Recently, I’ve gotten several letters on a similar theme from viewers of our TV show fowarded to me through our Low Carb CookwoRx website. The recurrent theme involves where we stand on the use of sugar versus artificial sweeteners or on one artificial sweetener versus another. Here’s a typical one:
I like sweets and want to reduce intake. I have tried artificially sweetened products but suffer from constipation and bloating …Is there any way to avoid this or do I have to just reduce regular sugar intake and forget the artificial sweeteners? –MJB
It occurred to me that a number of blog readers have asked similar questions and many others, who haven’t written, might also welcome the information, so here’s my reply:
It’s always been our recommendation that it’s a good thing to curb the sweet tooth, so that one can once again perceive the natural sweetness in foods, such as almonds and snap peas, for instance, that most of us can no longer even recognize as sweet. Continuing to bombard the sweet receptors (taste buds) with high intensity sweetness, whether from sugar or from artificial sweeteners will overwhelm that natural perception ability.
Sugar, of course, has an entire spectrum of metabolic consequences apart from its sweetness: elevated blood sugar, which is itself harmful to the kidney’s filtering apparatus, excess insulin in the blood to counter that elevated blood sugar, which has a Pandora’s box of associated problems. There are a hundred reasons to avoid eating much sugar.
As to artificial sweeteners, they all have their drawbacks: bitter aftertaste, bloating and gas, excitotoxic potential for the brain and nervous system, allergic reactions, etc. In our opinion, for most people, Splenda has the fewest problems, if used in moderation, but there are definitely those people who cannot use it. Of the sugar alcohols, many notorious for unpleasant intestinal side effects, probably erythritol (sold as Z Sweet) and xylitol (sold under a variety of names and in bulk bags in many health food stores) have the fewest of these side effects, if used in moderation. The sweet herb, stevia, and even plain old saccharine don’t have a lot of intestinal side effects, but do have a bitter aftertaste if you use even slightly too much.
The best advice is to find the artificial (or natural in the case of stevia) non-sugar sweetener you tolerate best and don’t use much of it. Bit by bit taper the amount of sweetness you add to foods and let the natural sweetness shine through. Cordially…
Now, I’ll broaden the educational value of the post a little, to add a short reference glossary of alternative sweeteners. Much of this information comes from an American Association of Cereal Chemists book we have in our library, called Sweeteners: Alternative by Amy L. Nelson (Eagen Press, St. Paul, Minnesota)
Acesulfame K: An accident of chemistry, discovered in 1967 by a Hoechst Company researcher in Germany, who noticed a sweet taste on his fingers, while reacting a couple of chemicals. (As you’ll see from the entries that follow this is how more than a few artificial sweeteners got discovered. There seems to be a pattern among chemists to stick their fingers in their mouths, which, to me, a person with an undergrad combined biology/chemistry major, seems to violate every basic tenant of safe laboratory behavior I ever learned.) Acesulfame potassium, or AceK as we usually call it, is a synthetic, white, crystalline powder about 200 times sweeter than sucrose. Positives include having no demonstrated health risks so far (approved in the US in 1988) and good stability; it’s not thought to decompose and is excreted unchanged from the GI tract. Drawbacks: really no serious ones, except that it is truly ‘artificial’ which, all by itself, is enough to turn some folks off. It’s sold commercially under the name Sunette. We have no problem with its use in moderation, as all sweeteners should be used.
Aspartame: Sold under the brand name NutraSweet, the compound was also an accidental discovery in 1965 by a chemist at Searle & Company. (Another finger sucker, apparently.) It is a synthetic, white, crystalline powder, made of two amino acids (L-aspartic acid and L-phenylalanine) with about 160-220 times the sweetness of sucrose. Positives include a clean taste without metallic bitterness. Drawbacks include its notorious instability in non-acidic aqueous solutions or when heated, at which point it loses its sweetness and potentially becomes toxic. When the molecule disassociates (breaks apart) one potential decomposition compound is methanol or ‘wood alcohol’–the stuff sometimes in moonshine that makes you go blind if you drink it. Just image what could be happening to those aspartame molecules inside all those cans of diet soda in the back of a delivery truck on a sweltering August day in Atlanta. We have personally witnessed a startling array of clinical ills anecdotally attributable to its use, ranging from severe and reproducible stomach cramping to sleeplessness to hives to emotional disturbance to memory loss. There’s some evidence (again, anecdotal) that these potential ills might even be of greater risk to people on a low carb dietary structure. These concerns, in part, are what prompted our reversal of opinion about the sweetener’s safety after writing Protein Power and why we no longer allow any little blue packets in our house. We do not recommend its use!
