Archive for the ‘Fake sugars’ Category

What sweetener do you use: Part 6; the fake sugars

Wednesday, February 1st, 2012

Nearly a month ago I started to write a post on the “Fake sugars,” I had read an article on them in the Personal Journal section of The Wall Street Journal, but got distracted when I realized I needed to think about (and write about) table sugar and high fructose corn syrup.

they're all sweeter than sugar

So now I’m finally going to start on the artificial sweeteners. There are four major ones that WSJ reviewed (they even had a panel of tasters): Sweet’N Low, Equal, Splenda and Truvia. They came on the market, respectively, in the 1970s, 1980s, 2000 and 2008. All have zero calories per packet, whereas table sugar has 15 or 16, depending on who you read, per teaspoon. They cost much more than sugar and are considerably sweeter. A Mayo Clinic article online reviews the general subject and terms these chemicals as intense sweeteners.

The National Cancer Institute mentions that they are regulated by the FDA and, in an August 2009 online paper, states there is “no clear evidence that the artificial sweeteners available commercially in the United States are associated with cancer risk in humans.”

The most recent addition to this mix, called Truvia when it’s made by Coca-Cola and Cargill, or PureVia when it’s parents are PepsiCo and Merisant, comes from a plant called Stevia, found in South America. Stevia has a curious history in the United States; it was added to teas by Hain Celestial until the FDA got an anonymous letter questioning its safety in late 2007. At  that point the FDA banned its use in foods, but in 2009, faced with major industry interest, Stevia by-products were approved as food additives (but not Stevia itself).

Stevia, saccharin and the real sugar

Now Truvia and PureVia are being used in a wide range of processed food and beverages. A cousin to the chemical they contain has been extensively used in Japan for over twenty years without major side effects being noted and Stevia, the parent plant, has not only been used for centuries in South America, but also touted for its supposed health benefits.

So why do I have some lingering doubts, in fact some major concerns about all of these chemical food additives, not excluding Truvia and PureVia?

As best I can tell the vast majority of the research on them has been sponsored by the same companies that profit from them. I fail to see independent, carefully performed, double-blind controlled studies especially on the “new two.” Some research has been done on their chemical components, including one four-month study on type 2 diabetics that did not show either high blood pressure or high blood sugar as a result of consuming the active agent in Truvia.

But it’s not just diabetics who are being exposed to the chemicals in these sweeteners. Most of us are, if we consume a diet drink or anything labeled “light.” And medical history informs us that untoward effects may show up in relatively small number (or perhaps even large numbers), years later.

So I’m going to avoid “fake sugars” whenever I can. And perhaps, just perhaps, someday I’ll find out I was being smart in doing so.


What Sweeteners Do You Use? Part 2

Monday, January 16th, 2012

Sugarcane grows in the tropics

In my last post I said I’d dig more fully into the background and safety record of the artificial sweeteners. Then I got diverted; one question was what kind of sugars were there before the artificial sort? I ended up at a website called Lab Cat which, in a brief verbal and visual format, described the sugars we commonly might ingest. Table sugar usually comes from either sugarcane or beets; it’s a combination of two other sugars, glucose and fructose, the former found, typically in grapes and corn; the latter in honey, fruits and vegetables.

When a physician measures your blood sugar level; he or she is checking for glucose. The WebMD site has a nice discussion of blood sugar, mainly focused on those who have too much of it, namely diabetics. Another brief discussion, this one by a Harvard Medical School professor, can be found in an abcNEWS piece online. Normal fasting blood sugar levels are in the 70 to 99 milligrams per deciliter (mg/dl) range.  A deciliter is one-tenth of a liter, a little over three and a third ounces or six and two-thirds tablespoons. A liter is 1.05 quarts and a liter of water has 33.81 ounces of water. Even after eating, a non-diabetic person doesn’t usually  have a blood sugar level over 135 to 140 mg/dl.

Diabetics may have considerably higher blood sugar levels, enough so their urine contains sugar. Up to levels of 180-200 mg/dl your kidneys can reabsorb sugar; above those levels a urine dipstick test will be positive (briefly immersing a plastic strip into the urine; the chemicals on the strip will cause a color change if glucose is present in the urine).

