Alternative Sweeteners: Friend or Foe?

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Admit it – we’ve all been there, peacefully sipping our Diet Coke on our lunch break when our co-worker leans over and says, “I saw a show that said you can get brain cancer from drinking that stuff.  Not to scare you or anything, but I’m just saying”.  Slurp, slurp, slurp – HICCUP!  We have all been there…what do we do?  We don’t want to take undue risk from excessive chemicals in our food but we don’t want to be fat either!  Panic hits and all of a sudden we feel like we are back at square one – another modern day food Catch-22.

Soft drinks are only one type of food/beverage that artificial sweeteners have become mainstream in our diet.  Jolly Rancher candies, Ben & Jerry’s ice cream, Pillsbury brownie mixes, and Vlasic Bread & Butter pickles now can be purchased in “low-sugar” or “sugar-free” varieties thanks to aspartame, Splenda, and sugar alcohols replacing the infamous white crystals.  This has been good news for diabetics, dieters, and food distributors nation-wide, but it has also caused eyebrows to rise amongst nutritionists, concerned mothers, and talk-show hosts.  Endless books have been written, “60 Minutes” segments have aired nationally, and a plethora of bloggers have gone wild, fighting on both sides of the argument – “pro-sugar” or “con-sugar”.  If these substances have been FDA-approved, many ask, “How can they be harmful?”  Or on the converse, “how can they be FDA-approved if they may cause harm to a consumer’s health?”  Like many food items taken in excess or when combined incorrectly, they can cause detriment to vital processes.   For instance, cholesterol is necessary for the structure of cell membranes but too much, especially of the LDL variety is linked to heart disease.  In the case of artificial sweeteners, certain variations can prove detrimental for individuals with pre-existing conditions (i.e.: aspartame consumed by people who have phenylketonuria, aka PKU), even leading to seizures.  Less frightening consequences, but no less common, include acne, upset stomach, and bad aftertaste.

The record of controversy concerning the detrimental effects of soft drinks and other products using “fake sugars” could consume an entire library, and I am not going to debate that. The real issue here is how one can balance the risk versus benefit approach to use of alternative sweeteners in reducing sugar intake, either for the purpose of weight loss or blood sugar control.  Instead of coming outright and saying authoritatively that one is better than the other, I propose doing what any good teacher does (or should do) – give you knowledge.  What you choose to do with this knowledge is your own responsibility.   Hopefully your decision will be an educated one.

Studies in the past two decades showed a relationship between the consumption of artificial sweeteners and the development of cancer in rats.  These results led to an eruption of media hype and concern over the prevalence of these food items in America’s food market.  However, extensive research shows that this relationship is merely that, a relationship.  Specifically, in the European Journal of Oncology’s 2005 study entitled “Aspartame induces lymphomas and leukaemias in rats”, it was discovered that the mechanism in the bladder of a rat, where the cancer is found, is significantly different than that of a human.  Therefore, these findings are neither conclusive nor defined, especially in that of humans.  That being the case, the decision to consume or not to consume artificial or alternative sweeteners should NOT be based on this unfounded fear.  Rather, the intended use of the product, recommended maximum daily intake, and each individual’s experience of any side effects should be the determining factors.

Saccharin aka “Sweet’N’Low”

  • ADI (Acceptable Daily Intake) is 5mg/kg
  • Can be used in baking without compromising flavor.
  • 12 packets = 1 cup of sugar
  • Calorie-free; artificial product

Aspartame aka “Equal”

  • Made of aspartic acid and phenylalanine
  • Can be dangerous to people with phenylketonuria (PKU) – an inherited disease that prevents an individual from breaking down phenylalanine, causing it to build up which negatively impacts the central nervous system (that’s why you see on your Diet Coke bottle “Contains phenylalanine”).
  • ADI is 50 mg/kg; 14 cans of diet soda or 80 packets per day
  • Calorie-free; artificial product

Sucralose aka “Splenda”

  • Heat stable however not ideal for baking as it does not contribute the same structural properties of real sugar
  • ADI is 5mg/kg
  • Calorie-free; artificial product

Stevia aka “Truvia”

  • Made from South American shrub
  • Provides no energy – naturally calorie free!
  • FDA has only approved it as a dietary supplement; therefore food processors cannot yet use it in their products.
  • Heat stable and good for baking!
  • ADI is 12mg/kg

Honey aka “Pooh’s Nectar”

  • A natural food made by bees from the nectar of flowers.
  • Provides roughly 65 calories per tablespoon compared to white granulated sugars 50.  Before you sugar-fiends start torching poor Pooh, remember that white sugar contains no inherent health benefits while honey contains natural antioxidants, trace vitamins and minerals.  Plus, honey has been used for centuries in soothing sore throats and calming chest coughs – hot toddy anyone??
  • Heat stable, great for baking, sauces, desserts, and beverages!
  • Disclaimer – natural bacteria found in honey make it dangerous for infants younger than twelve months

Blue Agave or Agave Nectar

  • Derived from the agave plant in South Africa and Mexico– the same used in the production of tequila
  • Comparable to honey in its versatility and nutritional content, but 1.5 times sweeter, therefore requiring less.
  • Heat tolerant, but also its viscosity lends itself to being ideal in the use of sweetening beverages or your favorite morning oatmeal.  Interchangeable with sugar and honey in recipes

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At the end of the day, though, what consumers and dieters care about is cutting calories.  So the question has arisen – does switching to an alternative sweetener really work?  Does it really make that big of a difference?  Consider two of the following examples.

  1. It is 2pm, the sun is shining, and you’re on your way to Starbucks.  Normally you would like to get a Grande Caramel Frappuccino with whipped cream, but the prospect of getting in a swimsuit for Memorial Day Weekend has you thinking twice.  What about a Grande Light Caramel Frappuccino hold the whip?  Does it really make a difference?

Grande Caramel Frappuccino w. whipped cream

Grande Light Caramel Frappuccino w. no whipped cream

410 calories, 15g fat, and 64g sugar

140 calories, 0g fat, and 29g sugar

How do they do this?  It is amazing what switching from 2% to skim milk and using sugar-free syrups can do to a nutrition label.  All of a sudden, your 2pm excuse to get out of the office has you feeling a whole lot more virtuous.

2.  You’re a mom or babysitter who loves to be just like the commercial – at 3:45pm, the kids come running in, and you hand them a fresh chocolate-chip cookie with a glass of milk.  Now, while you personally may say “no” and opt for a Fig Newton, something in the back of your head is saying that maybe your kids would benefit from a little less sugar too.  But, will they complain about the taste being different?  And will it even matter?

Homemade Chocolate-Chip Cookie

Same Cookie recipe prepared with unsweetened applesauce and Truvia

136 calories, 8.4g fat, and 8.8g sugar

90 calories, 5.2g fat, 3.4g sugar

Applesauce actually increases tenderness of baked goods and the Truvia leaves no aftertaste, additionally calming any phobias of chemicals.  Happy and healthy kids – isn’t that what we all want?

“With great power comes great responsibility” – wisdom not just for super heroes.  I have given you knowledge, now you must choose wisely.

 

Credited Resource

Soffritti M, Belpoggi F, Espositi DD, Lambertini L. Aspartame induces lymphomas and leukaemias in rats.  European Journal of Oncology 2005; 10(2); 107-116.

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2 responses »

    • I also am a big fan of Stevia/Truvia. I use it in making simple syrups, baking, and dressing/marinades and it’s the best alternative I have used yet. I also hope that it continues to catch on since it doesn’t have the usual side effects that others can have.

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