Cyclamate: Another accidental discovery, in 1937 by a graduate student at the University of Illinois. (This time a ‘coffin nail’ sucker who got his chemically contaminated fingers on his cigarette and noticed the smoke tasted sweet. Yeeaacch!) Cyclamate is a synthetic, white, crystalline powder about 30 times sweeter than sucrose. Drawbacks include: a bitter-tasting breakdown product and questionable health risk. Based on studies in the late 1960s that suggested the product might cause bladder cancer in rats, cyclamate was banned in the US in 1970 never to return. Subsequent studies in the 50 plus countries that didn’t ban the product–and where it is still sold–showed no carcinogenic potential, but its petition for reinstatement in the US still languishes 25 years later.
Erythritol: A naturally occurring sugar alcohol (found in small quantities in mushrooms, pears, melons, grapes and wine) that is produced commercially by fermentation of table sugar (or other sugars) in a process somewhat akin to making yogurt. It’s only about 70% as sweet as sugar but has only a fraction (about 0.2) of a calorie per gram, basically low enough to qualify it as ‘zero calories’. Erythritol is a small molecule, rapidly absorbed by the small intestine, meaning little of it gets to the colon to cause the typical intestinal misery common to other sugar alcohols. On the good side, research has shown that more than 90% of what’s absorbed is excreted unchanged in the urine within 24 hours. (That does beg the question of what happens to the other 10%, but let’s not split hairs.) Positives: Most people feel it has a clean taste. As I do with xylitol, I perceive a slight cold, faintly metallic taste of the straight stuff that disappears to a large extent when it’s added to a food or beverage.
Lo Han Guo: The extract of a Chinese berry, that, when purified into its individual compounds is 300 to 400 times sweeter than sucrose. Used in China for centuries (possibly millennia) it’s a fairly recent entry into the natural alternative sweetener scene. (Proctor and Gamble patented a commercial extraction and purification process in 1995.) To read more about it, click here.
Saccharine (Sweet’n’Low): Discovered, again by accident, in 1878 at a Johns Hopkins University laboratory, saccharine is a synthetic, white, crystalline powder 300-600 times sweeter than sucrose. Drawbacks include: bitter aftertaste and questionable health risk. The substance had been shown in a 1977 Canadian study to cause bladder cancer in male rats fed an amount of saccharine equal on a human scale to that in 800 to 1000 cans of diet soda per day. Subsequent study on humans has failed to show a connection. According to Ms. Nelson’s book, President Theodore Roosevelt, who championed the cause of keeping saccharine available to the American consumer, is said to have remarked:
“Anyone who says saccharin is injurious to health is an idiot!”–Teddy Roosevelt ,1906
Ole Teddy knew how to call a spade a spade.
Sorbitol, Mannitol, and Maltitol: All are sugar alcohols produced by the fermentation of corn, wheat, or potato starch into either a crystalline powder or a syrup. Depending on how the starch is broken down (by which enzymatic reaction and for how long) the same starch can yield any of these sugar alcohols. Glucose converts to sorbitol, mannose to mannitol, and maltose to maltitol. None are as sweet as sugar, though maltitol comes closest at 90%. Positives: they have fewer calories than sugar (about 1.5 to 2.5 per gram versus the 4 per gram in sugar). Drawbacks: All these sugar alcohols cause the notorious intestinal side effects common to the group–intestinal rumbling, gas, bloating, and often diarrhea–if consumed in more than small amounts, which limits their usefulness. Although some food purveyors will completely subtract all grams of any sugar alcohol they use in a product from the carb total, that’s probably not entirely kosher, since some portion of the substance does get absorbed (although there’s no good data on how much of which one to my knowledge) and therefore has to at least count as calories in. Although it’s not double-blind, placebo controlled research data, it’s long been our custom to count sugar alcohols a contributing about a third of a gram of carb per gram of sugar alcohol (or 3 grams for every 10) which serves to curb intake somewhat in people watching their carbs.
