Friday, November 23, 2007

How (Pseudo) Sweet it is: Artificial Sweetener Review




So what's sweetening your toothpaste? I'll give you a hint; it's NOT sugar! Even if you avoid artificial sweeteners, you have have hidden sources in your diet! Below is a review of the artificial sweeteners that are currently available for use in the US, including; what they are, where they come from, uses, and where they go in your body!

Artificial sweeteners that come in packets contain mostly starch filler- all artificial sweeteners are much sweeter than sugar (hundreds or thousands of times sweeter). If manufacturers didn't add starch to the packet, you wouldn't be able to see the sweetener- try adding that to your coffee ;)

Saccharin (Sweet N' Low/pink packet)
- 500-600 X sweeter than sugar
- First artificial sweetener, invented in 1879
- Approved by FDA for human use
- Many taste bitterness
- Mostly used in packet form and as pharmaceutical additive


"Anybody who says saccharin is injurious to health is an idiot"
-President Theodore Roosevelt

Concerns about saccharin developed several years ago after rats that were fed massive amounts of saccharin developed bladder cancer. On the other hand, anything in massive amounts will kill you or give you cancer. For instance, mega-dosing Vitamin C increases your risk of cancer; beta-carotene consumed in reasonable levels increases the risk of cancer in smokers; marathoners are far more likely to die of over-hydration than dehydration. The point is that saccharin consumed in reasonable amounts (a few packets a day) is well within the approved safety zone. It's been around for over a hundred years, so saccharin has the history to back up its general safety. I can't taste the bitterness in saccharin and it's super-cheap, so it is my artificial sweetener of choice.


Sucralose (Splenda/yellow packet)
- 320-1000 time sweeter than sugar
- A derivative of table sugar (the disaccharide sucrose), approved by the FDA in 1998
- Available in packet form and is increasingly added to foods
- bars, diet and non-diet drink mixes, cocoa mixes, coffee drinks, sugar-free sports drinks, yogurt, sodas, many other foods
- Probably the best tasting
- Sort-of heat stable



Sucralose has enjoyed immense popularity since its introduction in the late 1990s. Our tongues sense sweetness when the electronegative groups of sweet substances bind to receptors in our taste buds- sometimes this sensation goes horribly wrong when the artificial sweeteners structure is a little off or also activates bitter receptors. Sucralose has less of this problem because the developers kept most of the structure the same as sugar, but just knocked off a couple parts and replaced them with chloride, another electronegative group. Because of this change, our highly specific intestinal enzymes cannot break it down sucralose passes through the digestive tract without changing. I like sucralose and I use it sometimes, but saccharin has a longer history and is less expensive.

Aspartame (Equal/NutraSweet/blue packet)
- FDA approved for some uses in 1983
- 180 times sweeter than sugar
- Two amino acids bound together
- Those with PKU (phenylketonuria) cannot have aspartame
- Used in packets, most diet sodas, many diet drinks, and some other foods



Let me just take this opportunity to explain why the PKU warning on aspartame products does not apply to you. PKU is an inherited disease, which is tested for at birth. The individuals with this condition are lacking an enzyme that allows the body to convert excess phenylalanine, the essential amino acid, to tyrosine. As a result, toxic levels of phenylalanine accumulate and the person becomes mentally retarded. People with PKU have to drink elemental (no real whole food ever) formulas to get their nutrition.



That said, though aspartame is fully approved for food use and considered safe by the government, some people report headaches when they have it. Furthermore, a break-down product of aspartame is formaldehyde, a highly toxic substance. Though the levels of formaldehyde produced are very tiny, do you really want it there at all? I don't. So though it is officially safe, I do limit the amount of aspartame in my diet.

Acesulfame Potassium (K)
- 100-200x sweeter than sugar
- Found in a huge number of food products, very common in sports nutrition products, drinks
- Often used in combination with other sweeteners


Neotame
- 8000-13,000 times sweeter than sugar
- Approved in 2002, not used much in this country
- I found it in a packet in combination with Acesulfame K; it wasn't too bad


Cyclamates
- 30-50 times sweeter than sugar
- Not approved for use in USA, used as part of "sugar twin" in Canada
- Once I smuggled some over the border and felt all scandalous


Stevia
- 250-300 times sweeter than sugar
- Most common natural non-nutritive sweetener
- Not approved for food use in US



Many people like the idea of using Stevia because it comes straight from a plant and has less impact on blood sugar than some other sweeteners, which is probably due to the fact that it tastes very little like sugar. In my opinion, its lack of sugar taste makes it a poor choice for use as a sweetener. It kind of has a weird tingly thing going on- I've often heard in reference to drinks made with Stevia "It's got something in it- its weird- I can't decide if it's gross." On the other hand, many people like it because it's sort-of heat stable, and it is a natural product. It is not approved for food use because of some apparent concerns about its potential to be a liver carcinogen, but the evidence is inconclusive. Most likely, no one is willing to fund the research for Stevia because it doesn't taste very good and it may not produce good returns as an investment, since there are currently many adequate sweeteners. You can buy the refined powder as a "supplement" in the US, however.


Sugar Alcohols
- About as sweet as sugar
- Roughly half as many calories as sugar
- I am anti-sugar alcohol
- Used in many "sugar-free" "low 'net carb"' products



Wait a second while I climb onto my soap box. Okay, here we go. There are many different kinds of sugar alcohols made from different kinds of sugar, basically just one chemical group is changed- some of the sugar alcohols can be absorbed better than others- all are converted to regular sugar or used as energy when they are absorbed.



The two main issues that I have with sugar alcohols are the following 1) They will give you nasty stomach pain, bloating, and gas in large amounts (bars that have them contain them in large amounts) 2) They totally still count as carbohydrates and are not healthier than sugar.



Sugar holds water. Sugar alcohols also hold water. Sugar alcohols have ½ the calories of sugar because they only absorbed about half way, as such the sugar alcohols that are not absorbed hold water in your intestines and the unused carbohydrates are worked on by the bacteria in your large intestine- all of this leads to massive bloating and abdominal unrest. If you do not experience this problem, it means that you have absorbed all of the sugar alcohols, and the calories in the product are essentially the same as sugar. The bottom line is that after eating a product that is high in sugar alcohols you are either 1) bloated and unhappy or 2) consuming a lot of processed carbs that are absorbed and used by the body. If you have unexplained stomach pain, you should 1) stop chewing so much gum 2) stop eating sugar-free hard candy 3) double check the ingredients of your favorite bar for sugar alcohol, "other carb", xylitol, sorbitol or one of the other many "ol" compounds and eradicate them from your diet. Rant over.

In short, sugar substitutes can be useful used in appropriate amounts. Furthermore, there is a noted "synergistic effect" when substitutes are combined, which results in a product that tastes more legitimately sweet. Among all, I would stick to saccharin (sweet n' low) and sucralose (splenda) for your sweetening needs.

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