6 Sweet Secrets About Sweetners
by Delores Broten
It is one of the four basic flavours that we can taste (salty, sour, and bitter are the other three), and it is a shape-changer. The simple carbohydrates sucrose, glucose, and fructose show up in many forms – from table sugar, honey, and maple syrup to corn andpineapple. Some of us, those with a “sweet tooth,” have a yearning for it. For others, those with diabetes, it can be deadly.
Once upon a time, the sugar in our diets came only from foods like fruits and berries or the occasional, delightful, hard-won honeycomb, stolen from the bees. There is evidence that sugar cane, which is chewed for its sweetness, was first grown between 6,000 and 10,000 years ago, in either the South Pacific or in India. The word sugar comes from the Sanskrit sharkara.
Between the 8th and 13th centuries, during their great agricultural era, the Arabs created industrial sugar production, adapting equipment from India. The production of sugar spread around the world rapidly during the European expansion of the 16th century and onwards, when it was introduced, most unpleasantly, to North and South America and the Caribbean.
Now, in the industrialized world, sugar sits in on every meal, and lurks in every corner of the pantry. According to the Indian Sugar Mills Association, sugar, unlike the staple grains in the sudden global food crisis, boasts an 11 million ton surplus in 2007, on production of 170 million tonnes, despite a demand steadily growing at over 2% per year. Most of that sugar comes from either sugar beets (genetically modified in the United States) or sugar cane. Now biofuel production is absorbing about a tenth of the sugar beet crop in Brazil, where rainforest used to thrive.
Like so much in our industrial version of civilization, a lot of the sweets in our life are not sugar at all, but concoctions from a chemistry lab owned by unknown corporations. More are invented every year. Globally, $5.3 billion worth of artificial sweetener concoctions last year and hundreds of millions more in various sugar crops drive the sweets industries, where trade wars, subsidies, and dark suspicions abound.
No wonder there is so much bitter speculation swirling around the sweets in our lives.
“White death,” they called refined table sugar back in the ’60s. Honey and brown sugar are still sometimes considered to be better for you, but really, if you are looking at sugar as a source of nutrition, you’re in trouble! Outside of some carbohydrate value, there’s little nutrition in any of the sugars, except those bound naturally into fruits and vegetables. Brown sugar is ordinary table sugar made brown by adding molasses, which might add a tad more nutritional value than white sugar, but not enough to make it any more valuable as a source of nutrients. Demerara is raw cane sugar.
The exception might be honey, at least in part because it is a mixture of fructose and glucose, 65 calories as opposed to white sugar’s 20, but with 0.5% proteins. Honey contains small amounts of a wide array of nutrients and antioxidants and it is suitable for fast energy requirements, such as sports. Foodreference.com echoes many similar claims when it says: “The vitamins found in honey may include (depending on floral variety) niacin, riboflavin, and pantothenic acid; minerals present include calcium, copper, iron, magnesium, manganese, phosphorus, potassium, and zinc. Just as the colour and flavour of honey varies by floral source, so does the vitamin, mineral, antioxidant, and amino acid content.”
2. Sugar Alcohols
You may have noticed the names mannitol, sorbitol, xylitol, lactitol, isomalt, maltitol, hydrogenated starch hydrolysates (HSH), or simply sugar alcohol on food packaging. Food products labelled “sugar-free,” including hard candies, cookies, chewing gums, soft drinks, and throat lozenges, often contain sugar alcohols. They are frequently used in toothpaste and mouthwash too, especially “sugar free” ones.
Sugar alcohols, also known as polyols, occur naturally in foods and come from a range of plant products such as fruits, from berries to pineapple to corn cobs. They provide about half to one-third less calories than regular sugar. This is because they are converted to glucose more slowly, require little or no insulin to be metabolized, and don’t cause sudden increases in blood sugar.
However, sugar alcohols, especially eaten to excess, can cause bloating and diarrhea. The American Diabetes Association says that sugar alcohols are acceptable in a moderate amount but should not be eaten in excess. Some people with diabetes, especially Type I diabetics, have found that their blood sugars rise if sugar alcohols are eaten in uncontrolled amounts.
3. The Sweet Nothing That Doesn’t Go Away
Sucralose, an artificial sweetener known under the trade name Splenda in North America, is gaining in popularity by leaps and bounds, in large part because it can be used to directly substitute for sugar in baking. Although sucralose is made from table sugar, it has no calories because it isn’t digested in the body. Apparently it isn’t digested outside the body either.
Sucralose was introduced to Norway in 2005. By 2006, scientists were reporting that sucralose was everywhere in the environment – in wastewater effluent and in Oslo Fiord. Now Swedish scientists have documented that the sweetener passes unchanged through sewage treatment systems. Larger treatment plants can decrease sucralose concentrations by 10% at most.
Sucralose was approved as safe for human consumption but did not undergo an environmental review in Europe, the US, or Canada, where it was approved in the early 1990s. In any event, because it is “only” persistent in the environment and not bioaccumulative, it would probably have passed an eco-assessment. Issues that would not have been examined include the potential to change organisms’ feeding behaviour or interfere with the mechanisms of plant photosynthesis. In research at the University of Queensland, Australia, sucralose has been shown to interfere with the transport of sucrose in sugar cane (Science News, March 12, 2008).