Stevia: First extracted in the early 1900s from the leaves of a South American plant, Stevia rebaudiniana, but used as an herb for centuries before that to sweeten bitter medicines. The leaves are about 30 times sweeter than sucrose and the purified extract (the stuff sold in little green packets in stores nowadays) is about 200 times sweeter. Positives include its natural origins and purported safety demonstrated by its lengthy use in folk medicine. Drawbacks include its bitter afterbite, which make it difficult to cook with, since just enough to make a dish properly sweet is a molecule away from the too much that makes it bitter. A good Stevia cookbook is a worthwhile purchase for anyone wanting to use this product to sweeten. Stevia extract has not received GRAS (Generally Recognized As Safe) status from the FDA (for who knows what reasons, but cherchez l’argent if you ask me) and, therefore, can only be sold as a dietary supplement, not a sweetener. Go figger.
Sucralose (Splenda): One of the few artificial sweeteners actually developed on purpose (by researchers at Queen Elizabeth College in London) sucralose is a synthetic compound made directly from the sugar molecule by selectively replacing three hydroxyl (-OH) groups with chlorine (-Cl) molecules to produce a substance about 400 to 800 times sweeter than the molecule it came from, sucrose. Positives include its clean taste, stability both in solutions across a wide range of pH values and at high temperatures. Additionally, it is minimally metabolized, being mostly excreted in the stool, unchanged–ie with all its added chlorine molecules still bound in their positions, not wandering around in the body somewhere as some alarmists would have you believe. To date, we have seen no credible evidence (either with our own eyes or in published controlled studies) to indict this sweetener as a health risk. As always, our minds will stay open and if such information becomes available and has merit, we will adjust our recommendations accordingly. For now, for us, sucralose in its little yellow packets or in bulk packages is fine, used in moderation as all sweeteners should be.
Tagatose: Derived from the milk sugar, lactose, this sweetener is slightly less sweet than sucrose (about 92% so). Positives include having only 1.5 calories per gram versus 4 for table sugar and honey (so although not no calorie, it’s low calorie), not rotting your teeth, and exerting a pre-biotic effect in the gut by stimulating the cells of the colon to crank up their production of butyrate (a short chain fatty acid) that helps nourish both the colonocytes and the friendly bacteria there. Drawbacks: Makers suggest that it is metabolized in a manner similar to fructose (which might not be a good thing) but is only partially absorbed. About 15 to 20% is absorbed and the balance flows on downstream to cause all the same intestinal effects as other partially absorbable carbohydrates–namely, gas, bloating, and diarrhea–if used to excess. Marketed in the US in a product called Shugr.
Xylitol: A sugar alcohol, derived from xylan (a complex sugar chain, sort of like cellulose, which is found in corncobs, straw, almond shells, and birch bark) which is then broken down into individual units of a simple sugar, called xylose, which is then hydrogenated to make xylitol. Positives are that it has a sweetness exactly equal to sugar (but only half the calories) and so measures exactly like sugar spoon for spoon, making for easy recipe conversion. Additionally, there are a pretty good number of research studies that point to its actually being of some health benefit for preventing cavities and ear infections in children. Drawbacks: from my own use, I noted typical intestinal side effects of sugar alcohols, such as gas, bloating, rumbling, and diarrhea, although some people aver less misery with it than with other sugar alcohols, except, perhaps, erythritol. Additionally, I am able to perceive a slight cold, faintly metallic quality to its taste, although other people describe it as a clean taste. Once only found in chewing gum, so in small amounts in the diet, it’s now being manufactured in bulk and in individual single serving packets. If you tolerate using it, and many people do, it’s probably among the least offensive of the sugar alcohols.
I should note that all the high-intensity sweeteners (those with sweetness hundreds of times greater than sucrose) require a bulking agent to be used. Most of what’s in the little packets of any color is the bulking agent, most often maltodextrin. There is currently great debate about whether the maltodextrin forms used for this purpose are an absorbable carb or not. The half a gram or so attributed to packets of sucralose, stevia, or saccharine come from the maltodextrin and we’ve always counted them into the total carb count. If it turned out that, like fiber, they went unabsorbed entirely, that would be an added benefit. Time will tell.
So, there it is. A glossary of the compounds sweeter than sugar. If you choose to use…Caveat emptor!