If your blood sugar is low, below the low 70 mg/dl level, either from missing meals or overdosing with insulin or oral drugs used for diabetes (there are a host of other causes), you usually will feel shaky, hungry and perhaps have other symptoms. Most of us who are otherwise healthy  are unlikely to have our blood sugar level fall to really low levels, but those can be extremely dangerous.

If you get an IV with sugar, it’s really glucose under its pseudonym, dextrose. A common IV solution is D5W; that means the composition of the fluid is 5% dextrose (glucose) dissolved in water. another is D5NS, meaning the sugar is dissolved in a salt solution. That is usually given to patients who are dehydrated and need volume; the sugar, in the form of dextrose, is added to make the sterile intravenous fluid “isotonic,” An isotonic solution has the same salt concentration as the normal cells of the body and the blood.(using only salt enough to approximately match what your normal blood level of sodium should be and not adding the dextrose would result in a fluid too dilute for safety).

Fructose can be added to foods, drinks, or, eventually, your waistline

When I read what I had written thus far I realized I wasn’t sure anymore what exactly happens to the fructose part of table sugar, or for that matter the high-fructose corn syrup added to so many processed foods. That turns out to be more complicated than I remembered so I’ll save that discussion for my next post.




What sweetener do you use? Part 1

Wednesday, January 11th, 2012

real sugar has some calories

I have a confession to make. On the rare occasions when I do use a sweetener, I actually use sugar or occasionally honey.

Now that doesn’t happen very often; I don’t have all that much of a “sweet tooth” and usually add a few Crasins to my unsweetened cereal in the morning and drink a non-coffee called Cafix (now that’s a clever name; I suppose it’s implying “Caffeine Fix”) with a small amount of vanilla soy milk, but no sugar.

On Wednesday, January 4th of this year, The Wall Street Journal had a big spread in their “Personal Journal” section with an eye-catching title, Bracing for the Fake Sugar Rush.” In the article four artificial sweeteners, Truvia, Splenda, Equal and Sweet”n Low’ were compared to sugar. Prices were listed, tastes and aftertastes were compared, the sweetening agents were mentioned and the calories noted (0 for the articial sweeteners and 15 calories per teaspoon for the good old fashioned stuff).

Then I started thinking. I knew that adding 3,500 calories to my food intake theoretically would result in a weight gain of a pound. Since I enjoy math I wanted to figure out how much sugar that is. That translates into 233 and 1/3 teaspoons full or 1.167 kilograms of sugar (about two and a half pounds). So I’d have to eat two and a half pounds of sugar to, in theory, gain a pound of weight?

These three don't; but do they have any risks?

I went back to the article I just mentioned: my real reason for not using artificial sweeteners is two-fold. The WSJ admittedly “unscientific taste test” confirmed one of those; all four of the fake sugars had strange aftertastes according to their samplers: one was “Tab-like,” one was compared to soap water, another termed metallic and the fourth said to leave a taste “like a copper pipe.”

The other is safety; consumers often hear much later of concerns about new chemicals, whether they be sweeteners or medications. The managing director of a “brand-consulting firm” says one worry is “Did they test it on enough rats over a long enough period of time?”

Well, I’ve done basic lab research with rodents (three and a half years in medical school) and I’d really like to be able to say those experiments directly apply to humans, but I can’t be sure that’s a true statement. I did later work with dogs and when my boss (an associate professor at UCLA) was getting ready to present some of our results at an international conference, he came up with a great idea.

“Peter,” he said, “when I show the slides with our data, someone in the back of the room is going to get up and ask if humans react the same way. So let’s replicate our experiment in at least a few people.”

Guess who was the first of those “people?” I was poked and prodded and infused with the same materials as our dogs.

In our case the data was essentially the same and when that inevitable heckler at the back of the room said his piece, my boss replied, “Let’s have the first large slide.”

But how much safety testing has been done with humans for these sweeteners? I’ll try to find out if there are any long-term data on those of us who use non-caloric alternatives to sugar and write about that next.