When William Dufty published his classic book, Sugar Blues, he probably did not envisage the dilemma that so many people would face in later years with the profusion of sugar substitutes. It’s a dilemma that many health-conscious people have witnessed, if not experienced themselves, and it frequently seems to “pop up” over pop (or soda, depending upon one’s regional vernacular).
The dilemma goes something like this: “I would really like to cut out all the sugar and empty calories I get from soft drinks, but I’ve heard that the aspartame in the diet drinks is bad for me too. What should I do?” Certainly the best answer would be to give up soft drinks entirely in favor of a more health-promoting alternative, but this is much easier said than done for many long-time addicts of the sugar-water industry. Unfortunately, the dilemma doesn’t end with our choice of beverages.
A cursory glance down the aisles of any grocery store these days will reveal a host of sugar-free, low-calorie products, all promising to be the dieter’s best friend. Readers of Wise Traditions may already know that the words “sugar-free” on a product label frequently translate into “DO NOT TAKE INTERNALLY–CONTAINS ASPARTAME,” but what about all of the other sugar substitutes out there?
Table of Contents
- Non-Nutritive Sweeteners
- “Nutritive” Sweeteners
- Other Sweeteners
- Better Options
The substances which will be discussed here are often referred to on product labels by many (seemingly) interchangeable terms: artificial/synthetic sweeteners, sugar alternatives, alternative sweeteners, non-nutritive sweeteners, non-caloric/low-cal/low-carb sweeteners, diabetic-safe sweeteners, etc. Many of these terms seem to be used as synonyms.
For some clarity on the issue, we shall quote from the American Dietetic Association (ADA): “Although sweeteners can be grouped a number of different ways, the grouping “nutritive” and “non-nutritive” acknowledges a difference in the amount of energy provided by sweeteners. Nutritive sweeteners include sugar sweeteners (e.g., refined sugars, high fructose corn syrup, crystalline fructose, glucose. . . concentrated fruit juice) and. . . sugar alcohols (e.g., sorbitol, mannitol, xylitol, isomalt, and hydrogenated starch hydrolysates). Non-nutritive sweeteners (e.g., saccharin, aspartame, acesulfame-K. . . sucralose [and neotame]) offer no energy, and, as they sweeten with little volume, can also be referred to as high-intensity sweeteners. Both sugar alcohols and non-nutritive sweeteners can replace sugar sweeteners and are therefore termed macronutrient substitutes, sugar substitutes, sugar replacers, or alternative sweeteners.
“Some sweeteners are considered Generally Recognized As Safe (GRAS) ingredients and others are considered food additives. . . . The safety limit of food additives. . . (is) expressed as the acceptable daily intake (ADI), that is, the estimated amount per kilogram body weight that a person can safely consume every day over a lifetime without risk.. . . “1 While one might justifiably quibble with the ADA over its use of the term “nutritive” to describe many highly-refined sweeteners, that is how the Diet Dictocrats have structured the official terminology.
The FDA has approved 5 non-nutritive sweeteners: aspartame, saccharin, acesulfame K, sucralose and neotame.2,3 The most widely used non-nutritive sweetener is aspartame, scientifically known as 1-aspartyl 1-phenylalanine methyl ester.4 It was discovered by accident in 1965 by Mr. James Schlatter, a scientist who was working on new drugs to treat ulcers, when he licked his fingers to pick up a piece of paper and accidentally tasted the intense sweetness of the compound he had created.
Aspartame is 180 times sweeter than sucrose (common table sugar).6 According to the ADA: “Demand for aspartame in the United States rose from 8.4 million pounds in 1986 to 17.5 million pounds in 1992, a figure that represents more than 80 percent of the world demand. Although soft drinks account for more than 70 percent of aspartame consumption, this sweetener is added to more than 6,000 foods, personal care products, and pharmaceuticals.
Aspartame is approved for use in more than 100 nations.7 It has been sold around the world under various brand names including NutraSweet, Equal, Spoonfuls, Canderel, Bienvia, NatraSweet and Miwon. Its widespread usage has left an extensive trail of complaints and documentation of its negative side effects. Consequently, there is a great deal to be said on the subject of aspartame.
In 1974 the Food and Drug Administration gave its first halting approval to aspartame, then a product of pharmaceutical giant G.D. Searle & Company. Searle owned the original patent on aspartame and did the original laboratory studies on its safety. These studies turned out very badly and remain as some of the most damning evidence against aspartame’s safety.8 Two of Searle’s own scientists, concerned about the safety of the new product, filed a formal objection to try to keep aspartame from coming to the market.9 A team from the FDA conducted its own study of Searle’s data and on the corpses of aspartame-poisoned mice, and issued a scathing document called the Bressler Report.10 This report, however, did not spell the end for aspartame.
Following the issuance of the Bressler Report came a period of thickening political intrigue and red tape, wherein two key figures at the FDA failed to press forward with further investigations, only to leave the FDA for jobs with Searle’s law firm, Sidley & Austin. Higher authorities in the FDA quietly consigned the Bressler Report to the archives, and only made it public later, through a Freedom of Information Act Request.11 While the public remained ignorant, Searle & Co had maneuvered to bring in Donald Rumsfeld, previously the Chief of Staff in the Ford Administration and the then Secretary of Defense, as their new CEO. According to a former Searle employee, Rumsfeld told them that “no matter what, he would see to it that aspartame would be approved. . . “12
Searle re-applied for FDA approval of aspartame on the very same day that Ronald Reagan took office in 1980. There were plenty of favors to be called in from within the new Administration, and significant clout was also to be wielded by Robert Shapiro and Utah Senator Orrin Hatch. Senator Hatch has been an outspoken advocate for the sweetener, possibly due to his holdings in Twin Lab, a health supplement company that has used aspartame in a number of their products.13
Between 1981 and 1985, Rumsfeld and Searle began seeing the payoff for their newly-formed subsidiary, the NutraSweet Company. Amidst ongoing controversy, aspartame was slowly but surely given full FDA approval. Dr. Michael Friedman, then the acting head of the FDA, later accepted a high-level position at Monsanto, the corporation which was to purchase the NutraSweet Company from Searle in 1985.14 Monsanto has also brought the world such atrocities as Agent Orange, PCBs, dioxins, Recombinant Bovine Growth Hormone (rBGH), Round-Up herbicide and a host of genetically modified foods.15
The company has made a fortune off aspartame, at the expense of those who purchase and consume it, and at the hazard of those who actually do the work of producing and handling it. The Material Safety Data Sheet on aspartame (CAS# 22839-47-0) says that to work with the sweetener, one should wear chemical goggles, protective gloves to prevent skin exposure, a chemical apron and a NIOS/MSHA approved air purifying dust or mist respirator.16 Whatever else one may say about refined white sugar, at least one doesn’t have to wear chemical goggles to work with it!
Problems associated with aspartame consumption are neatly summarized in Nourishing Traditions. “Aspartame. . . is a neurotoxic substance that has been associated with numerous health problems including dizziness, visual impairment, severe muscle aches, numbing of extremities, pancreatitis, high blood pressure, retinal hemorrhaging, seizures and depression. It is suspected of causing birth defects and chemical disruptions in the brain.
“Researchers at Utah State University found that even at low levels aspartame induces adverse changes in the pituitary glands of mice. The pituitary gland is the master gland upon which the proper function of all biochemical processes depend.
” When aspartame is digested it breaks down into the amino acids phenylalanine and aspartic acid, plus methanol. Methanol, or wood alcohol, is a known poison. Methanol is also found in fruit juices, and our regulatory agencies have seized upon this fact to assure us that the methanol by-product of aspartame is not harmful. They fail to point out that the methanol content of a diet soft drink is 15 to 100 times higher than that of fruit juices.”17
The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) defines the “safe consumption level” of methanol at 7.8 milligrams per day. One liter of a beverage sweetened with aspartame may contain as much as 56 milligrams of methanol.18 Other sources also link aspartame consumption with Parkinson’s Disease, Alzheimer’s Disease and the Gulf War Syndrome experienced by U.S. soldiers after serving in Iraq during Operation: Desert Storm.19
According to Dr. Christine Lydon, an accomplished aspartame researcher: “Aspartame’s breakdown products, or metabolites, are even scarier than its components. Phenylalanine decomposes into diketopiperazine (DKP) a known carcinogen, when exposed to warm temperatures or prolonged storage. Even if products are consistently kept at cooler temperatures we are not safe. At cold temperatures, methanol will spontaneously give rise to a colorless toxin known as formaldehyde. Independent studies have shown formaldehyde formation, resulting from aspartame ingestion, to be extremely common. It accumulates within the cells, and reacts with cellular proteins such as enzymes and DNA. This cumulative reaction could spell grave consequences for those who consume aspartame-laden diet drinks and foods on a daily basis.”20
Supporters of aspartame claim that the levels of methanol are not high enough to be worrisome and that phenylalanine and aspartic acid are of only limited concern. But there is no argument about the fact that phenylalanine, the largest component of aspartame by weight, is a danger to people who have a hereditary condition called phenylketonuria (PKU). These people must monitor or eliminate their intake of phenylalanine, which also occurs naturally in certain foods. The FDA recommends that pregnant and lactating women, people with advanced liver disease and phenylketonurics avoid products containing aspartame due to concern over metabolizing phenylalanine. The FDA also admits that aspartic acid has the potential to cause brain damage at very high doses, but they assure us that “under normal intake levels, the brain’s mechanism for controlling aspartic acid levels ensures no adverse effects.”21
This dismissal of phenylalanine and aspartic acid as significant health hazards is a dangerous bit of sleight of hand. According to Dr. Lydon, “Phenylalanine and aspartic acid are amino acids that are normally supplied by the foods we eat; however, they can only be considered natural and harmless when consumed in combination with other amino acids. On their own, they enter the central nervous system in abnormally high concentrations, causing aberrant neuronal firing and potential cell death. The neurotoxic effects of these amino acids, when consumed as isolates, can be linked to headaches, mental confusion, balance problems and possibly seizures.”22
While aspartame has been the subject of hundreds of FDA-approved studies, they clearly have not laid to rest the controversy surrounding its safety. Any adverse reaction to a food item that is regulated under the FDA’s authority is supposed to be reported back to their Adverse Reaction Monitoring System (ARMS). As of 1995, over 75 percent of the adverse reactions reported to the ARMS were due to aspartame.23 A 1995 report from the US Department of Health and Human Services entitled “Symptoms Attributed to Aspartame in Complaints Submitted to the FDA” (which once again had to be forced into public light through the Freedom of Information Act) lists 92 separate categories of symptoms, including the frequency of each reported claim.24
Saccharin, the first artificial sweetener to be discovered, is chemically classified as an O-toluene sulfonamide derivative.25 It was originally synthesized from toluene, a colorless liquid hydrocarbon distilled from coal tar, which may account for saccharin’s bitter, metallic aftertaste. Toluene is also used in the manufacture of certain dyes, pharmaceutical drugs and trinitrotoluene, the blasting agent more commonly known as TNT.26 Saccharin is currently manufactured by a more cost-effective method, beginning with synthetically produced methyl anthranilate, a compound that also occurs naturally in grape and other fruit juices. Saccharin may be found in ingredient lists under three slightly variant forms–acid saccharin, sodium saccharin and calcium saccharin.27
Unlike aspartame, saccharin is not metabolized by the human body and is excreted rapidly through the urine.28 This is the holy grail of the artificial sweetener industry–compounds that taste sweet, are stable in prepackaged foods and beverages, and which are so foreign to the human diet that our digestive system cannot metabolize them to create any dietary calories. (Of course it is also helpful for the compounds to be dirt cheap to produce in bulk.)