4. Where There’s Smoke
Sweetness with no calorific consequences obsesses western civilisation, in ironic contrast to the rest of the world, where caloric intake is a desirable effect from eating. Artificial sweeteners were originally developed as a dietary aid for people with diabetes, but now they are the cash cow of the food industry. Consistently, there is a lot of smoke about the negative health impacts of artificial sweeteners. With billions of dollars at stake, the pressures on government regulators are high.
To add to the confusion, a compound that is not allowed in one country may be totally accepted in another. For example, only five artificial sweeteners are approved by the US Food and Drug Administration: aspartame, saccharin, acesulfame-K, neotame, and sucralose. Cyclamate was banned in the US in 1969, after studies seemed to show evidence of potential for bladder cancer and testicular atrophy in mice. Wikipedia notes: “Cyclamate is approved as a sweetener in more than 55 countries: for example, the brand-name beverage sweetener Sweet’N Low, which contains only dextrose, saccharin, cream of tartar, and calcium silicate in the United States, contains cyclamate in Canada (where saccharin is banned except for diabetic usage). Similarly, Sugar Twin, the brand-name cyclamate sweetener in Canada, contains saccharin in the United States.” Mexican consumer groups recently celebrated their victory in getting Coke to remove sodium cyclamate from the Mexican version of Coke Zero.
Aspartame has been used around the world for over 20 years and is in over 6000 products, but every few years another study pops up questioning its safety. The most recent concern was raised in 2005. The Ramazzini Foundation of Oncology and Environmental Sciences in Italy claimed that rat-feeding experiments, which is their area of expertise, showed evidence of lymphomas and leukemias, among other cancers. In 2006, the European Food Safety Authority, after reviewing all the data, declared there was no cause for alarm because of study flaws in the Italian work, noting that aspartame has been well studied: “Since its approval, however, the safety of aspartame has been repeatedly questioned, with discussions focusing not only on the safety of aspartame itself, but also on the safety of its breakdown products, aspartic acid, phenylalanine, and methanol. All these substances occur naturally in the body.”
The Ramazzini Foundation, however, stands by its conclusion and published a further peer-reviewed study in 2007: “The results of this carcinogenicity bioassay confirm and reinforce the first experimental demonstration of APM’s multipotential carcinogenicity at a dose level close to the acceptable daily intake for humans. Furthermore, the study demonstrates that when life-span exposure to APM begins during fetal life, its carcinogenic effects are increased” (“Life-Span Exposure to Low Doses of Aspartame Beginning during Prenatal Life Increases Cancer Effects in Rats,” Environmental Health Perspectives Vol. 115, No. 9, Sept 2007).
It is important to note that the US National Cancer Institute has looked for and found no correlation between cancer and artificial sweeteners in the US in its study of over a half million retirees. Of course, most of those retirees would not have been exposed in the womb to anything sweeter than honey.
5. Stevia — Yes, It’s Natural
Many people are turning to the plant Stevia rebaudiana, a native plant from South America, as a herbal sweetener. Both the plant and its extracts have been used for several years as a sweetener in South America, Asia, Japan, and China. However, the European Union has refused to approve its use as a general sweetener, as has the US and Canada, where it is legal for sale only as a herb. The EU’s Scientific Committee On Food notes that most of the documentation submitted on stevia focused on various extractions of stevioside, but that the compound broke down to steviol in the gut. Steviol has not been fully tested.
Although proponents scoff at the concerns, the EU scientists note laboratory results about steviol that point to evidence of potential mutagenicity, a range of pre-cancerous and sub-chronic impacts on the organs, and toxicity to the male reproductive organs, as well as reduction in male fertility. The caution and calls for more research are given extra weight by the notation that the Indians of Paraguay did indeed drink a stevia tea – as a male contraceptive.
6. No Way to Lose Weight
Whatever the outcome of the scientific duels about the cancerous and toxic effects of the various artificial sweeteners, one scientific study is bound to have a crushing impact.
Researchers at Purdue University published a rat study in February where they speculated that the ability to taste sweetness is part of the body’s way of assessing caloric intake. The researchers fed rats yoghurt sweetened with saccharin or with glucose. The rats on the saccharin sweetener ate more and gained more weight than the rats on glucose. The researchers speculate that artificial sweeteners upset the body’s communication with itself about how much caloric intake it is experiencing. “We found that reducing the correlation between sweet taste and the caloric content of foods using artificial sweeteners in rats resulted in increased caloric intake, increased body weight, and increased adiposity, as well as diminished caloric compensation and blunted thermic responses to sweet-tasting diets. These results suggest that consumption of products containing artificial sweeteners may lead to increased body weight and obesity by interfering with fundamental homeostatic, physiological processes.” [“A Role for Sweet Taste: Calorie Predictive Relations in Energy Regulation by Rats,” Susan E. Swithers and Terry L. Davidson, Behavioral Neuroscience, 2008, Vol. 122, No. 1, 161–173]
Given the stakes, we can be very sure that other studies are being rushed to press, arguing against the results of that study.
Meanwhile, it seems one effect of artificial sweeteners is already well documented. “An elevation in insulin levels is known to cause an increase in cravings for food and consequently, weight gain. Sodium saccharin, sodium cyclamate, stevioside, and acesulfame-K are all known to enhance insulin release even though they are not carbohydrates,” says a weight loss web site succinctly (www.shapefit.com).
Perhaps, like our distant relatives the bears, we should stick to honey. At least we’d be getting some nutrients along with all that sweetness.