Artificial sweeteners have been around since the discovery of saccharin in 1879. A scientist was working with coal tar, making benzoic sulfimide. One evening he noticed a white powder on his hand. He licked it and noticed a sweet taste.
He named the substance saccharin and applied for patents. After a bumpy history of being accused of causing bladder cancer and having no food value, saccharin was finally declared safe for humans. You can find it in tiny pink packets, and diabetic meals have included it for years.
Aspartame was developed as an artificial sweetener in 1965 and declared safe for use in 1974, but it has had a similarly bumpy ride because of perceived side effects. It does cause serious problems for people with a genetic disease called PKU (phenylketonuria). You can find it in tiny blue packets, and it’s used in many diet sodas. It is not used in cooking because it breaks down when heated, and it has a short shelf life.
Then along came sucralose (we see it in the store as Splenda). It is an artificial sweetener 600 times as sweet as sugar and twice as sweet as saccharin. It is made by a chlorinating process from regular sugar. In 1976 it was patented, and in 1998 it was approved by the FDA. You can find it in your restaurant in little yellow packets.
Sucralose, unlike aspartame, can be used in cooking. It is packaged with fillers that add a little bit of calories, but as long as the fillers add less than 5 calories they can call it “zero-calorie” on the label. The fillers make it easy to use sucralose in cooking because it can be measured out just like sugar.
But if you are cooking with this artificial sweetener, be aware that it does not dissolve into the cooked food like sugar does, so the texture won’t be right in some desserts. That’s why cooks often use half sucralose and half sugar. This halves the calories contributed by sugar and lets the dessert stay diet friendly.
The artificial sweeteners that end with -ol are sugar alcohols. All of them are made from messing around with sugar, either by chemicals or by fermentation. The product tastes sweet but has few or no calories, and it has no bitter aftertaste like the other chemical artificial sweeteners. The down side is that the sugar alcohols can cause GI upset (gas and diarrhea). They are used a lot in diabetic foods like candy.
The worst of these sugar alcohols is maltilol. It is not a calorie-free food at 2-3 calories per gram – sugar only has 4 calories per gram. It has a glycemic index of 52 and table sugar’s is 60. Not a huge difference. Let’s do some math.
It has three-fourths the sweetness of sugar, three-fourths the calories and three-fourths the glycemic index value. So if you use enough maltilol to match the sweetness of sugar what do you have? A high-priced sweetener that raises your blood sugar like table sugar and has the same number of calories.
You might want to read the labels of “sugar-free foods” and stay away from maltilol. It is not sugar-free and it is one of the worst sugar alcohols for causing bloating and diarrhea.
The best choice among all the sugar alcohols so far is erythritol. It has no bitter taste, is low glycemic and doesn’t cause GI problems in most people.
Stevia, the Naturally Sweet Herb
The newest artificial sweetener isn’t completely artificial. It comes from the stevia plant, and it was approved in Japan in the 1970s. It is used now in over 40% of their artificially sweetened drinks and foods. But it was just approved in the U.S. as a sweetener in 2008. One company sells it as Truvia, and another calls their product PureVia, but they’re both basically the same sweetener.
Why Don’t Artificial Sweeteners Make Us Thinner?
Studies of artificial sweeteners by researchers from the 1970s to today have been producing disturbing statistics. Instead of helping people lose weight, artificial sweeteners seem to be making people gain weight. This has researchers scratching their heads and wondering why.
Scientists who feed rats artificial sweeteners every day watch as the rats grow more and more obese. The additive seem to make them want to eat more. Outside the lab, scientists followed the histories of young people who drank diet sodas as opposed to those who did not, and the diet soda drinkers were consistently more obese with a higher incidence of type 2 diabetes.
These results have been duplicated, too. Everyone seems to know it’s happening, but they can’t figure out why. And the American Diabetic Association seems reluctant to come out against the use of artificial sweeteners, maybe because they hate to give up on them as a diabetic tool.
One problem with these sweeteners might be the sweetness – most of them have hundreds to thousands of times the sweetness of sugar. That may give us an exaggerated sensitivity to sweetness, making us crave it more. You have seen how we can change our taste for things. If you stop eating salt, you start disliking salty foods. You “lose your taste” for them. And it works the other way too. The more salt you use, the more you want.
Another theory is that the sweetness gives our bodies an expectation of calories that aren’t there, so our bodies go looking for them. It gives us an “empty” feeling, and that makes us hungry when we are not really in need of more food. That’s a bad thing to do to a diabetic, or anybody for that matter.
The only natural way to lose weight has always been to burn more calories than you eat, and you do that by eating less and being more active. And tricking your body with empty artificial sweeteners seems to be a bad idea in the long run.
You don’t have to do without sweets, though. If you want them, keep them a small part, like the cherry on top of your diabetic diet, and keep an eye on that calorie counting. The glycemic index can keep you on track. It helps me decide where the bulk of the food I eat comes from. Give your body the good stuff, and cravings won’t trip you up.