Saccharin was discovered in 1879 by Constantine Fahlberg, a chemistry research assistant working in the laboratory of Professor Ira Remsen at Johns Hopkins University.29 According to Fahlberg’s account, he accidentally spilled some laboratory material on his hand and noticed the sweet taste later in the evening when he was eating dinner. (Don’t these scientists wash their hands after a hard day at the lab?) Fahlberg and Remsen published their findings jointly, naming the compound saccharin after the Latin saccharum, which means sugar.30 What poetic justice for the name of the first artificial sweetener. All one has to do is add an “e” to the end of the word to change it to “saccharine,” an adjective which means “sickeningly sweet.”
Despite the fact that it is 300 times sweeter than sucrose (table sugar),31 saccharin was not initially used as a sweetener. From its discovery in 1879 until 1917, saccharin was primarily employed as an antiseptic agent and food preservative.32 Fahlberg, an experienced sugar chemist, did recognize the potential of the new compound for sweetening purposes, and he aggressively attempted to profit on these capabilities as early as 1885. He obtained a US patent on the new substance without crediting Professor Remsen’s role in its discovery or even seeking Remsen’s consent, and then proceeded to open a small plant in New York to manufacture saccharin in bulk. Fahlberg later applied for and received German patents on saccharin and moved his operation to Westerhusen, Germany. By 1902, his new product was causing nervousness in the German sugar industry. Largely at the insistence of these sugar producers, the German government enacted new laws which made saccharin available only to pharmacies for use in prescription medicines.33
Meanwhile, a St. Louis company by the name of Meyer Brothers Drug Company had been importing saccharin from Germany, and an enterprising young employee by the name of John F. Queeny immediately recognized the sweetener’s great potential. In 1901, Queeny cashed in his personal savings and took out a loan to found a new corporation for the sole purpose of producing its own saccharin for the US market. That corporation was Monsanto. In 1903, the Monsanto corporation began to ship saccharin to a little-known company in Georgia called Coca-Cola. The rest, as they say, is history.34,35
Saccharin’s early history in the US was somewhat rocky. Critics derided the substance as having no nutritional value and (ironically enough) no calories, and some people doubted that the new sweetener was safe. Theodore Roosevelt, president at the time, eloquently defended saccharin’s safety by saying, “Anybody who says saccharin is injurious to health is an idiot.”36 Despite these stirring words of reassurance, some stubborn people remained unconvinced.
In 1912, saccharin was briefly banned in the US due to concerns about its safety. This ban was lifted 5 years later with the advent of the First World War.37 As so frequently happens when a nation has to buckle down for a protracted war, resources in the US had to be rationed in order to provide for the troops abroad. One of those resources was table sugar. As more and more US sugar was being sent across the ocean to the soldiers in Europe, the sweetening needs of the populace at home were met with cheap and plentiful saccharin.
By the time the war ended, America and its European allies had grown quite fond of the new sweetener. Usage of saccharin leveled off when sugar became available once again, but it had entered the scene to stay. World War II again brought sugar rationing and a dramatic increase in saccharin usage, which this time did not decline with the war’s end.38 However, during that period, saccharin took on second-place status as cyclamate, another artificial sweetener discovered in 1937, came on the scene.39
In 1958, Marvin Eisenstadt, owner of Cumberland Packing Company in Brooklyn, NY, introduced Sweet‘n Low, which mixed saccharine with cyclamate (to counter the metallic aftertaste of saccharin) in the small packet form that we still know today. The present formula has abandoned the cyclamate, but the main ingredient is still saccharin.40
During this entire period of saccharin’s history, the FDA allowed the makers of saccharin (and cyclamate) to determine for themselves whether it was a safe product for human consumption.41 Indeed, the FDA showed very little interest in saccharin until 1969, when researchers discovered that cyclamate was carcinogenic in laboratory mice. Cyclamate was banned by the FDA that same year.42 The FDA proposed also banning saccharin until conclusive tests could prove its safety. This suggestion was met with significant opposition from a public which had become greatly enamored with the concept of artificial sweeteners and had just lost their only other option at the time, cyclamate.
In 1977, Canadian scientists found that high doses of saccharin seemed to cause cancer in laboratory rats. The Canadian government responded by immediately banning all use of saccharin in food and beverages.43 To forestall a possible FDA ban on the popular sweetener, Congress passed the Saccharin Study and Labeling Act. This Act placed a two-year moratorium on any ban of saccharin, allowing for further testing to be done, and also mandated that all products containing saccharin carry the following cautionary label: “Use of this product may be hazardous to your health. This product contains saccharin which has been determined to cause cancer in laboratory animals.”44
During the ensuring 26 years, the FDA and other groups performed numerous studies attempting to determine conclusively whether or not saccharin was a carcinogen. Meanwhile, the public at large continued to gobble up saccharin-containing products, and every time the moratorium on banning saccharin expired, Congress extended it until more research could be done. The moratorium was extended seven times, until 1991 when the FDA decided it was no longer suspicious of saccharin as a serious threat.45 Technically, ever since that time the FDA has given saccharin something of a probationary status, allowing it equal footing with the other three non-nutritive sweeteners but still classifying it as an “anticipated human carcinogen,”46 whatever that means.
There is also another, lesser-studied concern with saccharin due to the fact that it is a sulfonamide. (Remember, chemically speaking saccharin is called an O-toluene sulfonamide derivative.) Sulfonamide compounds have been shown to cause dermatological reactions in those who are allergic to sulfa drugs, especially in children. Consumption of saccharin by these sensitive individuals may result in pruritus (itching), urticaria (blotchy skin discolorations), eczema, photosensitivity, prurigo (a condition characterized by small, intensely itchy skin bumps), wheezing, nausea, diarrhea, tongue blisters, tachycardia, fixed eruptions, headache, diuresis (increased urination) or sensory neuropathy.47 Also, regardless of sulfa allergies, consumption of saccharin-sweetened infant formula has been associated with irritability, hypertonia (abnormal increase in muscle tension with reduced muscle elasticity), insomnia, opisthotonos (an abnormal posturing condition characterized by rigidity and severe arching of the back) and strabismus (a condition in which the eyes uncontrollably deviate from the intended object of focus). These conditions generally resolve themselves within 36 hours after ingestion of the formula.48 (This last bit is most likely an unnecessary warning for readers of Wise Traditions. There is nary a commercial infant formula out there which is truly healthful, whether or not it contains saccharin.)
So where does this leave the matter? Saccharin is the most thoroughly tested of all the non-nutritive sweeteners–more than 2374 studies have been done, with aspartame coming in second at 598.49 Even the most staunch critics are left to admit that no one has been able to draw a definite link between saccharin consumption (even at high levels) and cancer in humans. It has been shown that saccharin causes bladder cancer in male rats of a certain genetic predisposition, but this appears to be a gender- and species-specific phenomenon. To quote from Dr. Janet Starr Hull: “Saccharin is not genotoxic; the presumed mechanism of toxicity is the binding of saccharin to urinary proteins (not normally found in humans), creating a nidus for the formation of silicate crystals, which are cytotoxic to bladder epithelium (of rats).”50 However–and this is the important part–while the FDA has chosen to say that it cannot be proven that saccharin’s effect on mice is relevant to humans, one could just as easily say that the studies have failed to prove that there is no link between saccharin and bladder cancer in humans.
The third of our non-nutritive sweeteners is acesulfame-K, also referred to as acesulfame potassium (K is the chemical symbol for potassium), potassium acesulfame, ace-K or ACK. Any of these names are greatly preferable to the chemical name of the product–5,6-dimethyl-1,2,3-oxathiazine-4(3H)-one-2,2-dioxide. We’ll stick with acesulfame K for our purposes!
Compared to aspartame and saccharin, there is very little information available about acesulfame-K. It is 200 times sweeter than sucrose (table sugar)51 and, as it is not metabolized by the body, it is excreted unchanged in the urine.52 It was discovered in 1967 by a German chemist, Karl Clauss, who was working with derivatives of acetoacetic acid.53 In what should now be a familiar theme, the sweetness of one particular derivative revealed itself one day when he licked his finger to pick up a piece of paper.54
At the time, Mr. Clauss was employed at a German chemical company by the name of the Hoechst Group. Immediately grasping the potential for a new artificial sweetener, Hoechst conducted its own safety testing on the compound throughout the 1970s. As soon as they were satisfied with the results of their testing, Hoechst began to market their new product around the world. Currently, more than 100 countries allow the use of acesulfame-K.55,56
The entry of the new sweetener into the U.S. began in 1988 when, based largely upon acceptance of Hoechst’s own research, the FDA gave a partial green light for its use as a tabletop sweetener and as an ingredient in baked goods, frozen desserts, alcoholic beverages and candies.57 In September of 1997, Hoechst established a subsidiary corporation called Nutrinova Nutrition Specialties & Food Ingredients, in part to handle the growing business of acesulfame K, marketed under the brand name Sunett.58 It has also been sold under the names Sweet One, Swiss Sweet and Sweet & Safe.
While the general popularity of acesulfame-K was on the rise, a few voices began to raise questions. After reviewing the data provided by Hoechst’s product safety tests, the Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI) concluded that the company had not done an adequate job with the testing and had ignored problematic data.
