The Sweet and Low on Sweetener Substitutes

00:00 June 25, 2013

The market for sugar substitutions has nearly tripled in size since it's mass appeal began in the 1980's. We've come a long way since that birth of the supermodel and workout video infused decade, yet we continue to actualize an ideal for ourselves, namely in appearance. In these modern times, humans may be plagued with the lust for instant gratification as a result of societal perception of what perfection, success, and healthy looks like. My case in point: the diet crazed mindset of today. While not all low-calorie sweetener substitutions are bad, most have hidden truths that are evident, if not instantly, over time.

Not all sugar substitutions on the market are safe. And although they are available on the shelves at your supermarket, it doesn't necessarily mean that they are FDA approved. There is a GRAS category that exists in the approval process via the FDA. GRAS, standing for Generally Recognized As Safe, can be a push-through for product whose main ingredients are recognized as not harmful for human consumption. To date, the FDA hasn't been presented with enough scientific clout to support a change in conclusions about the safety of these approved 'high-intensity' sweeteners. Stevia is exempt under FDA's GRAS policy due to its being a natural substance. The safe conclusions are based on a detailed review of a large body of information, including hundreds of toxicological and clinical studies. The same goes for Agave syrup, which has been used in South America and tropical climates for centuries and is derived from plant nectar. Agave nectar is commonly used by vegans as an alternative to honey, and while it boasts a reputation of being 1.4 to 1.6 times sweeter than sugar, it's taste is mild and neutral. Because Stevia, Agave syrup, and honey are plant based, they are sensible choices in the quest for a lower calorie sweetener, however, the biggest concern for these items is price. Weather, labor, equipment costs, supply and demand, all of these factors can aid in fluctuation of the product's market value, bringing me to the point of lab created chemicals. But is more stability in price and shelf life really worth the consequence?

Over 25 years ago, aspartame was first introduced into the European food supply. It was an accidental discovery by James Schlatter, a chemist who had been trying to produce an anti-ulcer pharmaceutical drug for G.D. Searle & Company back in 1965. Aspartame, he discovered, had an extremely sweet taste, and after petitions and fighting with the FDA for over a decade, it finally gained approval in 1981. Branded as Equal and NutraSweet, the chemical components have remained the same: a blend of estermethyl of the aspartic acid/phenylalanine dipeptide. Given the heightened sensitivity and counts of publicized allergic reactions, the general public is becoming more aware of artificial sweeteners like aspartame and the harm they potentially cause to health. Dr. Christine Lydon explains, "Phenylalanine and aspartic acid are amino acids that are normally supplied by the foods we eat; however, they can only be considered natural and harmless when consumed in combination with other amino acids. On their own, they enter the central nervous system in abnormally high concentrations, causing aberrant neuronal firing and potential cell death. The neurotoxic effects of these amino acids, when consumed as isolates, can be linked to headaches, mental confusion, balance problems and possibly seizures. The damage caused by excitotoxin food additives is not usually dramatic. In most instances, the effects are subtle, cumulative and develop over a prolonged period of time." The latest rebranding from NutraSweet to AminoSweet is seen by radicals as an effort to indoctrinate the public into accepting the chemical sweetener as natural and safe despite evidence to the contrary.

