- The Washington Times - Tuesday, January 3, 2006

Looking for ways to trim calories? You’re not alone, particularly at this time of year.

One way is by cutting out sweets, or at least by switching from table sugar (sucrose) to alternative sweeteners.

We know artificial sweeteners are good in iced tea and soda, but what about in cooking? Do they stay sweet, or does the flavor disintegrate like last month’s holiday cookies? Because I’m a food scientist, I thought I should experiment.

First, a sweet primer: The most common household sweetener is table sugar (sucrose), a natural sugar. There are many alternative nutritive sweeteners, including honey (which contains more than 40 percent fructose), corn syrup (glucose), maple syrup, rice malt syrup, molasses, turbinado sugar, Sucanat and Rapadura, to name a few. Many of these are sucrose along with minerals from molasses, and all have calories, cause tooth decay and elevate blood glucose levels.

There also are many nonnutritive sweeteners, including sugar alcohols (polyols) such as xylitol, sorbitol, mannitol, maltitol, lactitol, isomalt and hydrogenated starch. These are found primarily in commercially made candies, chewing gum, jams, jellies and frozen desserts.

There also are naturally occurring supersweeteners, including stevia, thaumatin and glycyrrhizin, all of which have a licorice or bitter aftertaste. These contain few or no calories, and none causes tooth decay or elevates blood glucose.

To make things easier, I have limited this article to nonnutritive, artificial (man-made) sweeteners. Some are the sweeteners most popular in the United States, including:

• Saccharin (Sweet’N Low).

• Cyclamate.

• Acesulfame-K (Sunett).

• Aspartame (Equal).

• Alitame.

• Sucralose (Splenda).

Saccharin is 300 to 600 times sweeter than sucrose and has a slightly bitter, metallic aftertaste. It has been in use since 1900. Saccharin can tolerate elevated baking temperatures and still stay sweet. (Some other artificial sweeteners can’t, which is one of the reasons they are not appropriate for baking.)

Saccharin has been approved for use in more than 90 countries, and epidemiological studies have failed to link saccharin consumption with cancer in humans.

A 1970s study indicated that rats given the equivalent of the saccharin contained in 800 to 1,000 cans of soda per day had an increased risk of bladder cancer. Considering the massive amounts involved in that study and the fact that rat bladders are physiologically unique and different from human bladders, saccharin is still sold in the United States with a warning on the label,

The warning states, “This product contains saccharin, which has been determined to cause cancer in laboratory animals.” However, numerous scientific groups, health groups and regulators support the removal of this warning, and the matter is under review.

Cyclamate, which was discovered in 1937, is 30 times sweeter than sucrose. It can tolerate elevated baking temperatures and is valued for its synergism (a situation in which two substances combine to a greater total effect than the sum of their individual effects). I think saccharin with cyclamate produces a better taste than saccharin alone.

Cyclamate is approved for food use in more than 50 countries, although not in the United States, which banned it in 1970. That ban is based on what many scientists believe was a faulty study linking cyclamate with cancer in rats. Studies since have found cyclamate not to be carcinogenic, and petitions have been filed to remove the ban.

Acesulfame-K (Sunett) is 200 times sweeter than sugar and has a clean, sweet taste. It can tolerate baking temperatures, is not subject to microbial breakdown, and forms synergistic blends with many other sweeteners. It is approved in 25 countries, and more than 90 studies indicate that Acesulfame-K is neither carcinogenic nor mutagenic. In the United States, it has been approved for use in tabletop sweeteners, chewing gum, nondairy creamers, puddings, gelatin, instant coffee and tea, dry-mix beverages and soft drinks.

Aspartame is 160 to 220 times sweeter than sugar and has a clean taste with no bitter or metallic aftertaste. It also is a flavor enhancer with acidic fruit flavors. However, it breaks down at normal baking temperatures and is no longer sweet. It is one of the most widely reviewed and studied of all food additives.

On the basis of many clinical studies, scientists, as well as national and international organizations, have concluded that aspartame and its decomposition products are safe for human consumption. It is approved in more than 90 countries and is the most widely used artificial sweetener sold today.

Aspartame is approved in the United States as a general-purpose sweetener. However, people with phenylketonuria (PKU), a rare hereditary condition in which the amino acid phenylalanine is not properly metabolized, must avoid phenylalanine in all foods, aspartame included.

Alitame is 2,000 times sweeter than sugar. Like aspartame, it is made from large amino acids. Unlike aspartame, it can survive hot baking temperatures. It is approved for use in Australia, New Zealand, Mexico and Canada. A petition for food-additive status has been filed in the United States, but it is still under review.

