Breaking Down the Sweeteners

By: Christine Venzon

Plenty of things about natural and artificial sweeteners aren't so sweet. See more candy pictures.
Hemera/Thinkstock

An Indian love spell, circa 1000 BC, invoked the mystical power of sugar and honey to charm the beloved. Judging from most other cultures throughout history, that was serious mojo.

In pursuit of sweetness, humanity has scaled new heights in science, commerce and greed. Cave paintings dating back 15,000 years depict hunters braving swarms of bees for their prized honeycombs. The Persians learned to boil sugarcane juice into coarse crystals around 500 BC. They did a booming business with Europe in the Middle Ages, when wealthy Europeans sprinkled sugar on everything, enriching more than one merchant of Venice. Columbus set all kinds of wheels in motion when he brought sugarcane to the Caribbean (including the slave trade -- not sweet). And Napoleon single-handedly jump-started the beet sugar industry in the 1800s (dictators can do that) when wartime embargoes cut off his empire's cane sugar supply.

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At various times and places, people have also coaxed sweetness from sorghum and tree sap, brown rice and sprouted barley. Today's posh sweeteners include stevia, a sugar refined from a South American herb, and agave nectar, a syrup extracted from cacti.

Discovering natural sweeteners was probably a happy accident; that's certainly true of artificial sweeteners. Saccharin was developed in the late1800s after a researcher noticed a sweet taste on his fingers while eating dinner after working in the lab. Likewise, aspartame was discovered in 1965 when a chemist working on a treatment for stomach ulcers licked his fingers to pick up a piece of paper. Sucralose gets our vote for most unlikely birth. It was discovered in 1976 by lab assistant who misunderstood a request to"test" a compound. He tasted it instead.

But sugar isn't all sweetness and light. Indulging our sweet tooth has endangered our health (ironic, considering that medieval doctors used sugar as medicine) and the planet's as well. Artificial sweeteners raise other concerns. Toss in all the misinformation floating around and it's enough to make you eat your pancakes plain and hand out raisins on Halloween.

Maybe we can help. In this modest primer we'll sift fact from fiction to help you decide what sweetener, if any, you want on or in your cereal. First up: How our love for sugar is elemental.

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Natural Sweeteners

Most of the natural sweeteners in your diet are sugars, or simple carbohydrates, and they're actually composed of several "building block" sugars called monosaccharides. Each sugar is made up of a unique combination of monosaccharides, from whence come that sugar's particular sweetness, color and texture. Table sugar (or sucrose) consists of equal parts fructose, the sweetest monosaccharide, and glucose. Glucose paired with another monosaccharide, galactose, form lactose, the sugar found in milk.

All sugars supply 4 calories of energy per gram, and -- this is important -- no nutrients. Just pure caloric energy.

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A related group of substances, sugar alcohols, are chemically similar, but with a distictive difference that renders them less sweet and lower in calories. Although they do occur naturally, especially in fruits, most alcohols in foods are manufactured from sugars and added by processors.

Why add sugars and sugar alcohols in the first place? Because, in the home or the industrial kitchen, they work magic in foods. They add sweetness, of course, but also texture, moisture and color. They enhance and balance other flavors. Sugar is a preservative, used to cure ham and can figs. Without sugar our modern diet wouldn't just be unpalatable, it would be impossible.

Unfortunately, we've let sugar hijack that diet and drive us toward nutritional ruin. Americans, for example, down the equivalent of 20-odd teaspoons of added sugar every day -- 12 teaspoons in one can of soda alone. That's way over the American Heart Association's recommended daily limit of 6 to 9 teaspoons. Besides its well-known role in tooth decay, sugar has become a leading contributor to obesity. Sugary foods can crowd out more nutritious choices. That can of soda has roughly the same number of calories as a glass of milk, but only one of the two contains vitamins and minerals.(Guess which one.) And for people with diabetes, a sugar rush in the bloodstream can overwhelm the body's ability to produce enough insulin to metabolize it.

But there's a larger impact. Sugarcane farming is a chemical- and water-intensive process, and is centered in some of the world's most ecologically sensitive areas. It has drained and poisoned wetlands in the Forida Everglades and the Great Barrier Reef and shrunken life-giving rivers in West Africa and Southeast Asia.

After taking a minute to chew on that, delve into the next topic in our discussion: artificial sweeteners -- the promises and the pitfalls.

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Artificial Sweeteners

To hear some people talk, artificial sweeteners are the best thing since sliced bread. They're touted as calorie-free and diabetic- and dental-friendly additives. That's all true, but it's just one side of the story.

Artificial sweeteners are chemically designed to fake out your taste buds and your digestive system.. Some start as sugars -- tagatose, for example, is a modified form of lactose. Others are manufactured from scratch. The resulting sweeteners stimulate the taste buds far more intensely than sugar. Aspartame registers as 200 times sweeter than sugar -- saccharin up to 700 times sweeter. Thus they're used in such miniscule amounts that even the types that do contain calories contribute negligible amounts to your daily intake. Because they're not digested as sugars, they're safer for people with diabetes. And the bacteria in your mouth that would feast on sugar to attack your teeth go hungry.

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Artificial sweeteners can be tailored for specific applications. Sucralose, for example, is heat-stable; it doesn't break down in cooking or baking.

Despite recurring alarms about harmful effects, all artificial sweeteners on the market have undergone rigorous testing at amounts far exceeding the typical intake. They're approved by the Food and Drug Administration as GRAS -- "generally recognized as safe" -- substances. If a sweetener does have potential side effects -- mostly minor problems like gastic bloating or headaches -- that warning must be included on the label of any food that contains it.

Before you imagine a life free of calorie- or carb-counting, know the downsides. First, artificial sweeteners don't make food "healthy." Depending on the sweeteners used and other ingredients added, sugar-free foods may not even be lower in calories than regular foods.

Speaking of calories, artificial sweeteners don't automatically help you lose weight. They can tempt you to blow your calorie savings on less nutritious choices -- thus the popular combo of a diet soda and large fries. Also, they don't trigger feelings of fullness like sugars do; you might scarf half that bag of sugar-free cookies before your brain says "enough."

The bottom line: Artificial sweeteners can lead you away from healthful foods and don't teach sound nutritional habits. Which, ironically, is the same argument against using sugars in the first place. This makes us think that Nature knew what she was doing when she packaged sweeteners with proteins, fats, vitamins and minerals. We don't presume to be smarter than she is, so we'll recommend her model: Make sweeteners part of the menu, not the main course.

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Lots More Information

Related Articles

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