Friday, April 10, 2009

Some Sweet Alternatives

Greetings everyone!

Like promised I'm back and I hope you took a look at the mini-post I put up during my time out. This blog will be finishing off the sugar debate. So far I've explained that processed sugar is essentially a drug that really shouldn't be ingested and especially not ingested in the quantities in which most of us consume it. The last statistics I found say that today the average American eats about 150 pounds of sugar a year. Historically the American diet has been becoming increasingly more sweet to the point that if you check any processed item in your house now you'll likely find sugar or high fructose corn syrup amongst its ingredients. So with all of that established, what are the sugar alternatives?

Let's look at artificial zero-calorie sweeteners. The key thing to keep in mind is that it's not really smart to replace a drug with a poison. Artificial sweeteners are called such because they don't occur in nature. They are chemicals manufactured in a laboratory and they happen to taste sweet. This isn't to say that everything that's artificially created is necessarily harmful for you, but it's a pretty good heuristic when it comes to food. The human body hasn't evolved to process large amounts of artificial chemicals. Here are a few facts on the two leading artificial sweeteners:

Aspartame (Nutrasweet & Equal)—it is a chemical that consists 90% of Phenylalanine and aspartic acid, two components that immediately enter the bloodstream and act as excitatory neuro-toxins in your brain. That is, they excite the nerve cells in your brain and get them to fire with heightened intensity. If too much of the chemical is present or if it happens too often, the nerve cells die from rapid overuse. The remaining 10% of aspartame is methanol, which is wood alcohol. While wood alcohol is a very potent poison and about 2 teaspoons of it can kill an adult, it's obviously not concentrated enough in aspartame to kill you. The interesting thing that does happen is that when your body is metabolizing methanol it turns into formaldehyde and formic acid, which are embalming fluid and ant poison respectively. In other words, to keep tissues from decomposing, doctors and/or (forensic) scientists put them into formaldehyde. On first thought it might even sound good, like hey my organs will stay fresh, but really that's not the case.

All in all aspartame has not a shred of a redeeming quality, but it's unfortunately in over 6000 products world-wide. To my greatest dismay it's in my flipping gum! Granted only a tiny percentage, but still. I'd like to chew aspartame-free gum, but none is available in any store I've ever looked into. So if any of you know a brand that I wouldn't have to order online, and is aspartame-free let me know. If you're wondering how come aspartame got into the human food-supply despite its toxicity, the story is a book-length scandal and involves lots of money and the over-riding of 6 separate scientific recommendations to not manufacture aspartame. To give the FDA some credit though, they did deny aspartame approval until the new commissioner overruled the final review panel, ... and then he quit to go to work for the aspartame manufacturer. I'm not kidding. On to the next one.

Sucralose (Splenda)—Like aspartame, sucralose is also an artificial chemical that tastes sweet. It was discovered on accident by two researchers trying to develop a new pesticide. Sucralose is a chlorocarbon which essentially means it's related to DDT and other poisons. It contains chlorine which is a known carcinogen. However, to keep the chlorine from breaking free in your body, the manufacturers use a load of other chemicals, including methanol and formaldehyde to produce sucralose. Whether or not that's actually working seems to still be unclear because sucralose hasn't been around long enough to determine any long-term risk of cancers. To be fair it is widely regarded as safer than aspartame. To be realistic, that's like saying insecticides are less harmful than rat poison. Although the jury is still out on the extent of the damages sucralose can cause, here is the sucralose toxicity information center. If you want to know more, here is a pretty good article.

I could go on and on and talk about other artificial sweeteners, like Sweet 'n Low, which is the chemical known as saccharine. The story is the same though. It's bad for you. It's been shown to cause cancer in test animals. You get the drift, ... eating artificial chemicals isn't good for your health.

Aside from being carcinogenic poisons, artificial sweeteners have another interesting side effect when it comes to diet soda. Namely studies show that drinking diet soda increases your chances for obesity. Ironically it seems that the artificial sugar makes your brain think that you're eating sugar so it decreases your blood sugar and makes you hungry. People who drink a diet soda before a meal have been shown to eat more calories during the meal than a non-diet soda drinking control group.

But enough about artificial sweeteners. Let's look at natural zero-calorie sweeteners. The by far best zero-calorie natural sugar substitute I've come across is derived from the stevia plant. It's a plant native to South America and it is about 300 times sweeter than sugar. A major advantage that it has over all artificial sweeteners, other than not being a compound that doesn't appear in nature, is that it's been in use for over 200 years. It doesn't mess with your blood sugar, and it's not cancerous. There is a ton of politics involved in this, but luckily it's been gaining a foothold on the American market to the point that in the upcoming years Coca Cola will launch a line of Sprite that's been sweetened with a stevia plant extract.

There are several different stevia plant products commercially available:

There's the brandname Stevia. I've never tried it nor have I ever seen it at a store, but it's available in liquid forms with tons of different flavors, so that's a plus. You can check it out here.

