Tuesday, August 28, 2018


When I was diagnosed with type 2 diabetes in 1996, the number of artificial sweeteners was limited. There was saccharin, of course, which had been discovered in 1878 and offered for sale in the 1880s. But studies in rodents showed that it could cause bladder cancer when used in huge amounts, so some people were wary of it.

Cyclamate, aspartame, and sucralose became popular in the 1960s and 1970s. Then it was discovered that huge amounts of cyclamate produced bladder cancer in rodents, and in 1970 it was banned in the United States. It is still sold in Canada. Both aspartame and sucralose are still on the market in the United States.

Aspartame was controversial, with internet groups claiming all sorts of horrid side effects, although the FDA said it was safe. In 2002 a related sweetener, neotame, was approved.

Another sweetener, acesulfame K, had a slightly bitter taste and was primarily used mixed with other sweeteners.

Today there are a myriad of artificial sweeteners. Stevia, which comes from a South American plant, has been used there for more than 1500 years. One can use the whole leaves, and one summer summer I grew stevia and used some of the leaves, but some people complain of a licorice flavor. The whole or ground leaves have not been certified by the FDA as GRAS (generally recognized as safe) for food products, although they approved it as a supplement..

However, companies have also isolated the sweet compounds from the stevia leaf, mostly one called rebA, or rebaudioside A. These purified compounds have been FDA approved for use in food. RebA can have a bitter taste if one uses too much.

All of these sweeteners are vastly sweeter than table sugar, or sucrose. For example, saccharin is 200 times sweeter, and neotame is more than 7000 times sweeter than sucrose. This means one has to use tiny amount, difficult to measure. And for this reason many companies cut the sweetness of the compounds with substances like maltodextrin. Some even use glucose. When one is on a low-carb diet, the addition of these bulking agents is problematic.

Another problem with these compounds is that because you need so little of them, they won't reduce the freezing point of frozen desserts as sucrose does. So if you try to make ice cream with saccharin or stevia, it will become rock hard when you put it in the freezer. Fran McCullough in her excellent book The Low Carb Cookbook, published in 1997, has several pages devoted too making ice cream that won't turn into icebergs. None of the suggestions like using alcohol or gelatin worked for me,

But today we have more options, with granular sweeteners that are measured just like table sugar. A popular combination is erythritol combined with a sweeter compound.

Erythritol is a sugar alcohol, but unlike sorbitol and similar sugar alcohols, it doesn't cause gas. This is because it is absorbed into the bloodstream and excreted in the urine rather than going down the intestinal tract to be fermented in the colon to produce gas. It's not quite as sweet as sucrose, so most products combine it with one of the supersweet substance mentioned above.

One popular granular sweetener is Truvia, which consists of erythritol and stevia. Another one combines erythritol and lo han guo, which comes from a southeast Asian plant. Like RebA, the extract has been clasified GRAS. A third, Swerve, combines erythritol and "oligosaccharides." They all seem to contain "natural flavorings," without saying what they are.

All three of these products are now available at my local supermarket.

Two new granular sugars have also come on the market. These are allulose and tagatose. Both are isomers of fructose. An isomer is a compound with the same chemical formula but with a slightly different arrangement of atoms so the enzymes that process them may not recognize them.

Allulose is now available at my supermarket, but you can also get it and tagatose online. These product are not cheap. A pound of sucrose costs about 50 cents. A pound of allulose is about $12.

Despite the price, I decided to try the allulose and tagatose. First I tested the effect on BG, using tiny amounts (1 teaspoon) so I wouldn't spike too high with the control (sucrose). Just 1 teaspoon of sucrose made me go up 20 points on an empty stomach first thing in the morning, and I was back to 80 in an hour. One teaspoon of tagatose made me go up 6 points, as did allulose. As my BG usually goes up after I get up even if I don't eat, it's not clear if this is meter variation, effect of getting up, or the allulose/tagatose, but it doesn't look as if these sugars have a big effect. I don't want to test larger amounts.

I didn't test Truvia or Swerve.

Then I made some ice cream. Eureka! The ice cream was delicious and didn't get rock hard in the freezer. Then I made some crustless cheesecake. Same thing. At last, despite the price, we can occasionally have a traditional dessert with very little effect on blood glucose levels.

Today liquid sweeteners are also more easily available. I didn't use to buy sucralose at the grocery store because of the carby bulking agents it contained. A liquid version was available online, but not at my grocery store. Now the local grocery store carries both liquid sucralose (Splenda Zero) and a stevia version (also Splenda Zero but in a green bottle). Sweet Leaf has offered liquid stevia for some time. Of course the liquids contain preservatives, so if you're sensitive to those, this wouldn't be an answer.

Who knows what new products will emerge in the future or what horrendous side effects will be attributed to the existing sweeteners. Ideally, it would be good to not eat anything sweet so one would lose the taste for sugars. But this isn't an ideal world, and I do like whole-milk yogurt with some flavoring and some sweetener. At least we now have more choice.

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