I’ve been avoiding this topic because I was afraid that as I researched and studied synthetic sweeteners I was going to learn “the bitter truth.” You may feel the same way after learning about them. Nevertheless, increasing public awareness about human nutrition and health 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 that 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 highly processed table sugar, i.e. refined sugar cane, even allowing that this cane sugar is 50% fructose!
Not a big deal? You think there’s just a little bulking agent? 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 the dextrose and/or maltodextrin as energy, while most (+/-90%) of the non-nutritive sucralose passes unchanged out of the body through the feces, the balance absorbed into the blood and excreted as urine via the kidneys. Reviewing then, that’s 5% non-nutritive sweetener and 95% nutritive sweeteners, all of the latter absorbed and metabolized as glucose.
How much nutritive 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 a Type 2 or Pre-diabetic and trying to limit “sugar,” then sure. Besides, it is sweetness per se that induces an insulin response, perceived in the mouth by the salivary glands. As such, even a high-intensity artificial sweetener that contains no glucose would induce an insulin response. Chronic high insulin levels in the blood, which occurs here even when there is much less glucose to transport, leads to insulin resistance, and eventually to Metabolic Syndrome and Type 2 diabetes. Wide use of artificial sweeteners, thus, 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.
There are alternatives to artificial sweeteners. When this column was originally written in late 2011, a natural sweetener made from rebiana, an extract from the herb stevia was gaining popularity. In 2007 Cargill and the Coca Cola Company introduced their stevia-based product, Truvia: stevia extract plus erythritol, a sugar alcohol, and natural flavors. A while later Pepsico and the Whole Earth Sweetener Company introduced PureVia. It is stevia extract, plus dextrose, cellulose powder and natural flavors. Both were used as tabletop sweeteners and as food ingredients, especially in beverages.
Other popular 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 candy 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.So, the bitter truth is, “there’s no such thing as a free lunch.” Bitter is better. (Butter is better too.) In 2011 I thought that weaning myself off Splenda wasn’t going to be easy. I used it in my coffee and iced tea every day N.B.: 2019 update: Weaning myself off artificial sweeteners was easy; however, I now use pure powdered stevia in my coffee and liquid stevia extract in my iced tea. Alas, because they’re sweet, they still have an insulin response. So, see #481 next Sunday.