To quote from the CSPI website: “The safety tests of acesulfame-K were. . . of mediocre quality. Key rat tests were afflicted by disease in the animal colonies; a mouse study was several months too brief and did not expose animals during gestation. Two rat studies suggest that the additive might cause cancer. . . In addition, large doses of acetoacetamide, a breakdown product, have been shown to affect the thyroid in rats, rabbits and dogs.”59 CSPI has also gone on record as saying that the Hoechst scientists “followed inadequate protocols, which are greatly at variance with current standards for test design, execution and reporting required for the National Toxicology Program’s bioassays.”60 It has also been noted that acesulfame-K stimulates insulin secretion in a dose dependent fashion, thereby possibly aggravating reactive hypoglycemia (“low blood sugar attacks”).61
Based on these objections, in 1996 CSPI urged the FDA to reconsider its position on the new sweetener, but two years later the FDA approved acesulfame-K for all other general sweetening purposes, including non-alcoholic liquid use. As soon as it was approved, Pepsi announced that it would be used in a new drink, Pepsi One.62
Since 1995, there has also been another product available, marketed by the Holland Sweetener Company as Twinsweet. While acesulfame-K is frequently blended with aspartame to achieve synergistic sweetening capabilities, Twinsweet is actually a blend of the two at the molecular level. This is possible due to the fact that some high-intensity sweeteners form positively charged ions in certain solutions, whereas others form negatively charged ions. Aspartame and acesulfame-K are the first two sweeteners which have been successfully bonded in this way to form what is known as a “sweetener-sweetener salt.” This solves certain difficulties that the food industry encounters when trying to mechanically blend sweeteners. Twinsweet dissolves in water into separated molecules of the two individual components, so all the safety concerns of aspartame and acesulfame-K should be applied as well to Twinsweet.63
In spite of the FDA go-ahead, CSPI and a handful of independent scientists maintain their objections to acesulfame-K, citing inadequate testing and the fact that previous tests suggest serious problems, including possible carcinogenicity. While there may not be any organized groups at this time compiling lists of adverse reactions or calling public attention to the possibilities of danger, this does not necessarily indicate that this compound presents no danger. Since no specific monitoring practices or epidemiological studies of acesulfame-K are currently in progress, it is possible that relevant data may not be gathered for some time. The FDA has no apparent interest in pressing the issue. As with saccharin, the prudent consumer would be wise to seek out better options.
The fourth FDA-approved non-nutritive sweetener is sucralose, chemically known as 1,6-dichloro-1,6-dideoxy-BETA-D-fructofuranosyl-4-chloro-4-deoxy-alpha-D-galactopyranoside.64 Sucralose may have the strangest “accidental discovery” story of all. In 1976, a British sugar company by the name of Tate & Lyle was conducting experiments in collaboration with Queen Elizabeth College at the University of London, searching for ways to use sucrose as a chemical intermediate. Shashikant Phadnis, a foreign graduate student working on the project, misunderstood a request for “testing” of a chlorinated sugar as a request for “tasting,” leading to the discovery that many chlorinated sugars are hundreds or thousands of times sweeter than sucrose.65
Following this discovery, Tate & Lyle arranged with Johnson & Johnson, then the world’s largest health care company, to develop and test a new sweetener from chlorinated sugars. In 1980, Johnson & Johnson formed a subsidiary company by the name of McNeil Specialty Products for this purpose.66 The product they created, at an impressive 600 times sweeter than sucrose, would be known as sucralose and marketed as Splenda.
Canada became the first nation to approve sucralose in 1991,67 soon to be followed by many more. Currently, more than 40 nations have given their approval to sucralose, although a number of European nations still have it under preliminary review.68,69,70 The new product made a grand entrance into the US market with FDA approval in 1998. Even though this was not full FDA approval, to quote Splenda’s own website, the product was “approved for use in 15 food and beverage categories, the broadest initial approval ever given to a no-calorie sweetener.” It was only 16 months later in 1999 when the FDA finished the job and gave full approval for all sweetening purposes.71
According to the Splenda website, “sucralose, is made from sugar through a patented, multi-step process that selectively replaces three hydrogen-oxygen groups on the sugar molecule with three chlorine atoms. The result is an exceptionally stable sweetener that tastes like sugar, but without sugar’s calories. After consumption, sucralose passes through the body without being broken down.”72 Sucralose is also said to be diabetic-safe, as it does not increase blood sugar levels. However, some researchers dispute these claims.
While the Johnson & Johnson Corporation claims that they have hundreds of self-conducted studies demonstrating the product’s safety, sucralose has the fewest independent scientific tests to its credit of all non-nutritive sweeteners. Additionally, independent reviewers of Johnson & Johnson’s tests have found them to be inadequate and methodologically flawed. Flaws notwithstanding, several pre-approval tests still indicated potential toxicity, although this was written off by the company as insignificant. Similar to the situation with aspartame after it first entered the market, there are currently no independent, long-term studies on the effects of sucralose consumption.73
Of the few human studies which have been conducted, one focusing on diabetics using sucralose showed “a statistically significant increase in glycosylated hemoglobin (Hba1C), which is a marker of long-term blood glucose levels and is used to assess glycemic control in diabetic patients.” The FDA itself has stated that “increases in glycosolation in hemoglobin imply lessening of control in diabetes.”74
It is not only diabetics who need worry about the safety of sucralose. Research conducted with rats, mice and rabbits has shown that sucralose consumption can cause shrinking of the thymus gland (up to 40 percent shrinkage), enlargement of the liver and kidneys, atrophy of lymph follicles in the spleen and thymus, increased cecal weight, reduced bodily growth rate, decreased red blood cell count, hyperplasia of the pelvis, extension of gestational periods in pregnancy, decreased fetal body weights and placental weights, and diarrhea. According to the FDA’s “Final Rule” report on sucralose, it was considered to be “weakly mutagenic in a mouse lymphoma mutation assay.”75
The reason for this host of side effects is not fully understood. Many detractors have raised concerns due to the fact that sucralose is a chlorinated molecule. Chlorinated molecules, which are used as the basis for pesticides such as DDT, tend to accumulate in body tissues. Johnson & Johnson maintains that sucralose passes through the digestive system without any absorption or metabolization, but the FDA’s own research has shown that 11 to 27 percent of sucralose is absorbed in humans, while the rest is excreted unchanged in the feces. Tests performed by the Japanese Food Sanitation Council have found that as much as 40 percent of ingested sucralose is absorbed. To further dispute the manufacturer’s claims, research indicates that about 20 to 30 percent of the absorbed sucralose is metabolized. Both the metabolites and unchanged absorbed sucralose are excreted in urine, but some absorbed sucralose has been found to concentrate in the liver, kidney and gastrointestinal tract.76
Not only does sucralose break down within the digestive system, but, as the FDA notes, “[it] may hydrolyze in some food products…[and] the resulting hydrolysis products may also be ingested by the consumer.” Prolonged storage, particularly at high temperatures and low pH, causes sucralose to break down into other chemicals, including 4-chloro-4-deoxy-galactose, 1,6-dichloro-1,6-dideoxy-fructose and 1,6-dichlorofructose, none of which has ever specifically been tested in terms of safety for human ingestion. Additionally, as the FDA again acknowledges, sucralose may contain up to 2 percent of various impurities, such as heavy metals, arsenic, triphenilphosphine oxide, methanol, chlorinated disaccharides and chlorinated monosaccharides. Even if these “impurities” are within existing manufacturing guidelines, they are still all potentially dangerous to human health.77
Sucralose production and consumption may also pose a threat to the environment in general. To quote from Dr. Joseph Mercola’s website (www.mercola.com/2000/dec/3/sucralose_dangers.htm): “Although sucralose is being flushed down toilets [after human excretion]. . . , what happens to it next is simply a matter for speculation. I know of no studies showing what happens to the chemical when the raw sewage is treated and then released back into the environment. Does it remain stabile or react with other substances to form new compounds? Is the sucralose or any resulting chemicals safe for the environment? How will this chemical affect aquatic life such as fish, as well as other animals? Will sucralose begin to appear in our water supplies, just as some drugs [such as antibiotics] are beginning to be found? . . . [Ultimately] the ecological impact of this new chemical being introduced into the environment is unknown.”
This additional consideration of environmental impact should also be applied to the other non-nutritive sweeteners, as well as all synthetic foods and additives. The burden of proving that such synthetic compounds are safe, from the process of their creation through the human digestive system and into our environment, should fall upon the purveyors of these chemicals.
While no formal lists currently exist to catalogue adverse reactions to sucralose consumption, Dr. Mercola provides several anecdotal incidents on his website. Clearly, sucralose consumption poses potential hazards which have not been sufficiently acknowledged or studied. This author recommends against willingly acting as a guinea pig for yet another questionable product–read on for better options later in this article.
Neotame, another product of Monsanto’s Nutrasweet Company and also the most recently approved sweetener, deserves several red flags of caution. Also known as “superaspartame,” it was first synthesized from a base of aspartame and 3,3-dimethylbutyraldehyde by French scientists Claude Nofre and Jean-Marie Tinti. In an amazing display of sweetening power, neotame hits the scales at 8000 times sweeter than sucrose, and its chemical name is a mouthful–N-[N-(3,3-dimethylbutyl)-L-a-aspartyl]-L-phenylalanine 1-methyl ester.
Amazingly, neotame doesn’t even come close to being the sweetest compound that Nofre and Tinti synthesized. Of their numerous other discoveries, carrelame, bernadame, sucrononate and lugduname are the sweetest substances known to man, ranging from 150,000 to over 220,000 times sweeter than sucrose! There are currently no plans to seek approval of these substances for human consumption, but they may at some point be utilized in other ways and thereby find their way into the food chain.78
The chemical formula of neotame, published in the February 10, 1998 Federal Register, reveals that neotame is extremely similar to aspartame. Essentially, neotame molecules are aspartame molecules chemically combined with a neohexyl group. While neotame has not yet been introduced into any markets, critics surmise that all of the toxic effects of aspartame and more will plague consumers of neotame. NutraSweet petitioned the FDA in 1997 and received final approval for a wide variety of sweetening purposes in 2002.
In May of 2000, the NutraSweet Company was purchased from Monsanto by the J.W. Childs Equity Partners, LP.79 The new leadership at NutraSweet must be quite excited about the approval of neotame, as the patent rights on aspartame expired in the 1990s and generic versions have been allowed ever since. It is estimated that neotame could replace up to 50 percent of the current market share for aspartame. We will all see soon enough how neotame is received by the public.80,81,82
As a concluding remark on all five of the FDA-approved non-nutritive sweeteners, it should be noted that many animal studies on these products only yield negative results when test animals are fed the equivalent of several hundred artificially sweetened products daily. Apologists for non-nutritive sweeteners point to this as a way of dismissing negative test data.
A quotation from the Holistic Healing website explains the fallacy of this assertion. “In order to estimate a potential safe dose [of a chemical] in humans, one must divide the lowest dose given to rodents that was seen to have any negative effects. . . by 100. That dose is then known as the maximum Tolerable Daily Intake (TDI) for lifetime use. Keep in mind that the TDI is just an estimate. Some chemicals are much more than 10 times more toxic in humans than in rodents (or will cause cancer in humans in low-dose, long-term exposure and do not cause cancer in rodents at all). A person ingesting the TDI for some chemical may find that it causes cancer, or immune system or neurological problems, after many years or decades of use. So, if the manufacturer claims that the dose was equivalent to 50 diet sodas, then the TDI would be one-half (1/2) of a diet soda, and even that dose may or may not be safe.”83
Aside from the five current non-nutritive sweeteners, there are two additional non-nutritive sweeteners under review by the FDA–cyclamate and alitame. Since it is entirely likely that both of them will all be approved at some point in the future, they must be considered as well.