Sucralose (Splenda), the only artificial sweetener made from sucrose, is 400 to 800 times sweeter than sucrose. It does not break down with heat and may be used in cooking and baking. More than 100 animal and human studies show that sucralose is noncarcinogenic and nonmutagenic.

When consumed, it goes through the body untouched and is excreted unchanged. It was approved in 1999 as a general-purpose sweetener and can be used in all foods and beverages. It does not elevate blood glucose or cause cavities.

Artificial sweeteners have few or no calories, do not raise blood glucose levels and do not cause cavities. Artificial sweeteners can only sweeten. Sugar (sucrose), on the other hand, does much more. Among its talents:

• Browning: With heat and acidic ingredients, some sucrose breaks down into fructose and glucose to provide browning for everything from toast to meat. This browning results not just in color formation, but in a major flavor enhancement with caramel tones.

• Tenderizing: Sugar is a major tenderizer in anything containing flour. It combines with flour proteins to prevent them from joining to make tough gluten. Sugar is a great tenderizer in pie crusts, cookies, cakes and muffins. Sugar can substitute for fat as a tenderizer, making it an important ingredient in reduced-fat baked goods.

• Leavening: In cakes, muffins and quick breads, sugar is a major contributor to leavening because it helps incorporate fine air bubbles into the batter in the creaming step.

• Moisture holding: By absorbing water, sugar helps keep baked goods moist.

• Texture: Sugar’s ability to absorb and hold water affects texture in cakes, muffins and quick breads by limiting the amount that the starch swells to create a finer texture and crumb. In cookies, a high amount of sugar creates crispness by preventing the starch from swelling and by melting and then recrystallizing. The cracked surface on ginger snaps is a clear example of this.

• Microbial activity: In yeast breads, microbial activity breaks down sugar and starch into simple sugars to provide yeast food as well as to enhance browning.

• Bulk: Sugar provides a considerable portion of the bulk in batters or doughs.

• Complex flavor influence: Sugar has complex indirect influences on flavor. As little as 1/2 teaspoon of sugar in a dish can radically change the flavor of foods.

So how can we use artificial sweeteners? In beverages, sauces, mousses and puddings, there are few problems. We can enhance browning by adding a teaspoon of corn syrup.

The microbial activity of sugar is vital in yeast breads, and there is not enough sugar in bread to make a dietary difference. Only in sweet yeast breads would partial substitution of artificial sweeteners be practical.

In baking, the only successes I have had with artificial sweeteners have been when I have used partial substitutions. Sugar just does too much for baked goods to work well without it. Using Splenda Sugar Blend or Splenda Brown Sugar Blend, which are part Splenda and part sugar, I am able to make excellent muffins using recipes that contain fruit and nuts to act as bulk.

The recipe that follows for Ruth Fowler’s morning glory muffins is a good example. (Miss Fowler is an outstanding home baker in Atlanta.) You will notice that Splenda is used even though it does not promote browning. Ordinarily I would add a teaspoon of corn syrup to improve the color, but these muffins contain cinnamon, apple, raisins and nuts, which all contribute to a pleasing color.

Ruth Fowler’s morning glory muffins

Nonstick cooking spray with flour

2 cups all-purpose flour

2 teaspoons baking powder

½ teaspoon salt

2 teaspoons ground cinnamon

1 cup Splenda Brown Sugar Blend, packed

3 large eggs

1 cup vegetable oil

2 teaspoons vanilla

1 medium large Golden Delicious apple, peeled, cored and cut in chunks

2 carrots, peeled and cut in chunks

½ cup golden raisins

1 cup roasted pecans, chopped

½ cup shredded coconut

Arrange a shelf in the lower third of the oven with a pizza stone or a heavy baking sheet on it. Preheat oven to 400 degrees. Generously spray a 23/4-by-11/8-inch muffin tin for 18 muffins with nonstick cooking spray containing flour.

In a large bowl, beat together flour, baking powder, salt, cinnamon and Splenda Brown Sugar Blend. In another bowl, stir together eggs, oil and vanilla. Put apple and carrots into food processor fitted with a steel blade. Chop with quick on/off pulses until pieces are slightly larger than rice. Stir this mixture into flour mixture and immediately stir in egg mixture. Stir in raisins, pecans and coconut.

Spoon batter into prepared muffin tins and fill cups. (These do not rise much.) Place on hot stone or baking sheet in preheated 400-degree oven and bake until a toothpick inserted in center comes out clean, about 18 minutes. Cool in muffin tins on a wire rack for 5 minutes. Lightly tap edges of pan to loosen and shake out muffins onto a rack. Serve warm. Makes 18 muffins.

Food scientist Shirley O. Corriher is author of “CookWise: The Hows and Whys of Successful Cooking” (William Morrow).

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