The big three sugar substitutes
The low-down on low-cal sweeteners: saccharin, aspartame and sucralose.
Sunday, July 18, 2010 - 21:16
SWEET AND INNOCENT? The packaging is pretty, but what lurks on the inside? (Photo: Bekathwia/Flickr)
As a retail manager I often get called upon to speak about the products I sell. This is usually no problem, for if I can't answer a specific question (video games often stump me), I know which employee can. However, we were all recently taken aback by a customer's query: What is the difference between artificial sweeteners?
I remember when the pink stuff was the only thing out there and instantly thought about Tab, the diet soda we gagged down in the '80s. Unfortunately I couldn't tell my customer much more than what was on the ingredient list or that Splenda is best for baking. Everything I know about these sweeteners comes from commercials or advertising information that the manufacturers want me to believe.
But not anymore. In the United States we sell three main sugar substitutes: saccharin, aspartame and sucralose. For food manufacturers these additives are fantastic because they are so much cheaper than using sucrose (sugar) and increase their profits. They are also advertised as being good for weight loss, your teeth, and people who suffer from diabetes or hypoglycemia. But what is the real skinny on these products?
Considered the first ersatz sugar, saccharin was discovered by accident in 1879, but did not become popular until the sugar shortage during World War I. Packaged as the well-known brand Sweet'N Low, this product is 300 to 500 times as sweet as sugar. Besides being a primary ingredient in diet foods and drinks, saccharin finds its way into toothpastes, vitamins, some infant formulas and cough syrups. For diabetics and dieters, this sweetener is prime, as it passes directly through the digestive system without being absorbed, making it a non-caloric food item.
But for others saccharin can cause headaches, diarrhea, skin eruptions and even breathing difficulties. As the product has the basic ingredient benzoic sulfimide, those with allergies to sulfa medications are more likely to suffer these after effects.
The sweetener has survived a troubled past including cancer scares that have since proven unfounded. In 2000, the warning label requirement for all products containing saccharin was repealed.
Discovered in 1965, this non-nutritive sweetener is 200 times stronger than sugar and formed by two amino acids: aspartic acid and phylalanine. Equal, SugarTwin and NutraSweet are the best known brands, which are common ingredients in many beverages, gums, frozen desserts and pharmaceuticals. This product breaks down when heated and is not advised for baking. Aspartame is often used in conjunction with other ersatz ingredients, to both mask its aftertaste and extend its shelf life.
Aspartame has also sparked much debate over possible side effects and long term problems associated with its use. Part of the controversy surrounding studies regard who is footing the bill, implicating the industry for conflict of interest in these analyses, as well as in obtaining product approval. This sweetener has been blamed for headaches, depression, problems with mood disorders and vision, plus a whole host of other illnesses listed on websites directed at aspartame poisoning. More recently, it has also spurred conversation about weight gain. While not proven in medical studies, it is being tossed around that aspartame causes a chemical reaction that interferes with neurotransmitters and actually winds up causing the consumer to eat more ... which could explain our obsession with diet beverages. They taste fantastic with a bag of chips!
Sucralose was discovered while scientists were trying to develop a new insecticide and achieved FDA approval in 1998. It entered the market as the most popular sweetener yet: Splenda, topping the charts at 600 times the potency of sugar and entering our bloodstreams through thousands of beverages, baked goods and diet products. While its sunny yellow packaging and ability to stand up under heat inspire the dieting cook, this sugar substitute might surprise you with its chemical nature.
When Splenda began its advertising campaign, it boasted that it was made from sugar. And, it is ... sort of. This sweetener takes sucrose and replaces three of its hydroxyl groups with three chlorine atoms, converting the natural substance into one not seen in nature. This caused the sugar industry to call Splenda's ads misconceptions and brought scrutiny to what was seen as the best alternative to sucrose yet.
This product is deemed calorie-free, which it states under the Splenda name on its packaging. However, near the nutritional facts on said package, it does state that in some recipes this sweetener may contribute calories. How many? It doesn't say. But according to MedicineNet.com, one cup of sucralose equals 96 calories, or 32 grams of carbohydrates, largely due to the dextrose and maltodextrin added for bulk. On the Splenda website, it repeatedly states that less than five calories per serving is considered a no-calorie food by the FDA. So no wonder my serving size is a teaspoon on a bag with 550 servings per container. If I have a conversion chart for recipes showing sugar versus Splenda, why don't I have a calorie conversion chart as well?
While I can now give any customer an earful about artificial sweeteners, their use has so many controversies and conspiracy theories surrounding them that it is difficult to determine what is fact or fiction. I can say this: remember how wasteful single serve packaging is and buy your sweeteners in bulk. For a natural alternative, check out the stevia plant and grow your own at home!
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