Cyclamate was discovered in 1937 by Michael Sveda, a graduate student at the University of Illinois, working on the synthesis of anti-pyretic (anti-fever) drugs. The familiar theme continues: Sveda noticed the sweet taste of a compound he was working with after he accidentally sat his cigarette down in some of it and then took a puff.84 As word got out about the discovery of what was then only the second existing artificial sweetener, DuPont quickly bought the patent, and then later sold it to Abbott Laboratories. Abbott reportedly wished to use the new product to mask the bitter taste of certain antibiotics and medications.85
In the early 1950s, Abbott began to market cyclamate tablets as diabetic-friendly sweeteners. As noted above in the history of saccharin, cyclamate was also a part of the original “formula” of Sweet’n Low, introduced to the public in 1958. Cyclamate enjoyed a great deal of controversy-free popularity from this time until the late 1960s, when laboratory tests began to suggest that it caused genetic damage, testicular atrophy and cancer in rats. In 1970, the FDA imposed a total ban on the use of cyclamate within the U.S. However, it is still used in 50 countries around the world–the major producers and exporters are located in China, Indonesia, Taiwan and Spain86–so it almost certainly still finds its way into the US via products from these countries. Where it is still used, cyclamate is frequently blended with aspartame and acesulfame-K to make a “super sweetener.”87
After the US cyclamate ban, would-be producers were legally obligated to prove its safety to the FDA’s satisfaction if it was to be re-approved. Abbott has been hard at work ever since 1970, petitioning the FDA for re-approval in 1973, 1976 and 1982, and also requesting special hearings on the matter in 1977 and ’78. No substantial ground was gained until 1985, when the Cancer Assessment Committee of FDA’s Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition concluded that cyclamate is not a carcinogen. It has still not been satisfactorily resolved whether or not cyclamate is a co-carcinogen with other substances or promotes tumor growth, and thus it is still pending re-approval.88
Of alitame, there is very little to report. Developed by pharmaceutical giant Pfizer, alitame is sold under the name Aclame in several countries, including Australia, Mexico, New Zealand, China, Indonesia, Colombia and Chile.89 Similar to aspartame, alitame is composed of amino acids, including L-aspartic acid, D-alanine and 2,2,4,4-tetramethylthietanyl amine.90 It is a heat-stable compound, 2000 times sweeter than sucrose, which could potentially be incorporated into any sweetened product. Pfizer applied for FDA approval of alitame in 1986, but has yet to receive a conclusive ruling.91 Any sweetener that may be described as “similar to aspartame” deserves a red flag of caution, but no commentary of any detail is readily available at the present time. One source claims that alitame will soon be approved as a sweetener in the US, marketed under the name Novasweet. Anticipating this, the Wrigley Company has already filed several patents to use the new sweetener in its chewing gums.92
Having now dealt with all of the currently-approved and pending non-nutritive sweeteners, we must return our attention briefly to the so-called “nutritive” sweeteners. To deal with this category, we must first rid ourselves of the silly idea that the word “nutritive” necessarily indicates that a substance will contribute anything positive to our general well being. The FDA and ADA consider nutritive sweeteners to include anything from raw honey, pure maple syrup, molasses, sorghum or other nutritious options, to such dietary dead-ends as white sugar, high fructose corn syrup and concentrated fruit juices.
The so-called nutritive sweeteners include a class of substances known variously as sugar alcohols, polyols, polyalcohols or polyhydric acids. These are the substances which are usually, but not always, identifiable by the suffix “-itol”–sorbitol, xylitol, mannitol, erythritol, lactitol, maltitol, isomalt and hydrogenated starch hydrolysates (HSH). Scientists call them sugar alcohols because part of their structure chemically resembles sugar and part is similar to alcohol, but they don’t completely fit into either category.93 Each of these substances has its own particular history, but mercifully–for the purpose of brevity–they all share a great deal of similarity.
Although several sugar alcohols are touted as naturally occurring in various foods–which is technically true–all commercially-available sugar alcohols are synthesized by the hydrogenation of sugars from various sources.94 While the author could not find any information commenting on this fact, the use of a hydrogenation process may or may not be of concern. Hydrogenation of fats and oils is certainly detrimental to the nutritive qualities of said items, but the process must be evaluated on a case-by-case basis. One must keep in mind, however, that fats and oils were hydrogenated for some time before we became aware of the detrimental effects of this practice. If anyone has bothered to specifically research the effects of hydrogenating sugars, that information is not readily available at this time.
According to the American Dietetics Association: “[Sugar alcohols] can . . . be categorized as sugar replacers because they can replace sugar sweeteners, usually on a one-to-one basis; offer less energy; and offer potential health benefits, such as reduced glycemic response and reduced dental caries risk.”98
It should be noted that lactitol, mannitol and some of the hydrogenated starch hydrolysates have less than half of the sweetening power of sucrose, and for this reason are usually employed for other purposes. Mannitol is frequently used as a dusting agent on chewing gum, intended to prevent the gum from sticking to the wrapper. Sweeteners from the HSH family commonly serve as viscosity or bodifying agents, humectants, crystallization modifiers, cryoprotectants, and rehydration aids. Lactitol frequently finds its way into blends with more potent sweeteners, such as aspartame, saccharin and acesulfame-K. Whatever their intended usage, all of the sugar alcohols are touted as being safe for diabetics and hypoglycemics, lower in calories than sugar, and non-contributory towards tooth decay and the growth of intestinal yeasts.
Xylitol has the additional claims of increasing absorption of B-vitamins and calcium, re-mineralizing tooth enamel and fighting/preventing ear infections,99 as well as possibly contributing to fresher breath, greater athletic performance, and recovery from sinus infections.100 It also takes the prize as the sweetener with the most bizarre application–a Japanese company recently began to market a line of women’s t-shirts with xylitol infused into the fabric. Xylitol, like several other sugar alcohols, exhibits a cooling effect in the mouth. The t-shirts are intended to utilize this same property to keep a person cooler in warm weather.101
It is interesting to note that even the manufacturers and the official regulatory bodies hint at the potential problems with sugar alcohols. According to the ADA website: “All [sugar alcohols] are absorbed slowly and incompletely from the intestine by passive diffusion. Therefore, an excessive load (e.g., greater than 50 g sorbitol per day, greater than 20 g mannitol per day) may cause diarrhea. . . . [I]ncomplete absorption causes indirect metabolism of [sugar alcohols] via fermentive (sic) degradation by the intestinal flora. The energy return from indirect metabolism is less than the direct route; thus, [sugar alcohols] are referred to as reduced-energy or low-energy sweeteners. [The] FDA allows these nutritive sweeteners to be labeled as having fewer kilocalories per gram than other nutritive sweeteners. . . . Products with sorbitol and mannitol may have the following statement on the label because high intakes increase the risk of malabsorption: ‘excess consumption may have a laxative effect.’”102
The ADA description hints at more than it actually says. Sugar alcohols are not broken down in the stomach, so they make their way intact into the bowels. It is here in the bowels that the “passive diffusion” mentioned by the ADA takes place, meaning that the presence of the sugar alcohols draws water into the bowels. This leads to the fermentation by undesirable bacteria and a resultant partial degradation or “metabolism” of the sugar alcohols. (This fermentation of intestinal bacteria can lead to or exacerbate problems with candida and other yeast problems.) The direct result of this chain of events is the severe stomach cramping and diarrhea that many people experience after ingesting too much sugar alcohol. So how much is too much? The above quotation lists the official, generally agreed upon thresholds for sorbitol and mannitol, but each sugar alcohol has its own threshold. However, certain individuals have been known to experience reactions at much lower dosages. Lactitol in particular may be problematic in small doses, especially for lactose-sensitive individuals.103,104
Stomach cramping and diarrhea are certainly not as serious as the conditions associated with some of the non-nutritive sweeteners, but the sugar alcohols can cause other more serious problems. One of these conditions is metabolic acidosis, which can lead to acid reflux and an increased risk of cancer of the larynx. And diabetics and hypoglycemics should be aware that sugar alcohols do raise blood sugar levels, although not as much as sugar. Sugar alcohols also promote dehydration and loss of electrolytes, creating feelings of excessive thirst. This is a potential concern to those who consume a lot of low-carb, energy bar types of foods. Exercising after consuming these types of products may put one at risk for heat stroke, muscle cramping and cardiovascular problems. Those who are trying to avoid carbohydrates and burn body fat should also know that sugar alcohols will immediately take the body out of ketosis, the state wherein fat reserves rather than dietary calories are being metabolized. . . assuming that the body was in a state of ketosis to begin with.
Additional concerns with sugar alcohols stem from the fact that they seem to increase the frequency of seizures in epileptics, and children are especially sensitive to the gastrointestinal side effects, possibly due to their propensity for bingeing on sweet foods. Children who regularly consume sugar alcohols also seem to have an increased incidence of childhood obesity.105
The final word on sugar alcohols as a group seems to be a mixed message. The evidence does seem to support the positive claims made on behalf of these sweeteners, and perhaps this gives them a valid place in certain applications. For example, given the choice between treating a child’s ear infection with a course of antibiotics or with administration of a therapeutic dose of xylitol, the latter option would certainly be preferable. Of course, there may be even better options.
While sugar alcohols may indeed occur in nature, their usage as sweeteners also suffers from the same problem as many other sweeteners, pharmaceutical drugs and other substances today–one single factor from a natural food item is being isolated from its normal co-constituents and consumed at levels that are difficult to obtain when eating the food item itself. Rarely, if ever, does this situation lend itself to good health. While sugar alcohols are certainly the lesser of two evils when compared to the non-nutritive sweeteners, they should be consumed with prudence if at all. There are better choices.
The eight categories of sugar alcohols may be subdivided into mono-, di- and polysaccharides.
MONOSACCHARIDES include sorbitol (derived from glucose, 50 percent to 70 percent as sweet as sucrose, GRAS status), xylitol (derived from xylan, a substance found in the bark of birch trees, equally sweet as sucrose, GRAS status), mannitol (derived from glucose syrups, 50 percent to 70 percent as sweet as sucrose, permitted for limited use on an interim basis by the FDA) and erythritol (derived from corn products,95 70 percent as sweet as sucrose, GRAS status).
