Adam's Corner

An A-Z Guide to Sweeteners: Part III

To repeat: There is no sweetener that we can consume vast amounts of with impunity.  None.  There are certainly some that are better than others.  There are some that even have side benefits.  But the take-home message is still “eat sweets in moderation, if you eat them at all.”

Saccharine (benzoic sulfimide): No other sweetener on this list has been through as many ups-and-downs in the mind of the public.  Saccharine was discovered by accident in the late 1800s by a scientist working on coal tar derivatives.  It was largely ignored until the sugar shortages during World War I, then quickly embraced as a diet and diabetic sweetener.  By the late 1970s, however, the FDA was set to ban saccharine as a possible human carcinogen (the FDA is required to ban from sale any food known to cause cancer in lab animals).

But then Congress stepped in, under pressure from manufacturers and consumers of diet drinks, and overrode the FDA’s authority to do so.  Saccharine was the only artificial sweetener out there, and a nation of Tab drinkers would not be denied!  So saccharine remained on the market, but for decades carried a label warning of an increased risk of bladder cancer[1].  Then in the last decade, those warning labels were removed because evidence now suggests that while saccharine gives cancer to rats, it doesn’t give cancer to primates….

I don’t know what to say about this one.  Well, I will say this: there are certain ways in which a rat is more predisposed to get cancer from saccharine than a primate is.  So, it’s safe to say, saccharine is probably safer for us than it is for lab rats.  But over a decade or two, or three?  I just don’t feel good about this one.

Sorbitol see under “Sugar Alcohols” (next month)

Sorghum Molasses, also known as sorghum syrup, is made by juicing the stalk of the sweet sorghum plant, and then boiling it down until it’s a thick syrup.  As an unrefined sweetener, sorghum can be expected to be relatively high in minerals and vitamins compared to white sugar.  That being said, I’ve been unable to find any solid nutritional breakdown on it.   My grandmother used to love it.

Stevia: This member of the mint family is native to South America, although it adapts well to anywhere that mint will grow, including your kitchen windowsill.  Stevia is so many hundreds of times sweeter than sugar that you only need a tiny amount just about zero calories’ worth of it to sweeten a cup of tea, or a soda.  It’s been used for thousands of years in its native lands, and for at least the last few decades in parts of Asia.  It appears safe[2].  A safe, non-caloric, inexpensive natural sweetener might seem like the Holy Grail, but it’s only in the last few years that stevia has been available in foods and beverages in this country.  You see, stevia wasn’t around in the U.S. when the Food, Drug & Cosmetic Act was passed in 1938.  So it wasn’t “grandfathered in.”  Before stevia could be used in foods, said the FDA, it had to be approved as a New Dietary Ingredient.  And to do that, somebody would have to file a New Dietary Ingredient application, the same as had to be done with aspartame or saccharine.

The problem is, it costs millions of dollars, sometimes tens of millions, to amass and submit the research for an NDI application.  This might be a sound investment with something like saccharine or aspartame, which a company can patent and make tons of money off of.  But stevia is a plant.  And you can’t patent a plant.

What you can do with a plant, however, is call it a “dietary supplement.”  Herbal dietary supplements don’t need to pass NDI review; they just need to have been used traditionally somewhere[3].  So stevia was on the market, just not as a food.

This made things interesting for a while.  Stores like ours were warned we could get in trouble if we shelved the stevia near the sweeteners.  We were warned not to even call it a “sweetener.”  (Although we were allowed to describe it as “sweet.”)  Manufacturers were not allowed to put it in food products.  So you could have a stevia-sweetened chewable vitamin, but not a cookie.  Some companies got creative, for example the Virgil’s soda company, which sold a diet root beer sweetened with stevia, but had to call it a dietary supplement (they added some ginseng, too), and then it was taxed accordingly.

Meanwhile the sugar industry worked hard to find something anything wrong with stevia, and couldn’t.  Fast-forward to 2009, when two companies vaulted stevia into the mainstream. One, Cargill, partnered with Coca-Cola to bring an extract they called Truvia to the market.  Cargill and Coke actually ponied up the cash for an NDI application, but made sure that the application applied, not to the stevia plant itself, but to their specific, proprietary extract.  The other was Wisdom of the Ancients, which had been selling stevia for over a decade.  Impatient with the FDA’s unwillingness to take matters into its own hands, they hired three former FDA scientists to apply the same scrutiny to stevia they would have if they were still at the agency.  According to this review, stevia came up safe, and Wisdom declared self-affirmed GRAS (Generally Recognized As Safe) status.  This, as far as I know, is unprecedented, and probably illegal basically telling a major government agency “We’re doing your job for you because you didn’t do it yourself.  Now we dare you to try and stop us.”   And that’s pretty much where things stand.

The easiest way to use stevia is to have a plant growing nearby, and just pluck a leaf or two and throw them in a cup of hot water, maybe with a tea bag, or some hibiscus, or a small sprig of fresh mint.

Of course there are products for sale as well, ranging from “green” stevia (just dried powdered leaf), to a variety of extracts which are either liquid or dissolve in water.  Most extracts are cut with some kind of benign filler, so you don’t have to measure out an infinitesimal amount like 1/32 of a teaspoon.  Pure extracts are also available.  Fresh stevia has a slight, not unpleasant licorice-y aftertaste; most extracts manage to eliminate this.

Sucralose: This artificial sweetener is made by substituting three of the hydroxyl groups in a sugar molecule with chlorines.

The folks who make sucralose used to call their product “natural,” because it’s made from sugar.  The sugar industry took exception to this, and went after them in court, pointing out that sugar with chlorine in it doesn’t occur in nature.    Sucralose lost.

Something about the changed molecular structure makes sucralose enormously sweet, about 600 times sweeter than sugar.  So you use very little, meaning you ingest very few calories.

The thing is, chlorine is toxic.  It’s not a horrible, you’re-gonna-keel-over-and-die-tomorrow kind of toxic like rat poison or sarin gas.  It’s a kind of toxic the body is equipped to deal with, within reason.  We’ve all swum in chlorinated pools; we’ve all survived the experience

But it’s still toxic.  I suppose I wouldn’t balk if a piece of sucralose-sweetened birthday cake was handed to me.  But I certainly don’t buy it, or keep it in my home.   Next month; sugar (including molasses), sugar alcohols and yacon.

 


[1] The Coca-Cola Company found a clever way around those warning labels.  Whenever Diet Coke was sold in a bottle or can, it was sweetened with aspartame, so there was no cancer warning.  Whenever it was sold from a fountain, however whenever the product didn’t have to be labeled it was sweetened with saccharine.  Consumer watchdogs estimate that Coca-Cola saved millions of dollars this way.

[2] Regular consumption of stevia will slightly lower blood pressure in people with hypertension.  Whether it might be dangerous for people with already dangerously low blood pressure is impossible to say for sure…  I’ve never come across any case reports where it has been a problem.  And the sugar industry, which has aggressively fought legalization of stevia by trying to find something, anything, unsafe about it, apparently hasn’t either.

[3] Just to be clear, the FDA still has the unilateral right to yank any supplement from the market it deems unsafe more than it is allowed to do with a food, where the agency can only recommend a recall.