You probably heard good things and bad things about many artificial sweeteners. If you did, you are not alone. The history of artificial sweeteners is full of surprises and power struggles. On Jan.18, 2016 CNN reviewed the most common sweeteners.
Here is a brief review of the most common sweeteners.
- Saccharine: This sweetener’s history goes back to 1879 when the Russian chemist Constantin Fahlberg first noted experimenting with coal tar compounds that one of the end products, benzoic sulfanide tasted sweet. In fact it was between 200 and 700 times sweeter than granulated sugar! But there were political struggles that accompanied this sweetener throughout the years. There were rumours that in rats saccharine could cause bladder cancer. The health authorities became concerned. This led to Congress passing the Pure Food and Drug Act in June of 1906, to protect the public from “adulterated or misbranded or poisonous or deleterious foods, drugs or medicines.” This was the precursor of the FDA that would examine all of the medical evidence and consider the pros and cons of sweeteners as well. President Roosevelt took saccharine for weight control to replace sugar. In 1908 Roosevelt felt he had to stop the actions of overzealous Dr. Harvey Wiley, chief of the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s chemical division who was of the opinion that saccharine should be taken off the market. Dr. Wiley did not give up his fight and finally the FDA decided to ban saccharine in processed foods, but to continue to allow private sales of saccharine.
- Cyclamate was detected in 1937. It was marketed first to help control diabetes better. Because of the reduction in sugar consumption it allowed diabetic patients to cut the amount of insulin required to control diabetes. Cyclamate did not have a bitter aftertaste, so it was mixed with saccharine at a ratio of 10 parts of cyclamate to 1 part of saccharine and “Sweet ‘N Low” was created. In 1958 the FDA gave cyclamate the GRAS designation: “generally recognized as safe”. The good fortunes of cyclamate did not last long: in 1969 damaging animal experiments showed that cyclamate/saccharine had caused chromosomal breaks in sperm of rats. Another study from 1970 showed bladder tumors in rats. Other studies showed lung, stomach and reproductive tumors in animal experiments with cyclamates/saccharine. The FDA wanted to shut down the sale of the Sweet N’ Low sweetener, but public pressure and the food processing industry forced the issue to be brought up in front of Congress. The compromise was to use a warning 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.” In the year 2000 and beyond a series of animal experiments and data from Denmark, Britain, Canada and the United States on humans showed there were no signs of bladder cancer from exposure to Sweet N’ Low. In 2000 Congress removed the warning labels.
- Aspartame was detected in 1965. James M. Schlatter, a chemist, was looking for anti-ulcer drugs, but noticed the intensely sweet flavor when he licked his fingers. This led to the newest sweetener by 1973. We know it by the trade names Equal, NutraSweet or Sugar Twin. As this sweetener consisting of the two amino acids phenylalanine and aspartic acid is metabolized in the body, it cannot be taken by people with phenylketonuria, with certain rare liver disorders or by pregnant women with high levels of phenylalanine in their blood, because it is not metabolized properly in those individuals. Any food made with aspartame has to put that restriction on the label, a requirement by the FDA. In 1996 W. Olney and his associates presented research that implied that Aspartame would have caused brain tumors in rats. But later these experiments were disproven and new studies from children with brain tumors showed “little biological or experimental evidence that aspartame is likely to act as a human brain carcinogen.”
- Sucralose was detected in 1976 by insecticide researchers who looked for new types of insecticides. They found that chlorinated sugar worked as an insecticide. One of the was astounded how sweet the chemical tasted. If you Google “Splenda and insecticide”, you have a hard time finding references regarding the history of sucralose, but 20 years ago I found a detailed description that explained how doing insecticide research one of the chemists accidentally tasted one of the research products, and it was about 600-times sweeter than table sugar. Here is one of the few references that explains that sucralose was discovered while looking for new insecticides . I have repeated the insecticide experiment myself in Hawaii where small ants are ubiquitous. Out of curiosity I took a package of Splenda from a coffee shop and sprinkled the contents in the path of ants. In the beginning the ants were reluctant to eat it, but after a short time they came and took it in. They slowed down, and finally they were all dead. A few hours later there were only shrivelled up dead ants left in the area where Splenda had been sprinkled. Proof enough for me that Splenda was developed as an insecticide and should not be consumed by humans! In the meantime Dr. Axe in the above references lists the side effects in humans: “Migraines, agitation, numbness, dizziness, diarrhea, swelling, muscle aches, stomach and intestinal cramps and bladder problems.” In the Splenda marketing scheme they decided to first introduce Splenda gradually into diabetic foods as a sweetener, then later sell it to the public at large. Don’t fall for it. It was a side product of insecticide research, and insecticides have the undesirable quality of being xenoestrogens, which block estrogen receptors in women. As a result estrogen can no longer access the body cells, including the heart. The final consequence for a woman is a higher risk for cardio-vascular disease. This can cause heart attacks, strokes and cancer. In men estrogen-blocking xenoestrogens can cause breast growth and erectile dysfunction. Taken everything together Splenda seems to be too risky for its sweetness.
- Other sweeteners: researchers have not stopped looking for newer, better sweeteners. There is a number of sugar alcohols with less calories than sugar such as erythritol. Another common sugar alcohol is xylitol, used in chewing gum. The advantage is that these are natural sweet alcohols that exist in nature. Xylitol originated from birch wood and was touted to help tooth decay when you use chewing gum containing it. Karl Clauss and Harald Jensen in Frankfurt, Germany detected another sweetener, acesulfame potassium, also known by the names acesulfame K, Ace-K, or ACK in 1967 when they experimented with various chemicals. This is known under the brand name “Sweet One”, but is often disguised in processed foods together with other artificial sweeteners to mimic the taste of sugar.
- Stevia has been used for over 400 years, particularly in South America. It grows like a small bushy herb with leaves that can be taken to sweeten foods. With modern, reliable extracting procedures (Sephadex column) it is possible to separate the bitter component of stevia and discard it leaving stevia behind without any bitter aftertaste. In Japan stevia has been occupying 40% of the sweetener market. In Europe and North America there is a lot of competition with the above-mentioned sweeteners, mainly because of clever marketing techniques. In 2008 stevia received GRAS status by the FDA.
The history of artificial sweeteners has been intricately interwoven with political intrigues and influence peddling of companies, hoping to make profits from the sale of their products. Unfortunately powerful advertising slogans such as “naturally made from sugar”, which is a meaningless rhetoric, as three chlorine atoms in a sugar molecule distort the biological properties of sugar entirely. Nobody tells me that an insecticide made from sugar that kills ants can be healthy.
With stevia on the other hand we have a substance that has been tested on humans for over 400 years with no adverse effects and it has been cleared by the FDA in 2008 as GRAS (“generally recognized as safe”). The problem in our society seems that we tend to blindly trust companies that want to sell us chemical products as “harmless”, when in fact they often are not. I have decided for myself that I follow the Japanese lead in favor of stevia, with nothing else mixed in to replace sugar. Eating sugar is not a healthy option. It starts with tooth decay, but the evidence is also there for more sinister problems: it has been documented that sugar also causes heart attacks, strokes and even cancer. So, if we want a sweet taste, the healthy alternative to sugar is stevia.
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