DISACCHARIDES include lactitol (derived from lactose, 30 percent to 40 percent as sweet as sucrose, GRAS status), maltitol (derived from maltose, 90 percent as sweet as sucrose, GRAS status) and isomalt (derived from enzymatically-treated sucrose, 45 percent to 65 percent as sweet as sucrose, GRAS status).
POLYSACCHARIDES refers to a family of sweeteners including hydrogenated glucose syrups, maltitol syrups and sorbitol syrups, often called “hydrogenated starch hydrolysates” because they are produced by the partial hydrolysis of corn, wheat or potato starch and subsequent hydrogenation at high temperatures and pressure. By varying this manufacturing process, different end products may be created to meet different requirements of the food processing industry. When the final product contains 50 percent or more of hydrogenated glucose, it is called a hydrogenated glucose syrup. If the final product has 50 percent or more of maltitol or sorbitol, it is named accordingly as either a maltitol syrup or sorbitol syrup. Some of the end products do not contain a specific sugar alcohol in any clear majority; these are simply referred to by the generalized term–hydrogenated starch hydrolysate. This term, or the abbreviation “HSH,” may correctly be applied to any of these products. All HSH products have a GRAS status and are variously from 25 percent to 50 percent as sweet as sucrose.96,97
Having reviewed all of the non-nutritive sweeteners and the sugar alcohols, we enter into the murky, little-known world of “what else is out there.” There are a number of additional substances that defy clear inclusion into the previously discussed categories. Some of the remaining sweeteners are not classified by the FDA as being sweeteners at all, yet they undeniably possess some degree of sweetness. To generalize, all of these substances share a relatively limited degree of market share, name recognition, general availability and usage by the food industry or at-home consumers, but they are still worth reviewing. Any one of them just may turn up on a product label one day, and having some knowledge of what a substance is may help each of us to make informed purchases. Some additional sweeteners are tagalose, trehalose and neohesperidin dihyrochalcone (NHDC).
Tagatose, known scientifically as D-tagatose, is very new to the sweetening scene and there is comparatively little to be said about it. It was discovered in 1988 by scientists working for a Beltsville, Maryland corporation called Biospherics (the company name has since been changed to Spherix). Tagatose is 92 percent as sweet as sucrose and is said to occur “naturally” in heated cow’s milk and some other presumably heat-treated dairy products. . . so it seems that tagatose only occurs “in nature” to the same extent that heat-treated dairy products occur “in nature.” It is formed as a result of changes to lactose as heat is applied. Commercially available tagatose is synthetically produced from whey.
Tagatose has the exact same chemical formula as ordinary fructose, but the molecular structures of the two are slightly different. The difference is virtually irrelevant to your tongue, but the digestive system has no idea how to handle this unnatural molecule, just as the body cannot properly assimilate many synthetic vitamins, which are mirror images of their natural counterparts. This may be why consumption of tagatose in large amounts reportedly causes gastrointestinal distress, including diarrhea, nausea and flatulence. Only about 20 percent of ingested tagatose is absorbed, this taking place by means of metabolism in the small intestine.106
Tagatose manufacturers have presented their product as a virtual panacea, claiming that it promotes weight loss, is safe for diabetics, shows potential as a therapeutic agent in the treatment of type II diabetes, reduces “spiking” of blood glucose levels, fights plaque and halitosis, is a prebiotic (provides food for healthy intestinal bacteria), fights colon cancer, combats certain types of pathogenic bacteria and microorganisms, and raises blood levels of the “good” HDL-cholesterol.
In 1996, Spherix granted a license to Arla Foods of Denmark to produce and market the sweetener. While a few other countries had previously given a green light to tagatose, in April of 2001 the FDA accepted it as a GRAS substance for use in foods, beverages, cosmetics, toothpastes and pharmaceutical drugs. However, Spherix is currently arbitrating a legal dispute against Arla Foods concerning the new sweetener, thus delaying the entry of tagatose into the US market. It is not yet available as a commercial tabletop sweetener, and it was as recently as August 21, 2003, that 7-Eleven Inc. became the very first American company to use tagatose (marketed by Spherix as Naturlose) in a food or beverage–a Diet-Pepsi-flavored Slurpee drink. We can expect to see much more of Naturlose/tagatose in the future, as Arla Foods and Spherix are both actively promoting its use around the world.107
Trehalose, a disaccharide composed of two glucose molecules, is only 45 percent as sweet as sucrose. It is also referred to as a,a-Trehalose, mushroom sugar or mycose, but its proper chemical name is a-D-glucopyranosyl a-D-glucopyranoside. It was first identified as a constituent in the ergot of rye in 1832, even before the discovery of saccharin. (Ergot is a fungus known to afflict rye and other cereal grains and grasses.) The term “trehalose” was coined in later years when the same substance was identified as a component of the secretions of a beetle in the Iraqi desert. These secretions, known by native peoples to be edible and sweet, were called the “trehala manna.” Some people believe that this is a similar substance to the manna that was gathered and eaten by the Israelites of the Old Testament.
Trehalose occurs naturally in a number of foods, including honey, wines, sherries, breads, lobster, crab, prawns, brine shrimp, various edible fungi (including commercially-grown mushrooms), insects, baker’s yeast and brewer’s yeast. As such, it has always been a part of the human diet, but has only been available as an isolated ingredient since 1995. Previously it had been too expensive to extract or produce commercially, but Hayashibara Biochemical Laboratories of Okayama, Japan developed a feasible method using the action of soil microorganisms on starch. Hayashibara’s trehalose is the only source currently in production, and Japan is by far the largest consumer of products containing trehalose.
When trehalose is ingested, it undergoes a similar digestive process as other disaccharides; it is enzymatically broken into individual glucose molecules which the body then metabolizes. As with lactose (another disaccharide) which requires a special enzyme, lactase, to break it down, a small percentage of people are genetically prone towards deficiency in trehalase, the enzyme that metabolizes trehalose. These people may experience intestinal distress after consuming foods containing trehalose, whether they be natural sources of the sugar or not. This appears to be the only safety issue with trehalose.
The low level of sweetness has limited the applications of trehalose as a sweetening agent, but it has not stopped the food industry from finding other uses. Its potential applications include stabilizing proteins in dried or frozen foods, stabilizing flavors, colors and fatty acids, and maintaining the texture of food coatings. Trehalose was given GRAS status in the US in October of 2000 and is approved as a food additive in Britain, Japan, Korea and Taiwan. Trehalose is not commercially available to consumers anywhere at this time.108
Next on the list is neohesperidin dihydrochalcone, usually abbreviated to NHDC or neohesperidin DC. NHDC is a type of flavonoid, a broad term referring to a group of over 4000 substances known to occur naturally in all higher forms of plants. (A particularly beneficial subset of the flavonoids is the bioflavonoids, which are sometimes collectively called “Vitamin P.”) NHDC is grouped as a flavonoid, yet it has not been discovered anywhere in a naturally-occurring state.
In 1963, NHDC was discovered by two researchers by the names of Horowitz and Gentili who were studying bitter compounds found in citrus fruits. After experimentally hydrogenating a particular citrus phenolic glycoside, they observed that the resultant compound was very sweet, 1500 to 1800 times sweeter than sucrose. The two then performed similar experiments on other citrus derivatives and discovered several additional sweet compounds, but it was only the original product, NHDC, which would go on to have commercial application.
Industry-sponsored tests did not find any safety issues with the use of NHDC, and also ruled that it does not promote cavities. NHDC does not function well as the sole sweetening agent in food items due to its slow onset of sweetness and a lingering menthol or licorice aftertaste. For these and other reasons, it has found more favor as a component of sweetener blends and as a flavor-modifying/enhancing agent. NHDC has been accorded various levels of regulatory status around the world. The European Union, Switzerland, the Czech Republic and Turkey allow it to be used as a sweetener. Australia and New Zealand allow NHDC as an artificial flavoring. In the U.S., it is only allowed as a flavor ingredient (used at levels below the threshold of sweetness) in 16 food categories. NHDC is marketed world-wide under the name Citrosa by the Spanish-based Exquim, S.A. company, a subsidiary of the pharmaceutical group Ferrer Internacional, S.A.109,110,111
Clearly, most artificial sweeteners in use today pose significant dangers. Mother Nature did not intend for us to suffer from the Sugar-Free Blues. There are many healthy alternatives to both refined sugar and artificial sweeteners, including maple syrup, dehydrated sugar cane juice (sold as Sucanat and Rapadura), date sugar, raw unfiltered honey and molasses. Consumed in moderation as part of a nutrient-dense diet that includes plenty of good quality fats, these mineral-rich, naturally sweet foods allow us to enjoy the sweet taste while nourishing the body at the same time. In strict moderation, they can even be used by diabetics in conjunction with a nutrient-dense, high-fat diet.
Better Options–Updated 12 APR 2004
Many healthful and promising alternative sweeteners are now available to the informed consumer; please note that most of the good options are provided to us by plants and herbs, while most of the bad options have been created in laboratories.
From this point on (beginning with thaumatin) is what the author likes to term as “the best options,” although not all of them are readily available options at this time for various reasons. This section has been updated from what originally appeared in the print edition of Wise Traditions, Winter 2003. Note that reference numbers in this section correspond to the “References Corresponding to Better Options Addendum” list following the original references.
Thaumatin is a naturally-occurring sweet protein (not a carbohydrate at all) derived from the berries of the West African Katemfe plant, also called the sweet prayer plant and the miracle plant, botanically known as Thaumatococcus daniellii. More correctly, there are five separate sweet proteins which may be isolated and derived from Katemfe berries–thaumatins I, II, III, a and b. These five are collectively referred to as thaumatin in a generalized sense. Thaumatin is metabolized by the human body similarly as other proteins.
