- The Washington Times - Wednesday, April 23, 2008

If you’re keeping up with the news, you might think sugar has become its own food group and that Americans are consuming little else.


True, consumption is rising, but so are the choices of sugar alternatives, herbal and manufactured. I have clients giving up their morning coffee because they can’t decide what sugar substitute to use.

Sugar in moderation is not going to cause cancer, bring on diabetes, or cause the scale to tip in the wrong direction. (Excess calories, no matter where they come from, do that.) In that old saying, “A spoonful of sugar makes the medicine go down,” notice that the operative word is “spoonful,” not “boatload.”

Sugar is a carbohydrate and the body’s main source of fuel. There are many types of sugar; some occur naturally, for example, in fruits, and some as ingredients. Either way, unless you’re eating sugar from produce, all sugar goes through some processing before it gets to you.

Sugar in the raw is produced in the initial stages of manufacturing white sugars. Brown sugar is really white sugar with molasses mixed in (the amount of molasses will dictate the light or dark version).

What comes to mind when we say “sugar” is no longer just white table sugar (sucrose) made from cane or beets. We actually eat a lot less of that sugar these days and a lot more fructose.

Fructose is a naturally occurring sugar found in fruits and honey. Don’t kid yourself, though; you know you’re not eating your fair share of fruits. What we are eating is high-fructose corn syrup (HFCS). HFCS is a liquid sweetener manufactured in a special process (like the “special sauce” on burgers from fast-food restaurants — you never really know what it is) to boost the sweetness. HFCS is in everything from sodas to breakfast cereals to store-packaged sushi (I’m not kidding — check the ingredients at your local grocery). It’s also contributing to this country’s rising rates of obesity.

Up for debate are the alternative sweeteners and sugar alcohols. To help clear the air (and resume your morning brew in peace), below is an overview of the old and new.

Saccharin is the oldest known artificial sweetener, better known as Sweet’N Low. Saccharin is noncaloric and not utilized in the body for energy. At one time, it was thought to be a great sweetener for diabetics. Unfortunately for Sweet’N Low, there has been a lot of controversy over the years regarding its safety, mainly due to studies that found bladder tumors in rats fed high doses of saccharin. Since then, more than 30 human studies have concluded that it is safe for human consumption. However, the American Dietetic Association does not advocate saccharin for pregnant women. Also, commetallic aftertaste are common.

Aspartame, also known as NutraSweet or Equal, was the next artificial sweetener to hit the market. Aspartame does have some calories, but so few that it is considered noncaloric, and it is metabolized. A decade ago, aspartame was thought to be linked to brain cancer, but this suspicion was never substantiated.

Numerous other complaints, ranging from headaches to memory loss, have also been associated with aspartame, but these links, too, have never been definitively established. According to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, the American Dietetic Association, and a number of other organizations, it’s considered safe.

Sucralose has become the No. 1 sugar substitute because it’s marketed and promoted as “natural,” and a number of low-carb diets have recommended it. Although it is made from sugar, sucralose is altered through a multistep manufacturing-chemical process that changes the structure of the once-sugar molecule. Splenda (those little yellow packets) is the trade name you would recognize.

Sucralose is 600 times sweeter than sugar and can be used in beverages and baked goods. Sucralose does not raise blood sugar levels since it is not recognized as sugar during digestion and has no calories. It’s noted to be safe through pregnancy and has been tested and considered safe by more than 100 studies over an extended period of time. As a bonus, it doesn’t promote tooth decay.

Acesulfame is a relatively new sweetener. Acesulfame was approved in 1998 by the FDA for all food categories (tabletop and flavor enhancer). It’s 200 times sweeter than sugar and is sold under the brand name Sunett. For many, it shares the same drawback as saccharin: the aftertaste. However, it is stable at high temperatures and therefore is adequate for baking.

Neotame is another new artificial sweetener very similar in chemical composition to aspartame. It’s made by NutraSweet (approved by the FDA in 2002) and is more than 8,000 times sweeter. It is heat-stable and approved for all populations, including children, pregnant women and individuals with diabetes. Because it falls under the aspartame category, it has come under the same scrutiny as far as health concerns. Neotame is attractive to food companies because you need so little to sweeten foods, so look out for it in baked goods and soft drinks.

Stevia is known as the “herb that’s sweeter than sugar.” Stevia is only approved by the Food and Drug Administration to be sold and marketed as a “supplement,” not as a sweetener or for commercially processed food.

Stevia is a shrub that grows in the wild in Paraguay and Brazil. It’s said to be 300 times sweeter than table sugar and does not raise blood sugars. It comes in liquid form, small green packets, and in pill form for beverages. Some claim it has a licorice aftertaste. It does appear to be safe for humans, but large quantities in animal studies have caused fertility and metabolic problems. In addition, some research suggests that it may be linked to cancer.

There are many more natural sweeteners you may have heard of, such as agave syrup (extracted from a Mexican plant), Whey Low (a combination of three natural sugars), and Lo Han (from the fruit luo han guo, which grows in China). Studies are limited. Most can be found online. All should be taken with caution. You just never know.

The most common sugar alcohols are xylitol, maltitol, and sorbitol. You may recognize them from essay-length ingredient lists. Sugar alcohols are used in baked sweets and chewing gum because they taste better than noncalorie sweeteners and are digested in half the time it takes for regular sugar (a plus for diabetics). They do have between 2.4 and 3 calories per gram. The disadvantage is that in large doses (i.e., in a typical American diet) sugar alcohols can cause intestinal discomfort.

After all is said and done, choosing a sugar substitute is a highly personal preference. What do I use at home? I prefer products in their most natural state. I’m also not 100 percent convinced that the alternatives are completely safe. My attitude is, we weren’t born with a taste for sugar — we acquired it — and we can retrain ourselves to use less sugar in our coffee.

Michael Pollan, author or “In Defense of Food” and “The Omnivore’s Dilemma,” summed it up when he said that we should avoid foods our grandparents wouldn’t recognize as food. Much of what’s mentioned above would be included.

Chocolate pudding

8 tablespoons sugar

3 tablespoons unsweetened Dutch-processed cocoa powder

1½ tablespoons cornstarch

1 large egg

1 cup skim or 1 percent milk

2-inch piece vanilla bean or 2 teaspoons vanilla extract

1 ounce unsweetened chocolate, finely chopped

Put 5 tablespoons of the sugar, the cocoa powder and the cornstarch in a mixing bowl, and whisk to combine. Add the egg and whisk to mix. Put the milk, the vanilla bean and the remaining 3 tablespoons sugar in a heavy saucepan and bring to a boil. Whisk often to keep the milk from scorching. (If you are using vanilla extract, wait until step 3 to add.)

Add the scalding milk to the egg mixture in a thin stream, whisking steadily. Return the mixture to the saucepan and bring to a boil, whisking steadily. Reduce the heat so that the mixture bubbles gently and cook until thickened, about 2 minutes.

Off the heat, stir in the chopped chocolate. (If you are using vanilla extract, add it now.) Let the pudding cool to room temperature and refrigerate until serving. Remove the vanilla bean. To serve, spoon the pudding into martini glasses or wine glasses. Makes 2 servings.

Per serving: 329 calories, 9 grams protein, 9 grams fat, 61 grams carbohydrates, 89 mg sodium, 96 mg cholesterol

Betsy Klein is a registered dietitian in Miami. To contact her, go to www.betsykleinrd.com.

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