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Swapping Sweeteners

Splenda
Splenda
Splenda, a popular artificial sweetener. | Photo: | Artifical Sweetener, Sugar, Diet,

Splenda, Equal, Truvia...is one more harmful than the next?

The search for sweetness is big business, so buying a can of cola can also mean buying into a whole can of worms. Keeping sweet has always been controversial. The main source of sweetness in the Western diet is sugar. Bottom line, sugar gives you energy--it hikes up your blood sugar levels and makes you feel good. There is a distinct downside however. Sugar taken to excess can rot your teeth and make you fat. Known as the "silent killer," obesity is a major cause of human disease and early death. There is currently a global so-called "obesity epidemic" and in America and the UK about 1.5 billion people over 15 are considered to be overweight. Many of our kids are getting fat too. Diabetes is a growing health problem. So an acceptable form of sweetness that has no, or minimal, calorific value but that tastes good is the Holy Grail of the table, and if it doesn't ruin your pearly whites, even better.

Sugar was dubbed "pure, white and deadly" by Professor John Yudkin in 1988, mainly due to his connection of excessive sugar intake with heart disease. The data has since been challenged--and so on it goes. For every form of commercial sweetener in the western diet there will be vested interest and counter-vested interest, all vying to carry out experiments and present data to support their own case. Enter Dr. Richard Cottrell, president of the Sugar Bureau: "One of the problems with the (sugar-related) heart disease data of the seventies and eighties was that a lot of evidence was based on data from rats. The metabolism of rats has a different way of handling carbohydrate than humans. They convert everything into fat, including sucrose, whereas humans don't."

Still, rats figure extensively in experimentation carried out on various artificial sweeteners to determine if they are safe enough to warrant a "Generally Recognized as Safe" or GRAS rating from the Federal Drug Administration (FDA). Saccharine was the first commercially available artificial sweetener. Used since the late 19th century, it was downgraded for use after experiments on lab rats in 1977 suggested a link with bladder cancer. A warning label was put on saccharine products, though this was dropped in 2001. Saccharine has a metallic after taste, and alternative artificial sweeteners have been continuously developed since the start of the 20th century. An elusive "magic bullet" of sweetness would mix low calorific value with a satisfying taste, without attacking your teeth. So what's available out there, and will any commercially available artificial sweetener give you a sugar-like kick without killing you off?

Splenda
This sweetener is made by chlorinating natural sugar. Just the mention of chlorine can cause alarm bells, if you think of the stuff that cleans public swimming baths or its reputed connection with cancer. Well there'll be plenty of Splenda apologists willing to tell you not all chlorine is cancer-causing. The main objection to Splenda is in its marketing. The Sugar Association created a website "The Truth About Splenda" in 2005, based on their assertion of false advertising claims. Splenda was marketed with the slogan, "Made from sugar so it tastes like sugar." The manufacturers of Splenda withdrew the campaign and settled out of court.

Truvia
Truvia is made using the plant stevia (or rebaudiana) which has been readily available as a natural sweetener in South America and Japan for centuries. Now this one may really rattle your cage. The FDA only approves the use of natural stevia as a "food supplement," mainly from health shops, and not as a sweetener. The main western health issue with stevia has stemmed from--wait for it--experiments on rats. There was some question of an adverse reaction especially on male rats, which has been widely questioned due to the very high concentrations of stevia used in the experiments. Since November 2011, the European Union has okayed stevia as a sweetener. Truvia was developed by the Coca-Cola Company and Cargill, and the name has been copyrighted. Of course there are allegations that the only real problem with stevia was in its commercial application--i.e., that as a natural substance it was not subject to copyright and presented a threat to western manufacturers who could not slap a trade mark on it. Oh, and in its natural state it is a grey green color that looks like mold and has an odd, licorice-like after taste.

Equal
Made from aspartame, this has its fair (or unfair?) share of adverse criticism. Anything from thinning hair to epileptic fits has been blamed on aspartame, and some people are known to have an allergic reaction to this sweetener, especially those who cannot metabolize the amino acid phenylalanine. It has been reported that 10,000 complaints have been received by the FDA about aspartame.

Commercial cereals, diet sodas and sugar-free desserts such as ice cream are very likely to contain artificial sweeteners. Does switching to artificial sweeteners mean you will be less likely to become obese? Well a 2005 study by the University of Texas Health Science Center at San Antonio suggested that increased use of diet soda was associated with increased weight gain in a population-based study. Well at least it wasn't rats. So the debate goes on. Will a spoonful of sugar help the medicine go down--or just make you feel worse? Will artificial sweeteners make you healthier, or make you ill? Sure as eggs are eggs someone, somewhere will tell you that what you eat will make you die sooner rather than later, but don't die from ignorance. Look up the different brands, sift through the evidence and make your own mind up. After all--the FDA may say A-OK, but what do you say?

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Updated May 6, 2017 6:00 AM EDT | More details

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