The Katemfe plant was first “discovered” by the Western world by a British Army Surgeon, W. F. Daniell, during his army posting in West Africa in the 1840s. He observed that the local people used it “to improve sour fruit and bad palm wine.” He wrote of the fruit’s “extraordinary power on the palate,” and clearly identified its capabilities “to enhance flavours and mask off-notes.”112 The actual proteins responsible for the sweetness were first isolated from the plant and identified in 1971 by H. van der Wel. They were found to be 3000 times sweeter than sucrose, thus making thaumatin the sweetest natural substance known to man.113 (Thaumatin also has the unusual distinction of having been selected by NASA to be synthesized in a space lab orbiting the Earth. They chose it due to the fact that thaumatin molecules have a very unusual crystalline structure, suitable to the research that NASA was doing at the time.)114
Immediately grasping upon the potential of this newly-identified sweetener, the British sugar multinational Tate & Lyle established massive Katemfe plantations in Ghana, Liberia and Malaysia in the 1970s. The berries were frozen and shipped to its factories in the UK. The food industry, in their never-ending quest to increase their profits and jeopardize the safety of our foods, later found a way to use genetic engineering and gene splicing to produce the sweet thaumatin proteins from bacterial cultures, thus by-passing the need to cultivate, harvest, transport and process any Katemfe berries. Although this technology exists, for reasons unknown it has not been commercially utilized yet.115
Choosing a brand name of Talin for the new product, Tate & Lyle established a subsidiary called The Talin Company to handle its production and marketing. The Talin Company changed hands several times and underwent a corporate merger before being acquired by The Braes Group, a European natural food ingredients company. The production of Talin is now handled by a British subsidiary of The Braes Group, Overseal Foods, Ltd.116
Thaumatin was first permitted as a food additive by the Japanese in 1979 and has since been approved as a sweetener in Australia and several European countries. It has been given GRAS status in the U.S., but is only allowed as a flavor enhancer in flavoring agents, animal feeds, oral care products and beverages. It is also used in other countries in sweetener blends, chewing gums, vitamin tablets, baked goods, dairy products and pharmaceuticals.117 While Talin is not commercially available to the average consumer in this country, it is possible to order the dried, unprocessed fruit of the Katemfe plant online at www.bouncingb.com/thaumatococcus_danielli.php . (It is not cheap, though–1 ounce of the dried fruit goes for $30.)
Stevia, another natural sweetener derived from a plant, is becoming a well-known option in many U.S. health food stores. A native of Paraguay and a member of the sunflower family, the stevia plant is botanically known as Stevia rebaudiana. The plant is also referred to as Bertoni, a nod of remembrance toward Moises S. Bertoni, the Italian botanist who first studied stevia in 1899.118 Taken as a whole, the leaves of the stevia plant average at about 30 times sweeter than sucrose.119 Scientists have isolated and named a number of individual sweet compounds within the stevia plant, chiefly including stevioside, steviobioside, rebaudiosides A, B, C, D and E, and dulcoside A. The sweetness of these purified substances varies between 50 to 450 times that of sucrose. (Stevioside, the most commonly-used extractive of stevia, is about 300 times sweeter than sucrose.)120
Stevia leaves and stevioside are virtually calorie-free, beneficial in the prevention of cavities and do not trigger a rise in blood sugar. They are not only safe for diabetics and hypoglycemics, but in some countries stevia leaves are even prescribed as a medicinal substance for these conditions because they normalize pancreatic function and thus aid in the metabolism of sugar.121 The whole stevia leaves contain a number of beneficial compounds, including ascorbic acid, calcium, beta-carotene, chromium, cobalt, iron, magnesium, manganese, niacin, phosphorus, potassium, riboflavin, selenium, silicon, sodium, thiamin, tin and zinc.122 (It should be noted that only the whole stevia leaves have nutritive benefits. Stevioside extracts merely function as a sweetener and pass through the body undigested, although they do possess anti-viral and anti-bacterial properties.)123 When applied topically, the stevia leaves also fight acne and speed wound healing while also reducing the formation of scar tissue.124
While natives of Paraguay have used the stevia plant for many centuries, the western world has also had a few centuries of experience with this sweet plant, dating back much earlier than Bertoni’s time. Spanish Conquistadors of the sixteenth century learned about stevia from the local Guarani and Mato Grosso societies, who used it to sweeten teas and herbal medicines. Early European settlers sweetened foods, teas and other beverages with stevia, and Gauchos (the local version of what we might call cowboys) in the region of Paraguay later used it as a sweetener.
In the early 1970s, the Japanese government and regulatory agencies began to take a distinct stand against artificial sweeteners, especially aspartame, due to their possible health risks. After conducting extensive tests on stevia and stevioside, they accepted it as a safe alternative and gave it government sanction for widespread usage. By 1977 the Maruzen Kasei Co., Ltd. started extracting stevioside on a commercial basis in Japan. For over 25 years now, the Japanese have used stevia and its extracts as a table top sweetener, in soft drinks, baked goods, pickles, fruit juices, jams and jellies, candies, yogurts, pastries, chewing gum, sherbets, toothpaste and tobacco products. It has reportedly captured over 50% of the Japanese sweetening market,125 even though the Japanese technically classify it as a food additive. In all this time, there have never been any reports of toxicity or adverse reactions to its usage. Stevia is also used as a sweet food additive in South Korea, Brazil, Argentina and Paraguay, and as a dietary supplement in China, western Europe and the U.S.126
Stevia did not have a very easy entry into the U.S. market. The earliest introduction into this country was probably in the late 1970s or early ‘80s. Although the FDA had not ruled on stevia one way or another at that time, a provision in federal law allows for the food industry to make a self-determination of Generally Recognized as Safe (GRAS) status for items with a long history of “common use in food” prior to 1958, providing that it enjoyed widespread use without any apparent adverse health effects.
There was relatively little popular awareness of stevia at that time, but a handful of food producers were including it in their products under that most nebulous of categories–”natural flavors.” Among those marketing or developing products containing stevia were the Lipton Tea Company, Celestial Seasonings, and Traditional Medicinals, as well as a host of smaller firms. One of these smaller firms was a Utah-based nutritional products company by the name of Sunrider International.
In 1985, Kerry Nielson was director of operations at Sunrider. (The reader is advised to recall that this was the same time period during which G D Searle & Company and Monsanto were winning major victories toward FDA approval of aspartame. Whereas the patent on aspartame was extremely lucrative for these companies, it is impossible under U.S. law to hold a patent on a naturally occurring substance.) Nielson and his company were among the first to feel the regulatory backlash directed at stevia and its purveyors.
Sunrider, which had recently began marketing a stevioside sweetening product called Trusweet, was informed of a trademark infringement complaint filed by the NutraSweet Company against their product. Notwithstanding the baseless nature of this complaint, Sunrider knew that they did not have the economic resources to fight a legal battle with NutraSweet. Rather than do so, they changed the product’s name to Sunectar and hoped that this would resolve the issue. But this wasn’t the end of Sunrider’s legal problems with stevia.
Not long afterward, the U.S. Department of Agriculture paid a visit to the company’s headquarters. As Mr. Nielson himself recalls, “I thought it was strange because they asked specifically to see the stevia [whereas normally] they would just go through and have a look at everything…. When we took them over to the area where we had the stevia, the inspector dug out a bunch of red tags and started slapping them on everything.” The stevia was all burned and the company was instructed to cease and desist from any further importation. The only explanation given by the inspectors for this action was “suspicion of adulteration,” which usually means contamination of some sort. However, the inspectors did not take any samples of the stevia with them in order to test for contamination. Sunrider continued to meet with FDA stonewalling on the matter and eventually gave up on the idea of using stevia as a sweetener, opting instead to formulate a less-controversial skin-care product containing stevia. Once this change of course was established, the FDA dropped its embargo and relinquished all concerns over its “suspicion of adulteration.”127
It was around that same time that the Arizona-based Wisdom Natural Brands company began having problems with stevia products as well. Jim May, founder and president of the company, had even gone so far as to submit test samples of stevia to the FDA to assure that it would be okay to use it in the company’s products. Initially, May received confirmation that there would be no problems with importing the whole leaves of the plant or a liquid concentrate of stevioside. However, the FDA later reversed course and ordered the company to stop importing all stevia products. May recounts that he was told in a phone conversation with the FDA that (once again) the NutraSweet Company had been behind the complaint. (The FDA and NutraSweet both deny that NutraSweet ever had any involvement in the FDA’s actions.) May, who had only been selling between $100 and $200 worth of stevia per month, says that he was also told by one FDA agent that “if [the FDA] wanted to make carrots [be] against the law, we could do it.”128
One of the next major targets would be the Colorado-based tea company Celestial Seasonings. In the mid 1980s, representatives of an “anonymous firm” lodged a trade complaint with the FDA, charging that the Celestial Seasonings company was using stevia extracts in four products which were therefore “adulterated.” The company responded by formally petitioning for stevia’s GRAS status and presenting the FDA with substantial evidence that stevia had a long history of safe usage. The FDA declined to even process the company’s petition and continued to pressure them to stop using stevia, as well as to turn over the names of other companies which were using the controversial sweetener. Under continuing harassment, Celestial Seasonings relented on both counts.129
It would preserve some small measure of the FDA’s dignity if these had only been isolated incidents, or even if they were the worst incidents of their kind…but it gets worse. In 1991 the FDA began to escalate the whole matter to the level of a War on Drugs, issuing “Import Alert Number 45-06,” which declared stevia an “unsafe food additive” and prohibited its import into the U.S. (It is interesting to note that the text of this document mentions that stevia “has been used throughout history” without any mention of negative side effects.)130 It was in that same year when a gang of armed federal marshals raided the Arlington, Texas warehouse of businessman Oscar Rodes, served him with a warrant, and proceeded to seize and burn his most recent shipment of stevia and stevioside powder for use in natural teas.131 The FDA has even gone so far as to raid health food stores suspected of selling stevia products and to order the confiscation of books which refer to stevia’s potential use as a natural sweetener.132
At this point, a number of companies and individuals began to seriously address the task of seeking FDA approval through formal, procedural channels. Lynda Sadler, president of the California-based Traditional Medicinals herbal-tea company, along with the American Herbal Products Association (AHPA) and an attorney by the name of William R. Pendergast, started to work on persuading the FDA that the marketing of stevia should be permitted based on its having been used safely and widely in food prior to 1958.
Pendergast and the others submitted more than 900 articles to the FDA, documenting that the herb has been used safely for “hundreds of years” by “millions of people.” The FDA said that they needed more specific and scientific information, so the Herbal Research Foundation did extensive scientific research to address specific FDA concerns. The FDA stonewalled this information and dragged their feet until Sadler, the AHPA and Pendergast were finally forced to drop the matter, which was draining much time and money.
The Lipton Tea Company then picked up the cause in 1994, submitting a 2-inch thick petition for GRAS status. Despite Lipton’s credentials within the food industry, they met with similar bureaucratic resistance. In this case and the previous attempts by Pendergast et al., the FDA ignored their usual protocol and refused to even file the petitions for approval. Once a petition is filed, the information submitted becomes available for public review during the same time period in which the FDA is reviewing it. This would have left the FDA in the position of having to publicly defend its actions, something which they were unwilling to do. In one meeting with FDA officials, an AHPA representative asked what amount of information would be required for submission before the FDA would formally file a petition. The FDA’s Direct Additives Branch chief, Eugene Coleman, replied: “This may sound flippant, but we [will] know that number when we see it.”133
On the rare occasions when someone managed to get a straight answer from an FDA official as to their bizarre stance towards stevia, the usual reasons have been suspicions of toxicity and/or a possible adverse effect on fertility. (Some sources also say that the FDA refuses to label any natural substance as a sweetener unless it is a carbohydrate.)134 These allegations are based upon two studies–a 1968 rat study and a 1988 mouse study published in a Brazilian pharmacological journal.
