The Sweet Stuff: A New Color in the Packet Rainbow

Part 1 in a 2-part series about sugar and sugar substitutes. (And sorry about the technical glitch we had this morning. Eegods!)

Hey y’all! It’s me, Leigh. On a Wednesday. I know, it feels a little weird to me too. But not to fear, we’re going to have a blast.

The great wide InterWeb is bursting with noise about sugar substitutes, particularly the artificial kind, and now a new color has jumped into the sky and affixed itself to the rainbow between yellow and blue.

How do we sort through all the shouting? Does Equal really cause cancer? Does Splenda really have chlorine in it? Is Sweet ‘N Low as deadly as Skinny n Sweet? And what in the name of Sweet Angela Lansbury is stevia?

Well, depending on which sources you trust, the answers questions one through three are Yes and No. Four, we'll get to in a bit. For the love of Angela.

The Skinny on Artificial Sweetners
Medical regulating and reporting agencies like the FDA, the Department of Health and Human Services, and the Mayo Clinic tout artificial sweeteners as safe and promote their use with little reservation. The Mayo Clinic does remind folks that “The FDA has established an ‘acceptable daily intake’ (ADI) for each sweetener,” and provides a handy chart for determining just how much fake sugar is acceptable to ingest in a day.

A lot, it turns out: 18-19 cans of aspartame-sweetened soda, 6 cans of sucralose-sweetened soda, or 9-12 packets of saccharine. Makes the 2-liter-a-day Diet Coke habit I kicked a few years ago seem minor.

But organic healthy practitioners are less confident in chemical sweetners. Natural News reports on an 11-year study conducted by doctors at Boston’s Brigham and Women’s Hospital which found that that beverages containing aspartame reduce kidney function. The same article sited a 2008 Journal of Toxicology and Environmental Health study which indicated that sucralose messes with the flora in the gastro-intestinal tract “and inhibits the assimilation of dietary nutrients.”

Okay, not so good news for my Diet Coke habit. The rumors of cancer, chlorine, and death by rat poison are still volleyed back and forth so often, it’s hard to know who or what to believe. I'm going to keep picking on aspartame, because it's so easy.

In 2005, Environmental Health Perspectives, a journal of the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences (a division of the Department of Health and Human Services), published a study linking aspartame to lymphoma and leukemia in rats. Five minutes later, in 2006, the National Cancer Institute, also a branch of DHHS, published findings debunking that very study.

Then, in 2007, EHP produced yet another study demonstrating the link between aspartame and cancer. Your ball, NutraSweet.

Time for a breakdown
Aspartame aka Nutrasweet, Equal
Aspartame is widely used as a beverage sweetener, but because of its instability when heated, it is not recommended for baking or cooking. Aspartic acid and phenylalanine, both amino acids, are combined with methanol to give us that one-of-a kind flavor. Mmm...acidy.

Sucralose aka Splenda
Sucralose (aka Splenda), used in beverages and baked goods because of its heat stability, is marketed as “made from sugar.” Yes, that’s true. Chemists take sugar and add chlorine until it's a completely different substance. So, yes, the natural foodies (like me) are right -- it does have chlorine in it. However, because of the way the body metabolizes sucralose, it pretty much scoots right out. But, um, it's not sugar...not even close.

Saccharin aka Sweet ‘n’ Low
Saccharin, a delicious extract of antranilic acid, nitrous acid, sulfur dioxide, and ammonia, has been around since the late 19th century. But a series of questionable lab tests in the 1970s put a blight on it's chemical-aftertasty name. Testify if you grew up on Tab. In the late 1990s, the methodology of the earlier studies was called into question, and now saccharin is back in action, or in the pink, or yeah.

Acesulfame potassium aka ACK, SweetOne, Sunsett
Usually blended with other sweeteners, acesulfame-K is heat stable and highly controversial. It's primarily used in gum and baked goods in the U.S., but questions about the rigor of its testing remain.