Saccharin is another substitute that's no stranger to controversy, dating all the way back to its discovery in 1878. Constantin Fahlberg, a chemist working on coal tar derivatives in Ira Remsen's laboratory at the Johns Hopkins University discovered the sweetness of saccharin by accident. While working on plant studies in the lab, he spilled some chemicals on his hand. Later while eating dinner, he noticed a sweet taste to his bread. He traced it back to the spilled chemical, which he later named saccharin, a spin-off of saccharide (complex sugar). Fahlberg and Remsen published articles on benzoic sulfimide in 1879 and 1880, but in 1884 Fahlberg, taking sole credit for the duo's studies, applied for patents in several countries. Although saccharin was commercialized almost immediately, it was not until sugar shortages during "WWI that its use became widespread. Its popularity further increased during the 1960s and 70s among dieters, triggering laboratory studies post allergic reactions in consumers." Studies have proven that saccharin is actually safer than aspartame, and the lab mice cancer and death controversies surrounding the product testing is primarily linked to the direct competition of then newly patented aspartame. Dr. Janet Hull advises, "Something most people never realized is the toxicity study was actually done using a blend of cyclamate and saccharin, and the results were interpreted as linking cyclamate, not saccharin, to bladder cancer in rats. Researchers fed laboratory mice sweetened water that was equivalent to 800 cans of saccharin/cyclamate every day from birth until death. In this one test, one mouse developed bladder cancer, and the results were submitted to the FDA requesting a cancer warning be placed on all saccharin products. Cyclamate was banned in 1970. No further testing was performed." Eight years after the saccharin cancer scare, G.D. Searle & Co., the original NutraSweet manufacturer, secured FDA approval for his product, then purchased Monsanto Chemical Company, the original saccharin manufacturer. Soon, Monsanto Chemical owned both NutraSweet and saccharin, NutraSweet's only competitor. Talk about things that make you go 'hmmmm'.

Artificial sweeteners are widely used in processed foods, including baked goods, soft drinks, dairy products, and scores of other foods and beverages. New alternatives, like the top selling sugar substitute Splenda, have been targeting diabetics as a key source of sales boosting propaganda. While their structural content may denote safer aspects, scientific studies have proven that insulin spikes occur after their use. In the study, people who drank a sucralose solution, like Splenda, before consuming a glucose drink, like soda, experienced a 20% greater increase in insulin levels than those who drank only glucose and water. Insulin spikes aren't the only downside. Dental studies provided that the acids present in the sugarless or substitute sugar sweeteners played a major role in the breakdown of tooth enamels.

Truvia, ranking as the number two best seller, was developed by the Coca Cola Company and Cargill. Marketed as a tabletop sweetener and food ingredient, it is derived from the stevia plant and can be found in a multitude of Coca Cola products including flavors of Vitamin Water, Sprite Green, All Sport Naturally Zero, Crystal Light Pure, Blue Sky Free, Zevia soda, and some varieties of Odwalla juices. With a sweetness ratio of one packet to to tablespoons of sugar, it is a diabetic friendly substitute and is considered free of any immediate adverse effects. In 2011, the EU's Standing Committee on Food Chain and Animal Health approved it for sale in major European supermarkets.

The European Food Safety Authority is an iron fist in comparison to US regulations. French author and soil scientist Olivier de Serres first discovered the use of sugar beets for making sugar syrup after noticing the root contained a high concentration of sucrose. Due to the organic nature of the source, the syrup was passed immediately as safe to process into granulated sugar. In 2009 France, the United States, Germany, Russia and Turkey were the world's five largest sugar beet producers.

Bocage Bee and Honey Company out of Baton Rouge is producing what Restaurant August Executive Chef Michael Gulotta calls 'mind blowing': Sugarcane honey. While it may be the latest and greatest natural sweetening substance on the local feed, agave syrup is certainly taking charge in that department. New Orleans based Domino Sugar refinery is known for its granulated goodness, however the major producer has acquired the crop and means to develop their own line of Agave Syrups, which are available in local supermarkets.

At select locations, PJ's coffee has Truvia as well as Truvia competitor PureVia available for patrons seeking a sugar substitute. PureVia is a product of the Pepsi Cola company and is based on the same stevia extracts. New Orleans Roast offers a Tea Sweetener that you mix with 3 gallons of tea and stir to sweeten. The product is comprised of sugar, maltodextrin, sucralose, sunett R (acesulfame K) and natural flavors. It does the job without over-doing it.

It's true that the world has gone and gotten itself in a big damn hurry. Technology progresses, fast becomes faster, and nutritional sciences crank out new solutions for the quality of life obsessed. In truth, what is made by the Earth naturally is always best for the body. We are organic beings navigating a synthetic experience in today's material world. Reducing the use of sugar overall, in whatever form, will result in better health. Education and moderation will always be key in diet-based decision making.

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