The first of these two was conducted in Uruguay by a Purdue University biochemist named Joseph Kuc. While the FDA interprets this study as casting reasonable doubt upon the safety of stevia, Kuc himself has gone on record as saying that his results are not supportive of these claims. While the rats in the study did suffer from the effects of toxicity and from a reduction in the numbers of offspring, Kuc points out that they were fed the entire stevia plant, not just the sweet leaves. The Brazilian study involved an overly-small group of mice and suffered from a number of methodological and design flaws. The study documented only very scant information about the quantities of stevia which the mice consumed and how it was prepared. The FDA has also alluded to several South American studies which have supposedly questioned the safety of stevia, although they admit that they have never even been able to acquire copies of these studies. (It should be noted that the extensive scientific studies conducted on stevia by the Japanese have not indicated any toxicity or reproductive hazards.)135
In September of 1995, after much thankless effort on the part of many parties, the FDA finally relented by revising their 1991 Import Alert with the issuance of the Dietary Supplement Health and Education Act. Under that law, stevia was cleared for import into the U.S., providing that it only be labeled and used as a dietary supplement and not as a sweetener.136 This allows U.S. companies to use and sell stevia, but only by walking the narrow line of not implicating it in any way as a sweetener.
The official status of stevia has not changed as of the time of this article’s publication, but the future of this contentious little plant is being shaped in very exciting ways. Despite the best efforts of the establishment to hold it back, there exists something of an informal “underground” of those who seek to vindicate stevia and openly market it as a sweetener. The Price Foundation itself is playing a role in this cause, but one of the most well-known advocates is Donna Gates, author of The Body Ecology Diet. Gates openly champions the cause of stevia as a sweetener and has stated that she will go to jail, if necessary, to win the FDA’s approval. There are also some exciting possibilities brewing in Canada, where stevia may be sold as a tea but not a sweetener. A Vancouver company by the name of Royal-Sweet International is developing a stevia sweetener which they plan to export into the booming Asian market, a move which just may attract the attention of other corporate interests. Also, there has been talk of growing Canadian stevia as a cash crop, possibly even replacing Canadian tobacco.137
To summarize, while we will all have to wait to see what the future holds for stevia, we should not wait to begin using it and reaping its benefits. There are currently a number of outlets through which one may acquire stevia (see www.holisticmed.com/sweet/sweet.txt ), and they vary quite a bit in taste and quality. This author’s personal favorite stevia products are available from Wisdom Natural Brands, found at www.wisdomherbs.com . For more information on stevia, the reader is advised to read the book The Stevia Story: A Tale of Incredible Sweetness & Intrigue, by Bill and Linda Bonvie and Donna Gates.
Licorice root is a substance of which virtually everyone is aware, but comparatively few people realize its sweetening properties. (Although many people equate licorice with the sweet red strips of candy called by the same name, those do not actually contain any licorice root. These candy “licorices” are typically mixtures of corn syrup, sugar, flour, margarine and artificial flavorings.) The plant of which licorice root is the root is the blue flowering pea plant, botanically known as glycyrrhiza glabra. This plant grows wild in much of southern Europe and in Asia. Licorice root has been used since ancient Egyptian times to treat upset stomachs, chest infections and coughs, and has also been used by various cultures to ward of demons and invoke mystical powers.138
Licorice root may be used in its unadulterated, ground-up form, or the primary sweetening compound may be extracted. In this case, that compound is known as glycyrrhizin (or also glycyrrhizic acid). Glycyrrhizin is between 50 and 100 times sweeter than sucrose, but it also imparts a definite (and familiar) aftertaste of licorice. Due to its low sweetness (in comparison to many artificial sweeteners) and strong aftertaste, it has not enjoyed much success as a commercial sweetener. The exception to this is its use in herbal tea blends, where the licorice aftertaste may be blended quite well with other tastes.
There is a very long historical record of the safety of licorice as a food and a medicinal herb. In fact, it is one of the most commonly-used herbs worldwide. It is safe for diabetics, but its lack of versatility as an all-around sweetening agent limits its potential applications. There has never been a single documented case of adverse reaction to the consumption of licorice root in its whole, ground-up form.139 This is not quite the case with the extracted glycyrrhizin, which is still very safe for most people but may cause hypertension, edema, sodium retention and mild depletion of potassium when consumed excessively or by certain sensitive individuals. (Many herbalists recommend against long-term, excessive consumption of ground licorice root due to concerns that it also may cause hypertension and edema in some people.) For this very reason, Japanese and Dutch regulatory agencies agree that the total daily consumption of glycyrrhizin should not exceed 200 milligrams. Adverse symptoms of excessive glycyrrhizin consumption generally disappear shortly after a person lowers their dietary intake of products containing the sweetener.140
Glycyrrhizin and other compounds derived from it are widely used in Japan for sweetening foods, beverages, medicines, and tobacco. Within the U.S., glycyrrhizin has GRAS status as a flavoring agent, but is not allowed as a sweetener.141 To date, there is only one commercial glycyrrhizin product available–MagnaSweet from MAFCO Worldwide. They advertise that MagnaSweet “can be used in a wide range of applications to enhance, intensify and potentiate flavors; augment or modify sweetness; eliminate or modify bitterness; and mask unpleasant aftertastes.”142 MagnaSweet is currently only available to the food processing industry.
Lo Han Kuo
Lo Han Kuo (sometimes spelled Lo Han Guo) is a sweet Chinese fruit in the cucumber, melon, squash, and gourd family which has the potential to be as good of a natural option as stevia. The Lo Han fruit has been used by local people in southern provinces of China for centuries as a sweetener and a medicinal herb for the treatment of lung congestion, colds, sore throats and minor stomach and intestinal problems. Traditional Chinese doctors consider it to be a yin substance, meaning that it releases excess heat from the body. For this reason, it is traditionally consumed and served during the hot summer months in China. There has never been any recorded incidence of adverse reactions to Lo Han fruit or its extractives.143,144,145
It was only as recently as the early 20th Century that Lo Han has come to the attention of the Western scientific community, and it has undergone several changes in its official botanical classification. Being a member of the Cucurbitaceae family, it was first classified as Momordica grosvenorii, then Thladiantha grosvenorii, and most recently as Siraitia grosvenorii. Scientific studies on Lo Han did not begin until the 1970s. A number of compounds (dubbed as mogrosides) were isolated from the fruit, of which mogrosides IV and V were determined to be the principle sweet constituents. The two substances are variously rated at being between 230 and 425 times sweeter than sucrose, depending upon their application.146 The whole dried fruit is 300 times sweeter than sucrose.147
As is also the case with stevia, the human digestive system is unable to break down the sweet compounds within Lo Han fruit. Consequently, it triggers no rise in blood sugar levels and is completely safe for diabetics and hypoglycemics. It also helps promote the metabolization of stored body fat. Modern scientific research has shown that Lo Han extracts help relieve gastritis, constipation and respiratory inflammations, and they also appear to inhibit the Epstein-Barr virus and display anti-carcinogenic properties.148
While the FDA has not made any conclusive rulings upon the status of Lo Han and its extractives, they are currently available to U.S. consumers and have not been opposed in any way by regulatory authorities. A case may certainly be made that Lo Han should be allowed as a GRAS substance due to its substantial history of safe usage prior to 1958. A handful of companies are marketing Lo Han sweetening products in the U.S. and elsewhere. Of these, the author’s two product recommendations are Slim & Sweet from Wisdom Natural Brands (www.wisdomherbs.com) and SweetLIFE from Chi Fai’s Inc. (www.chifaisgourmet.com/CFSweetLIFE2.htm). Dried Lo Han fruit is frequently available in Chinese and Oriental markets, or may be ordered online at www.chinanaturalproduct.com/whole_dried_Lo_Han_Kuo_fruit.htm.
Glycerine (also spelled as glycerin or called glycerol) takes the prize as the most versatile and vexatious substance in our discussion. While technically classified by the FDA as a carbohydrate, this placement was made by default only. Glycerine does not qualify as a fat since it does not contain fatty acids, and it does not qualify as a protein because it has no amino acids, so the only remaining macronutrient category is the carbohydrates. Glycerine (which is technically known as a trihydric alcohol) definitely deserves to be included in the macronutrient arena, even though it defies clear categorization.149
Glycerine is a colorless, odorless, viscous liquid with a very sweet and slightly astringent taste. Molecules of glycerine form the structural backbone of nearly all vegetable oils and animal fats. It was first identified in a laboratory in Sweden in 1779 by Karl Wilhelm Scheele. Scheele named the substance after the Greek word “glykys,” which means “sweet.”150 Glycerine is not chemically related to sugar and seems to have a very negligible effect on insulin and blood sugar levels, thus making it a safe sweetener for diabetics, hypoglycemics and people with Candida yeast problems.
While it is not generally recommended that glycerine be consumed undiluted, there are a number of health benefits to consuming it as a component of foods or beverages. Fitness-conscious people may appreciate glycerine because it increases blood volume (thus helping delay dehydration when exercising), enhances temperature regulation and is claimed to improve physical performance in the heat. (It should be noted that certain individuals should avoid consuming excessive amounts of glycerine due to the very fact that it does increase blood volume. This would include pregnant women and people who suffer from high blood pressure, diabetes or kidney diseases.)151 Glycerine is also a source of lecithin and tocopherols (vitamin E).152
Food-grade glycerine is produced from animal sources (usually tallow), vegetable sources (various vegetable oils) and from propylene alcohol. While the molecular structure of glycerine from any of these sources is exactly the same, there are obvious concerns as to the source of the glycerine which one may be consuming. (Unfortunately, this information is very seldom available when glycerine shows up as an ingredient in a product.) Some sources say that glycerine from propylene alcohol is irritating to the skin and scalp when used in topical products.153 Non-food-grade glycerine is a major by-product in the production of biodiesel fuels. The food industry’s primary interest in glycerine is as a moisturizing/softening/texture agent, but it is also used in skin moisturizers, lotions, deodorants, soaps, makeup, toothpaste, pharmaceuticals, paper manufacturing, inks for printing, textiles, plastics, electronic components, paint brush cleaners, topical medications for male erectile dysfunction and in the manufacture of nitroglycerine (the main component of dynamite).154 There are over 1500 end-use applications for glycerine.155
The issue of how glycerine is digested and used by the body is complex. The simple answer is that glycerine is utilized by the body in different ways (or not at all) depending upon the state one is in when one consumes it. Even if one does not consume any glycerine as an ingredient of any food items, it is normally liberated from various naturally occurring food sources during the digestive process. It is also released into the body when a person metabolizes body-fat reserves.
