Curing the sweet tooth with sugar alternatives

Splenda is one of the many sugar substitutes available.

Sugar
– sometimes labeled as corn syrup, evaporated cane juice, etc. –
is a large part of the insatiable American diet and is found in
everything from canned fruit to fast food burgers to microwavable
dinners that are otherwise nutritious looking.
Sugar – sometimes labeled as corn syrup, evaporated cane juice, etc. – is a large part of the insatiable American diet and is found in everything from canned fruit to fast food burgers to microwavable dinners that are otherwise nutritious looking.

Not surprising, really. We are a nation driven by and addicted to tastes, and sugar is among the most tempting of all. As humans we’re programmed by our own body mechanics, destined to have a sweet tooth, according to reports from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.

But sugar is meant to be consumed in small doses, not at the tremendous rate that Americans partake at, an estimated 20 teaspoons per day. To cut this intake without sacrificing the satisfaction of their tastes, dieters, diabetics and those with dental issues have turned in increasing numbers to sugar substitutes.

“If you have a diet soda instead of a regular soda, you’ve just saved yourself 130 calories right there,” said Lynn Kjelson, a dietician at Hazel Hawkins Hospital in Hollister. “If you want to lose weight or keep your calories lower, it’s a good option because you’re not losing the tastes you like.”

Far from the simple sacchrin and aspartame combinations available a decade ago, today’s substitutes are sophisticated marvels of modern science, produced to taste, look and cook like natural sugars.

Types

Newcomer Splenda, first introduced in 1998, quickly took over the market and now dominates the $337 million retail market for sugar substitutes in the United States, according to reports published in the Chicago Sun-Times.

Tate & Lyle PLC, the world’s only manufacturer of Splenda’s main ingredient, sucralose, is so overwhelmed with orders that they will refuse new orders until their McIntosh, Ala. plant can double its production capacity in early 2006, according to a company press release.

Another sugar imitator called tagatose is already being used in the United States as an additive in Diet Pepsi slurpees and could soon be the only product capable of cracking Splenda’s edge .

PepsiCo is now exploring use of the sweetener as an additive for regular Diet Pepsi, according to a Wired Magazine report.

But tagatose’s creator, 79-year-old Gilbert Levin, wants to see the product in much larger distribution – chocolate, cookies, cakes and sugar bowls included.

History

The history of artificial sweeteners, like so many other inventions, is one of chance and dumb luck.

Discovered in 1879, saccharin is the patriarch of the artificial sweetening world.

At 300 times the sweetness of sugar, it came in handy during both world wars when rationing limited the amount of organic sugar on the market.

When Congress passed the Food Additives Amendment in 1958 (an addition to the Food, Drug and Cosmetic Act requiring FDA approval of all new food additives prior to market sales), the substance was given a free pass under a loophole for existing ingredients “generally recognized as safe,” or GRAS, according to the FDA publication “Sugar Substitutes: Americans opt for sweetness and lite.”

It wasn’t until the 1970s, when the FDA began reviews of GRAS substances that questions about the safety of saccharin began to arise.

Though FDA tests in the early years of the decade pronounced the product safe, studies in 1972 and 1973 linked high levels of saccharin to bladder cancer in rats. Later analysis suggested that impurities, not the saccharin itself, had caused the tumors, but researchers later doubled back on this finding, citing a 1977 report from Canada which stated saccharin was indeed the cause of the tumors.

The episode sparked urban myths that haunt the artificial sweetener industry to this day. Until 2002, products containing saccharin, generally sold under the name Sweet N’ Low, were required to bear a label acknowledging that the substance “has been determined to cause cancer in laboratory animals,” according to the FDA report.

The chemical’s effects on the human body are still debated. The reputation of artificial sweeteners was not helped by the 1937 discovery of cyclamate.

Discovered during research on a new anti-fever drug, the sweetening substance was later found to be carcinogenic. Another artificial sugar came along in 1965 when Jim Schlatter licked his finger to turn a page.

The chemist, working on what was supposed to be a gastric ulcer treatment, instead tasted aspartame, according to Wired Magazine reports.

Questions arising from research into saccharin have inadvertently tarnished the image of the chemical, sold under the names NutraSweet and Equal.

The subject of more than 100 studies, aspartame is still blamed for everything from Alzheimer’s disease to Gulf War syndrome, and much of the company’s online FAQ is devoted to debunking myths.

So far the only diagnosable problem associated with aspartame consumption is the rare genetic disorder known as phenylketonurics (PKU), in which subjects have an inability to process on of the sweetener’s key ingredients known as phenylalanine, according to the FDA.

All products containing aspartame carry a label that plainly states the chemical’s inclusion for just that reason. Sucralose faces none of these accusations… yet.

Today more than 144 million American adults consume low-calorie, sugar-free drinks and desserts on a regular basis, according to a 1998 survey by the Calorie Control Council.

Moderation is key, however, according to Kjelson. Even diabetics should attempt to limit their intake to a maximum of one to two servings of artificial sweetener per day, said Kjelson.

“You have to remember it’s a chemical and it isn’t natural, so you don’t want to put too much in your body,” said Kjelson. “You shouldn’t be having sweet things all the time or thinking that it’s helping you to lose that many calories, but it’s there to help you stay on track with a more healthy way of living.”

As to a successful diet, sugar substitutes may be just one way to achieve a better you. Eating sensibly and exercising with regularity are even better ideas for trimming down.

Or, as Time reporter Michael Lemonick put it, “If you get a Big Mac and fries with that Diet Coke, you’re simply going to get fat at a slightly slower rate.”

Sugar substitutes and diabetes

While the American Heart Association and the American Diabetes Association are both in support of sugar substitute use, remember that artificial sweeteners are not diet plans or easy sugar fixes. Just because something says sugar-free doesn’t mean it’s an okay food, according to Lynn Kjelson, a dietician at Hazel Hawkins Hospital. She advises paying close attention to the total carbs in a meal in order to identify the true amount of sugar you’ll be ingesting.

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