Sugar Alcohols
Isomalt, xylitol, mannitol, sorbitol, lactitol, and maltitol are the most common sugar alcohols found in sugar-free gum and candies, as well as toothpaste and mouthwash. Xylitol is often found the sweetener aisle in granulated form for use as a beverage additive/food topping. Sugar alcohols are often marketed to people with diabetes, as the sweeteners require little to no insulin to be metabolized. However, consumed in large quantities, sugar alcohols can have a laxative effect. Technically, sugar alcohols are natural sweeteners, but they require futzing.

Stevia: The “New” Color in the Rainbow
Truth is, stevia, a Paraguayan herb from the chrysanthemum family, is not new. It has been used in Japan since 1971,  available in the U.S. since 1995, and was kicking around South America for centuries before that. I’ve been using the sweet leaf in my tea for at least 12 years. Until 2008, however, Stevia rebaudiana was only available as a “dietary supplement” in health food stores, not approved by the FDA as a food additive.

But with a little push from Cargill and Whole Earth Sweeteners (a subsidary of Mericant, of Equal fame), the FDA has finally allowed a stevia derivative, Rebaudioside A into the sweetener game, dominated by aspartame and sucralose. Brands like Truvia (Cargill), PureVia (Merisant), and Stevia in the Raw (Cumberland Packaging, makers of Sweet 'N Low) combine Rebaudioside A with other sugars, bulking agents, and “natural flavors.”

Truvia's first ingredient is erythitol, a sugar alcohol, followed by Rebiana, their trade name for Rebaudioside A, and "natural flavors," which can be "...flavoring constituents derived from a spice, fruit or fruit juice, vegetable or vegetable juice, edible yeast, herb, bark, bud, root, leaf or similar plant material, meat, seafood, poultry, eggs, dairy products, or fermentation products thereof, whose significant function in food is flavoring rather than nutritional." (FDA: 21CFR501.22). So anything!

The first ingredient of PureVia is dextrose--a corn sugar--then "Reb A," cellulose powder--a perfectly respectable bulking agent--and once again, those pesky natural flavors. Stevia in the Raw is somewhat closer to the real thing: dextrose and stevia extract in their packet version, and maltodextrin plus stevia extract in their cup-for-cup baking product. Maltodextrin is a grain-sugar bulking agent which could come from any number of grains, but most likely wheat in the U.S. Bulking agents are what fill out the packet. It's all about consumer comfort.

The dietary supplement version of stevia is less likely to contain fillers, and is most commonly found in powdered and liquid forms at the health food store or natural market. Just a pinch or a drop sweetens as much as a teaspoon of sugar. And because it’s not heat-reactive, it’s recommended for sugar-free baking.

While some still have their reservations about the safety of stevia, Mother Earth News is convinced, citing several studies that show stevia's health benefits, in particular a Danish study indicating that "stevia may be 'advantageous in the treatment of type-2 diabetes.'"

But what does stevia taste like? Well, it is very sweet, but like anything else that isn't sugar, it doesn't taste like sugar. There is a bit of an aftertaste that some equate with licorice, especially if you use too much. Me, I love it. I don't even notice the aftertaste, though I find other artificial sweeteners to be just awful-tasting. Everyone's taste buds have a learning curve. It's a matter if you want them to learn.

We love our unprocessed, whole foods around these parts. But what about you, dear readers? Do you use artificial sweeteners or their delivery vehicles? Have you tried stevia or the new stevia products? What do you think? Have you tried baking or cooking with sucralose or stevia? Check back tomorrow for Veggie Might: Baking with Stevia.

Sources/Further Reading:
CSPI, Chemical Cuisine
NY Times, Artificial Sweeteners
NY Times, Graphic: How the Sugar Substitutes Stack Up
Yale New Haven Hospital Nutrition Advisor, Sugar Alcohol
Harvard Healthbeat, Are Artificial Sweeteners Safe?, Stevia rebaudiana
Mother Earth News, Stevia: This Sugar Substitute Is Sweet and Healthy


If you took a shine to this article, sidle on up to
The Problem with Diet Foods
When to Splurge on Organic
Reader Replies: Healthy Defined