“Honesty coupled to beauty is to have honey a sauce to sugar.”
William Shakespeare – As you like it
We are constantly being warned by dieticians that too much sugar is bad for your health and we now have labels on food and drink warning how much sugar and salt is in each product. Australian manufacturers are guilty of putting too much sugar in just about everything, making even dark chocolate and tonic water unpalatably sweet.
The obvious solution is to use less sugar in our beverages and buy products with artificial sweeteners. Yet another group of dieticians tell us that artificial sweeteners are dangerous to our health, particularly aspartame, and that we should avoid them.
It has been suggested that fast food outlets put lots of sugar in the food to make people hungry for more. Dr Louis J. Aronne Director of the Comprehensive Weight Loss Program at New York Presbyterian Hospital/Weill Cornell Medical Center has concluded that foods with high sugar and fat content creates a ‘fullness resistance’ that interferes with hormonal messages that signals the brain to stop eating. You feel hungrier instead. Other researchers have found that refined foods with high sugar and carbohydrate content can be as addictive as tobacco and alcohol. Diabetics have to be very careful with their intake of sugar.
Common table sugar or sucrose is made from the juice of a tall grass called sugar cane and from a root vegetable called sugar beet. About 168 million tonnes of sugar were produced in 2011, which on average equates to about 24Kg of sugar per person a year or 260 calories per day. In reality some people eat far more sugar than that and some people eat less. Sugar is a carbohydrate which is commonly known as ‘carbs’ to gym junkies. For the chemistry minded, a carbohydrate is made from carbon, hydrogen and oxygen in various combinations.
There are other sugars found in nature and on the labels of packaged food that you may not be aware of.
- Glucose is an important sugar for the body and is mainly manufactured from starch.
- Fructose is found in honey, tree and vine fruits, flowers, berries and most root vegetables. This is the sugar that is most substituted for common sugar.
- Galactose is found in dairy products, sugar beets, and other gums.
- Maltose or malt sugar is produced from germinating cereals, such as barley, and is an important part of the beer and whiskey brewing process.
- Lactose is found in milk and is formed from galactose and glucose. There is lactose intolerance in some populations.
In an attempt to avoid some of the problems caused by natural sugar an Australian team has produced a low GI sugar known as LogiCane® that goes well with the popular low GI diet. It has been suggested that it may be a better sugar for diabetics.
Another plant extract is Stevia (S. Rebaudiana) which is a species of plant found in Central America. The leaves contain a sweetener that is 30–45 times the sweetness of table sugar and the purified extract is 250-300 sweeter than sugar. Stevia is generally considered safe and has been in use in South America as a sweetener and medicine for millennia. Stevia has a slight bitter after taste compared with sugar, but the sugars are not absorbed by the blood. Japan is a big user of Stevia and even uses it in ‘Coca Cola®’.
In the battle of the bulge many people try to avoid sugar by using artificial sweeteners many of which have names that it is difficult to pronounce. In general artificial sweeteners are hundreds of times sweeter than common sugar and most were discovered accidentally. I am amazed at the number of researchers that put their fingers in their mouth when experimenting with complex chemicals.
Tests of artificial sweeteners performed on primates i.e. monkeys or humans, have been found to give more valid results than tests on lab rats. Some tests using lab rats have been invalidated because the rat digestion process is different to primates. Researchers often use sweetener quantities equivalent to humans drinking 350 or more cans of artificially sweetened soft drink a day. Many of the studies were designed to identify possible toxic effects, including allergic, carcinogenic, reproductive, and neurological effects such as mood modification in children. Unfortunately some of the studies have been less than professional promoting criticism such as:
"not scientifically rigorous and is deficient in several critical areas that preclude reliable interpretation of the study results"
To quote Food Standards Australia New Zealand:
“A number of intense sweeteners are approved for use in Australia and New Zealand. These are alitame, acesulfame potassium (Ace K), aspartame, cyclamate, neotame, saccharin, sucralose, steviol glycosides and thaumatin. You can find more information about permissions for sweeteners and levels that are allowed in Standard 1.3.1"You can download Standard 1.3.1 as a PDF file from here.
The majority of artificial sweeteners used in food and drink production are now blended to reduce any unpleasant taste and to increase the potency and shelf life of the product.
Alitame, sweetener 956, is a second-generation dipeptide sweetener similar to aspartame but does not contain phenylalanine, thus can be used by people with phenylketonuria. It is about 200 times sweeter than sugar and does not have an unpleasant aftertaste.
Brand name: Aclame®
Ace K (acesulfame potassium), sweetener E950, was an accidental discovery and is 200 times sweeter than sugar. Acesulfame potassium is made from organic acetoacetic acid combined with potassium.
Brand name: Sunnett®, Hermesetas Gold®
Aspartame, sweetener E951, is produced commercially from aromatic amino acids like phenylalanine grown using the bacterium Escherichia coli, and is 200 times sweeter than sugar. It has been claimed that aspartame is the most tested artificial sweetener in the world and is safe, but there are still many scientists that think it is dangerous and should be banned.
Brand name: Nutrasweet®, Equal®, Hermesetas Gold®, Equal Spoonful®
Cyclamate, sweetener E952, is the sodium or calcium salt of cyclamic acid, is 30-50 times sweeter than sugar, and has an unpleasant after-taste. Although it is approved for use in over 50 countries it is banned in the USA even though it has been cleared by the FDA. Cyclamate was discovered accidentally.
Brand name: Sucaryl®
Neotame, sweetener E961, is chemically similar to aspartame but does not contain phenylalanine, thus can be used by people with phenylketonuria. It is about 7000 – 13000 times sweeter than sugar and has an unpleasant after-taste.
Brand name: Nutrasweet®
Saccharin (benzoic sulfimide), sweetener E954, is 200 to 400 times sweeter than sugar and is derived from coal tar. It was used as an artificial sweetener during the two world wars and became popular as a diet aid in the 1960’s. Saccharin was banned for a short while because of links with cancer, but the data using lab rats was found to be invalid for primates. There is an unpleasant metallic taste associated with saccharin if too much is used, however it is often mixed with other sweeteners such as aspartame and cyclamate to reduce the metallic taste and extend the shelf life of soft drinks etc.
Brand name: Sugarine®, Sugarella®, Sweetex®, Hermesetas®
Sucralose, sweetener E955, is manufactured by the selective chlorination of sugar and is 600 times sweeter than sugar. It is not absorbed by the body and only slowly broken down in nature. It is considered to be safe.
Brand name: Splenda®
Steviol glycosides (see Stevia above), sweetener E960, is the most popular sweetener in Japan and is considered safe.
Brand name: Sweet Leaf®, Truvia®, PureVia®
Thaumatin, sweetener E957, was originally extracted from the katemfe fruit but has since been synthesised and is produced by modified E-Coli bacteria. Although thaumatin is 2000 times sweeter than sugar it is generally used as a flavour enhancer because of its peculiar properties.
Brand name: Talin®, Sweetose™
All the above artificial sweeteners are approved for the use of diabetics in Australia. Be aware that not all sweeteners are suitable for cooking and it is important to read the label before use. A visit to the manufacturer’s website often answers a lot of questions about usage and cooking.
Any worries we have about artificial sweeteners can be offset by the problems that are caused by consuming too much sugar. Too much sugar can cause dental cavities, tooth decay, obesity, type 2 diabetes, hypertension, hypertriglyceridemia, heart disease, osteoporosis and vitamin and mineral deficiencies. It has been reported that average Americans will soon consume their own weight in sugar per year. Would you like a diet Coke with that Whopper meal?