There is the brandname Purevia. I actually did try this and it's available at your average supermarket. It's in powder form and resembles finely granulated table sugar. I wasn't too fond of its taste though. It's hard to explain, but it tasted somewhat like the root of a plant. It was sweet, but weird. That's just my assessment though and if you'd like to, check it out here and try it for yourself.

Then there is brandname Truvia. I tried this one, too and got hooked on it. It's also available at average supermarkets. They say that they use the sweetest part of the stevia plant, called rebina, to make this sweetener and I think that's what made the difference for me. Truvia has the consistency of regular table sugar and you can check it out here. My testimonial is two thumbs up. I've been baking with it, putting it in my tea and oatmeal and it's never disappointed me. It's also the cheapest of the non-carcinogenic alternatives. Here in Boston it's about $3.49 for 40 packets that can last me 1-2 weeks depending on how much baking I do.

To be fair I am wondering whether natural zero-calorie sweeteners also have the brain-tricking effect that promotes hunger, but I haven't been able to find anything that indicates that so far. If you do find sources which deal with that aspect, please let me know. I'm curious.

All right, on to the caloric sugar substitutes.

The two major healthy ones that I stumbled upon are raw honey and agave nectar.

Raw honey, unlike processed honey, is a living and breathing food with great immune benefits. Because it hasn't been heated it still retains enzymes that help your body recover from stomach ulcers, sore throats or other infections. Furthermore unprocessed, raw honey retains its complex chemical structure which means that your body will actually have to digest it and that it won't go straight into your bloodstream and give you a sugar-high and then a crash. It's incredibly sweet which means you won't need much of it to sweeten your tea or whatever else you need sweetened, so the caloric intake won't be immense.

Agave nectar also has immune benefits similar to honey in that it can soothe inflammation and kill bacteria. Apparently the Aztecs used it on wounds to prevent and/or reverse bacterial infection. It's a viscous liquid that, has a low glycemic index, even slightly lower than raw honey, and won't spike your blood sugar.

There of course are other good and other bad sugar substitutes I didn't mention here, but I hope that the ones I did cover give you a good overview and a decent range of options for curbing or eliminating your refined sugar consumption.

Next week I'll be talking about organic food. Like what's the difference between organic versus conventionally grown food? Is it really better for you? Or is it better for the environment? Or both? And why is it more expensive? So tune in next Friday for that post, but meanwhile if you choose the raw honey or agave nectar go for the organic ones. =)

Till then,

"So many people spend their health gaining wealth, and then have to spend their wealth to regain their health."--A.J. Reb Materi


  1. Stevia Sprite... I can see it.

    (And thanks for the Snitch question -- I clarified in my post. Seems you grab a sock hanging out of the back of his/her pants. Just like the wizards do.)

  2. hmm, overall I tend to agree with you about the ill effects of artificial sweeteners. However, on the study with diet cola and people eating more, I'm not so convinced it a chemical issue. Whenever I see someone order a diet cola, they always, without fail, will gorge on their meal because they have that buffer of the no calories in their food. Although I don't have hard facts, I doubt that it is solely based on the chemical signaling of the sugar. Rather, I think it is mostly in the way that people currently think about food portions.

  3. Josh,

    I'm glad I could help inspire some more light-shedding on the magical world of muggle quiddich. I have to admit your post was hilarious. You should look into column writing. =)

    Athena, (if I know you, I'm sorry, I don't recognize your screen name)
    I agree with your point. Like the link I posted explains, it's very likely that people allow themselves to eat more just because they know the diet soda carries no calories, but it also states that there is a chemical component.

    In my opinion the statistical weightgain is a combination of the two--chemistry and rationalization.

    By the way, thanks for reading my blog. Subscribe to follow if you like it. =)

  4. Tina,

    The other great thing about agave nectar is it doesn't crystalize the way honey does. It pretty much stays syrupy indefinitely, making it a great alternative to honey for those of us who don't go through a bottle quickly. It has a less distinct taste, making it a good option for people like me who don't want something that tastes distinct in tea (I hate honey in something like English Breakfast)

    And for anyone I know in Boston, I can get organic agave nectar cheaper in Colorado and am willing to bring some back this summer if anyone wants it. It's cheaper because there's some local production there, a brand not available in Boston as far as I can tell.

  5. Kas,

    Yup, those sure as heck are also benefits of agave nectar. However, I guess I should have clarified the difference between honey and raw honey. Raw honey isn't syrupy, it's more like a viscous solid and it doesn't crystalize the way processed honey does because its chemical structure has retained its authenticity.

    In terms of taste and level of sweetness, that's to each his own. I just got Zambezi raw honey from Africa. It's dark and incredibly rich made from forest flowers. You'd probably hate it. It's beyond distinct and I love it. =)

  6. I love honey, I just don't like it in my traditional black teas.