, and don’t feel the need to artificially enhance the look of our products, placing taste as our chief concern.
Food preservation has been an important part of society for centuries. Food preservatives range from simple household ingredients like salt and vinegar to chemicals like nitrates/nitrites, sodium benzoate and benzenes, and sulphates/sulfur dioxide. While the latter additives are successful in prolonging shelf life as well as eliciting antimicrobial effects, many of these substances have shown to be carcinogenic when reacting with bodily substances (for example, Vitamin C and benzene) 13 . Moreover, as with food dyes, many common preservatives have shown to elicit allergic reactions in consumers as the immune system identifies them as foreign 3,13. We don’t use any added preservatives in our products other than citric acid (from cane sugar) and salt, so it’s one less thing to worry about.
Additives and Absorption
One of our main considerations in developing our sports drink was to make a readily available product to be absorbed by the gut. One way to enhance this absorption is to control the osmolality of our solution.
Osmolality refers basically to the number of molecules dissolved in one kg of fluid. This term is used to describe any bodily fluid or aqueous solution (meaning solutes in water). When comparing two vessels of solution separated by a membrane, water and solutes will flow from an area of high concentration to an area of low concentration.
If a sports drink is more concentrated than blood, there will be difficulty absorbing the necessary nutrients. Conversely, if the drink is less concentrated than blood, solutes and some water can freely flow into the body to be utilized. For this reason, it's important to aim for a drink of equal or lesser concentration than blood. To learn more on the science behind this head to our blog, Hydration Science and Practice.
Food additives such as food dye, preservatives, and NNS can increase the osmolarity of the consumed beverage which can impair absorption. This, in conjunction with cited inflammatory effects of these additives make for products that fall short of keeping you hydrated and fueled to your full potential, even on your hardest day.
All in All
Many food additives have all been cited to be associated with deleterious metabolic and inflammatory effects 1,3,4,6-17 . That said, we don’t ever want to promote fear around food. Despite what we have noted here, consumption of these food additives is often unavoidable, and restricting everything you do around these recommendations may take some of the joy out of your life.