No matter how the glycerine molecules find their way into the digestive system, their fate seems to depend upon the energy status of the person at that moment. If a person has a neutral or positive state of general metabolic energy, glycerine may be (at least partially) excreted unchanged, metabolized into phoshoglycerides for use within cell membranes, or used in the conversion of extra dietary calories into body fat. If a person is in a negative state of metabolic energy, the glycerine may be metabolized into energy through two different processes, gluconeogenesis (the production of blood glucose) or glycolysis (a different energy-creation pathway in the body).156
In the final analysis glycerine is a sweetening option worth experimenting with, unless one is pregnant or has high blood pressure, diabetes or kidney disease. Those who suffer from Candida or other yeast problems may find it especially beneficial. Try to seek out glycerine available from a product line which is trustworthy–Frontier Natural Products is one reliable source, available on the internet at www.frontiercoop.com/shop/merchant.mvc (search under the “glycerin” spelling). An excellent resource for recipes using glycerine as a sweetener is The Complete Candida Cookbook, by Gail Burton.
Fructooligosaccharides (usually abbreviated to FOS) and inulin are terms referring to naturally-occurring, mildly-sweet, indigestible carbohydrates. (FOS is something of an umbrella term for a class of oligosaccharides; inulin is a specific type of FOS. Hereafter, any mention of FOS is meant to include inulin as well, unless otherwise specified.) While the FDA classifies FOS as being only a food ingredient which is usually used as a fat-replacer in low-fat foods, it does have some potential as a sweetening substance. It does not affect blood sugar levels, and so is suitable for diabetics and hypoglycemics.157
FOS is commonly extracted from chicory roots and Jerusalem artichokes (as it occurs in relatively large quantities in these items), but it is also found in onions, leeks, garlic, common artichokes, bananas, rye, barley, dandelion leaves, burdock roots and honey. Some presence of FOS has been noted in over 36,000 plants worldwide, so this is a very partial list.158
FOS is structurally built out of chains of fructose molecules, with the chains ranging from 2 to 60 units long. The number of fructose molecules which are bound together is called the “degree of polymerization,” or DP, and it varies according to the plant source, type of climate, time of harvest, and the duration and conditions of post-harvest storage. Naturally occurring sources of FOS generally contain mixtures of various degrees of polymerization, but standardized extracts of FOS generally average at a DP of about 4. Inulin may be standardized to an average DP of 22, which is considered to be long-chain inulin.159
These chains of fructose cannot be broken down by the human digestive system, but they can be broken down and consumed by the bacteria in the digestive tract. For this reason, FOS is considered to be a prebiotic–a substance which provides nourishment for the gastrointestinal flora. Prebiotics, like probiotics (such as live-culture yogurt–substances which actually contain the same bacteria which are the beneficial flora in the human digestive tract), help promote regularity, prevent yeast overgrowth and are beneficial for those with Crohn’s disease, colitis or who are on kidney dialysis. Prebiotics and probiotics are additionally beneficial when taken together.160
The finer point here which is frequently overlooked is that nonspecific extracts of FOS will provide nourishment for friendly bacteria (lactobacilli, bifidobacteria, etc.) and pathogenic bacteria (E. coli, Salmonella, Staphylococcus, Clostridium, etc.) alike, whereas standardized extracts of long-chain inulin will selectively nourish only the friendly flora. It is likely for this reason that some people experience gastric distress after consuming foods containing nonspecific blends of FOS–if one already has a problem with the balance of the intestinal flora, a nonspecific blend of FOS may exacerbate the problem.161
Aside from feeding the bacteria of the digestive tract, all forms of FOS act as dietary fiber. Thus, consumption of FOS may help to shorten fecal transit time, increase fecal bulk and reduces constipation. It has also been shown to reduce both cholesterol and triglyceride levels and may provide improved absorption of minerals such as calcium, magnesium, iron, and phosphate.162
Due to the relatively-low sweetness of FOS and inulin, it is easier to use it for sweetening purposes in combination with another sweet substance. While FOS products are commercially available from different sources, the author recommends an inulin product called Chicolin, from BioQuest Imports International, Inc. (www.greenalive.com/chicolin.html). Chicolin has recommended specifications for blending with stevia to achieve a desirable level of sweetness.
And finally we come to the hodgepodge category of “what is left,” a few other sweet plants and herbs that have been and are still being tested for possible use as commercial sweeteners. Just because they have not been commercially utilized doesn’t necessarily mean that one could not attempt to cultivate them and do some personal experimentation. To that end, here is a short list of additional sweet plants by botanical name: Hydrangea macrophylla Seringe var. thunbergii (and other species in this genus), Dioscoreophyllum cumminsii Diels, Capparis masakai Levl, Pentadiplandra brazzeana Baillon, Curculigo latifolia, Lippia dulcis, Rubus suavissimus, Phlomis betonicoides Diels, Polypodium vulgare, Polypodium glycyrrhiza, and Pterocarya paliurus Batal.163 The reader is strongly advised to thoroughly research these plants before attempting to ingest any part(s) of them. Some technical information about all of the plants in this list may be found in the book, Alternative Sweeteners, Third Edition, Lyn O’Brien Nabors (editor).
While even this has not been a complete list of all of the artificial/alternative sweeteners that are available, we have at least touched upon all of the major options currently in use. While we have clearly found some of the sweeteners in use today to be plagued with numerous dangers, there are also many healthful and promising options available to the informed consumer. It is no accident that most of the good options are provided to us by plants and herbs, while most of the bad options have been created in laboratories. Mother Nature clearly did not intend for us to have to suffer from the Sugar-Free Blues.
(All web addresses were visited on or before October, 12, 2003)
4. Alternative Sweeteners, Third Edition. Lyn O’Brien Nabors (editor)
5. www.ecit.emory.edu/ECIT/chem ram/synth/Hodgin.htm
17. Fallon, Sally and Enig, Mary G, PhD, Nourishing Traditions, NewTrends Publishing, 2001, Washington, DC.
26. Webster’s Dictionary of the English Language: Deluxe Encyclopedic Edition. 1991.
27. Alternative Sweeteners, Third Edition. Lyn O’Brien Nabors (editor)
33. Alternative Sweeteners, Third Edition. Lyn O’Brien Nabors (editor)
35. Alternative Sweeteners, Third Edition. Lyn O’Brien Nabors (editor)
56. Alternative Sweeteners, Third Edition. Lyn O’Brien Nabors (editor)
63. Alternative Sweeteners, Third Edition. Lyn O’Brien Nabors (editor)
70. Alternative Sweeteners, Third Edition. Lyn O’Brien Nabors (editor)
78. Low-Calorie Sweeteners: Present and Future (from the World Conference on Low-Calorie Sweeteners). Antonietta Corti (editor)
82. Alternative Sweeteners, Third Edition. Lyn O’Brien Nabors (editor)
86. Alternative Sweeteners, Third Edition. Lyn O’Brien Nabors (editor)
89. Alternative Sweeteners, Third Edition. Lyn O’Brien Nabors (editor)
106. Alternative Sweeteners, Third Edition. Lyn O’Brien Nabors (editor)
108. Alternative Sweeteners, Third Edition, Lyn O’Brien Nabors (editor)
110. Low-Calorie Sweeteners: Present and Future (from the World Conference on Low-Calorie Sweeteners). Atonietta Corti (editor)
112. Information taken from a personal e-mail exchange with Overseal Color, Inc.
113. Alternative Sweeteners, Third Edition. Lyn O’Brien Nabors (editor)
114. Information taken from Wisdom Natural Brands stevia product brochures
116. Wisdom Natural Brands stevia product brochures
118. Alternative Sweeteners, Third Edition. Lyn O’Brien Nabors (editor)
119. Alternative Sweeteners, Third Edition. Lyn O’Brien Nabors (editor)
120. “Lo Han: A Natural Sweetener Comes of Age,” Whole Foods, June 2003, by Peilin Guo and Dallas Clouatre.
121. Alternative Sweeteners, Third Edition. Lyn O’Brien Nabors (editor)
123. “Lo Han: A Natural Sweetener Comes of Age,” Whole Foods, June 2003, by Peilin Guo and Dallas Clouatre.
125. Alternative Sweeteners, Third Edition. Lyn O’Brien Nabors (editor)
References Corresponding to Better Options Addendum
113- Alternative Sweeteners, Third Edition. Lyn O’Brien Nabors (editor)
116- Information taken from a personal e-mail exchange with Overseal Color, Inc.
117- Alternative Sweeteners, Third Edition. Lyn O’Brien Nabors (editor)
119- Information taken from Wisdom Natural Brands stevia product brochures
120- Alternative Sweeteners, Third Edition. Lyn O’Brien Nabors (editor)
122- Information taken from Wisdom Natural Brands stevia product brochures
124- Information taken from Wisdom Natural Brands stevia product brochures
126- Alternative Sweeteners, Third Edition. Lyn O’Brien Nabors (editor)
127- “Sinfully Sweet?” article from New Age Journal, Jan/Feb. 1996, by Linda and Bill Bonvie. Available online at www.stevia.net/newagesweet.htm
131- “Sinfully Sweet?” article from New Age Journal, Jan./Feb. 1996, by Linda and Bill Bonvie. Available online at www.stevia.net/newagesweet.htm
133- “Sinfully Sweet?” article from New Age Journal, Jan./Feb. 1996, by Linda and Bill Bonvie. Available online at www.stevia.net/newagesweet.htm
134- “Lo Han: A Natural Sweetener Comes of Age” article from Whole Foods, June 2003, by Peilin Guo and Dallas Clouatre.
135- “Sinfully Sweet?” article from New Age Journal, Jan./Feb. 1996, by Linda and Bill Bonvie. Available online at www.stevia.net/newagesweet.htm
137- “Sinfully Sweet?” article from New Age Journal, Jan./Feb. 1996, by Linda and Bill Bonvie. Available online at www.stevia.net/newagesweet.htm
140- Alternative Sweeteners, Third Edition. Lyn O’Brien Nabors (editor)
143- “Lo Han: A Natural Sweetener Comes of Age” article from Whole Foods, June 2003, by Peilin Guo and Dallas Clouatre.
144- Alternative Sweeteners, Third Edition. Lyn O’Brien Nabors (editor)
146- “Lo Han: A Natural Sweetener Comes of Age” article from Whole Foods, June 2003, by Peilin Guo and Dallas Clouatre.
148- “Lo Han: A Natural Sweetener Comes of Age” article from Whole Foods, June 2003, by Peilin Guo and Dallas Clouatre.
157- Alternative Sweeteners, Third Edition. Lyn O’Brien Nabors (editor)
163- Alternative Sweeteners, Third Edition. Lyn O’Brien Nabors (editor)
This article appeared in Wise Traditions in Food, Farming and the Healing Arts, the quarterly magazine of the Weston A. Price Foundation, Winter 2003.