Sunday, November 20, 2011

The Nutrition Debate #32: Artificial Sweeteners

I’ve been avoiding this topic because I was afraid I was going to learn “the bitter truth” as I researched and studied synthetic sweeteners. You may feel the same way after learning about them. But increasing public awareness about human nutrition and health issues is why I write this column, so here goes.

An artificial sweetener is a food additive that is not natural and that duplicates the effect of sugar (sucrose) in taste, texture and “mouthfeel.” The primary compounds used as sugar substitutes in the United States are sucralose (e.g., Splenda), aspartame (e.g., Equal, NutraSweet), and saccharin (e.g., Sweet’n Low). The good news is none of these products contain any fructose. The bad news: 1) the little yellow, blue and pink packets all contain bulking agents which are mostly sugars, and 2) the effect on the body’s hormonal system of a high-intensity artificial sweetener is as bad or worse than “natural” sugar, as in refined sugar cane, even allowing that cane sugar is 50% fructose!

Not a big deal? You say it’s just a little. Not so. Splenda, for example, is usually just 5% high-intensity artificial sweetener (sucralose) and 95% bulking agents, specifically dextrose (D-glucose) and maltodextrin, a polysaccharide containing from 3 to 20 glucose molecules in a chain. The body easily and quickly metabolizes both of these sugars as energy, while most (85% to 95%) of the non-nutritive sucralose passes unchanged out of the body through the feces or, after some is absorbed into the blood, through the kidneys as urine. Reviewing then, that’s 5% non-nutritive sweetener and 95% nutritive sweeteners, all basically absorbed and metabolized as glucose.

How much energy are we talking about in the 95% part? Each 1 gram packet of Splenda contains almost a gram of carbohydrate (3.36 calories). That compares to 10.8 calories in a 2.8 gram packet of sugar, 15 calories in a level teaspoon of table sugar or 25 calories in a heaping teaspoon. The 5% sucralose part is non-nutritive (zero calories), but sucralose, the artificial “sugar,” is about 600 times sweeter than sucrose (table sugar). That’s a lot of sweetness.

Is this important? If you’re diabetic or pre-diabetic and need to limit or restrict sugars, then “sure.” We know that glucose induces an insulin response, and we are trying not to wear out our pancreas which produces insulin. There is in addition, however, also the well-established scientific fact that the taste of sweetness, perceived in the mouth by the salivary glands, induces an insulin response. As such, even a high-intensity artificial sweetener that contains no glucose (I know of none) would induce an insulin response. Chronic high insulin levels in the blood (hyperinsulinemia), which occurs when there is little glucose to transport, leads to insulin resistance, and eventually to Metabolic Syndrome and Type 2 diabetes. Wide use of artificial sweeteners, in this respect, could be worse for your health than real sugar.

An Equal packet, containing the artificial sweetener aspartame, is made with dextrose (D-glucose), acesulfame potassium, starch, silicon dioxide, maltodextrin and an unspecified flavoring. Equal tablets contain the sugar lactose.

Sweet’n Low is a compound of granulated saccharin, dextrose and cream of tartar. In Canada, Sweet’n Low is made from sodium cyclamate because saccharin has been banned there since the 70’s. In the U. S., cyclamate was banned in 1970.

A similar and closely related sugar substitute is a natural sweetener from the herb stevia. Four years ago Cargill and the Coca Cola Company introduced the stevia-based product Truvia. It is made from rebiana, an extract of stevia, pus erythritol, a sugar alcohol, and natural flavors. More recently, Pepsico and the Whole Earth Sweetener Company introduced PureVia. It contains the stevia extract, plus dextrose, cellulose powder and natural flavors. These extracts are relatively new to the market and are used both as tabletop sweeteners and as food ingredients, especially in beverages.

Other natural sweeteners include the sugar alcohols. Maltitol and sorbitol are often used in tooth paste, mouth wash, and in foods such as “no sugar added” ice cream. Erythritol is gaining momentum as a replacement for these other two sugar alcohols in foods as it is much less likely to produce gastrointestinal distress when consumed in large amounts. Xylitol is an especially non-fermentable sugar alcohol that is tooth friendly and is used in chewing gum. Possessing approximately 40% less food energy than sucrose, xylitol is another low-calorie alternative to table sugar.

So, the bitter truth is “there’s no such thing as a free lunch.” Bitter is better. (Butter is better too.) Weaning myself off Splenda isn’t going to be easy. I take it in my coffee and in my iced tea every day. But bitter will be better for my health.

© Dan Brown 11/20/11

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