Monthly Archives: June 2012

Sugar Substitutes Redux

The following article was in the New York Times and has some good information to add to what we already know, which is that artificial sweeteners create cravings for the even more sugary food, so beware.


Choosing a Sugar Substitute, by Kenneth Chang

June 11, 2012, 2:10 pm


White. Pink. Blue. Yellow.

On restaurant tables everywhere, the colors of the sweetener packets instantly identify the contents.

Sugar. Saccharin. Aspartame. Sucralose.

Reaching for one to pour into a cup of coffee or tea can sometimes feel like sweetener roulette, with the swirl of confusing, conflicting assertions about which are safe and which are not.

Alissa Kaplan Michaels, for one, never picks pink. She still associates saccharin with cancer. The Food and Drug Administration sought to ban it in the 1970s, because rats that gorged on the chemical developed bladder cancer.


What is your favorite sweetener and why? Join in the discussion below.

But Congress imposed a moratorium to delay the ban, and the pink packets of Sweet’N Low remained on restaurant tables. The F.D.A. withdrew its ban proposal in 1991, and the warnings were taken off saccharin in 2000 after research showed that it acts differently in rats and humans, and no conclusive increase in cancers was observed in people. Ms. Michaels, a public relations consultant in New York, knows this.

But, she said, “It’s the cancer in the rats. I can’t get that out of my head.”

Although many people have nagging worries about artificial sweeteners, they still use mountains of them — globally, artificial sweeteners are a $1.5-billion-a-year market — to avoid sugar and calories.

The scientific world is also a dichotomy of conclusions. For any of the sweeteners, one can as easily find a study that offers reassuring analysis of safety as one that enumerates potential alarming effects. And it is possible that there could be long-term effects in humans that will become evident only after people have been consuming these sweeteners for decades.

Thus hearsay, mythology and whim guide the choices of many people.

For Ms. Michaels, childhood impressions trump absolution from the F.D.A.

She even carries in her purse packets of her sweetener of choice — sucralose, sold as Splenda — for those occasions when a restaurant has run out of it and she might otherwise confront a choice between pink and blue. “I’m a yellow girl,” she said.

Hundreds of millions of people swallow food and drinks containing artificial sweeteners, and so far, no widespread calamities of health have swept over them.

The F.D.A. places the three main artificial sweeteners available today in the same category: “generally recognized as safe.” The manufacturers cite multitudes of health studies to back up that assertion.

“Based on conventional food safety considerations, the scientific community feels that these have been very adequately tested for any potential toxicities,” said Dr. Gary M. Williams, a professor of pathology at New York Medical College who has been involved in safety reviews of artificial sweeteners, some financed by the manufacturers. “I drink diet soda. I don’t need the calories. My favorite is Fresca, and actually I don’t know what’s in it.”

Part of Dr. Williams’s confidence about safety is that the artificial sweeteners are much more intensely sweet than sugar, so people consume very little of them. Most of the white stuff in the packets is filler, not sweetener. Safety tests in animals looked at doses that were hundreds or thousands of times higher.

But critics — particularly of aspartame, sold as Equal or NutraSweet — say that health problems like headaches, neurological disorders and cancers are occurring, but that regulators are ignoring them.

The Center for Science in the Public Interest, a health advocacy group, slaps an “avoid” label on saccharin and aspartame, but deems sucralose and neotame — a newer, more intense sweetener that is chemically similar to aspartame — to be safe. The center also warns against acesulfame potassium, a less common sweetener that is rarely found in tabletop packets but is combined with other sweeteners in soda and baked goods for a more sugarlike taste. Dr. Williams’s favorite soda, Fresca, for example, is sweetened with acesulfame potassium and aspartame, as are Halls sugar-free cough drops.

For those who turn to stevia, a sweetener derived from a plant, the center gives it a “caution,” because cancer studies were conducted in only one species of lab animals. (“Just because a substance is natural does not mean that it is safe,” the center’s Web site warns.)

A Google search instantly turns up worries that many have about the various sweeteners: Does NutraSweet cause brain cancer? Is Splenda really in the same chemical family as DDT? What about the studies that suggest that artificial sweeteners, despite their dearth of calories, cause weight gain?

Dr. Walter Willett, chairman of the nutrition department at the Harvard School of Public Health, says people can make rational decisions, taking into account risks and uncertainty. “The world is almost never black and white, and we rarely operate with absolute certainty about anything,” he said. “What is most important is to avoid risks that are large and clear, like smoking, obesity and regular consumption of full-strength soda.”

Chemical Concerns

Saccharin, aspartame, sucralose and acesulfame potassium are all molecules that sidle up to certain proteins on the surface of the tongues, tickling neurons that then send a signal that exclaims to the brain: “Sweet!”

The concerns arise over what happens to the artificial sweeteners after they are swallowed.

Consider aspartame. It is essentially two amino acids and a molecular snippet known as a methyl ester. Certain people — about 1 in 25,000 in the United States — have a genetic condition that prevents them from metabolizing one of the amino acids, phenylalanine, and those people are warned away from aspartame.

Many foods contain the same two amino acids, in higher quantities. “It’s not like these are totally foreign, unique substances,” Dr. Willett said. “It doesn’t absolutely prove they’re harmless, but it makes it less likely that there’s a huge surprise waiting for us.”

Others look at the same components of aspartame and see poisons. The two amino acids, while essential for the human diet, cause problems when present out of balance, they say.

The third part, the methyl ester, turns into methanol, which is a poison — though fruit juices have higher concentrations of methanol. Woodrow C. Monte, emeritus professor of nutrition at the University of Arizona, ascribes a host of ills, including multiple sclerosis, to low-level methanol poisoning.

The scientific literature contains findings that can alarm or reassure. A huge study at a cancer research institute in Italy found that rats given aspartame had higher rates of leukemia and lymphomas. The National Cancer Institute in Maryland, however, reviewed health data from a half a million retirees and found no correlation between beverages with aspartame and these cancers.

Meanwhile, sucralose, as the Splenda manufacturer, McNeil Nutritionals, notes in its advertising, starts out as sugar. Chemical reactions excise bits of the sugar molecules and replace them with chlorine atoms. The chlorine effectively camouflages the molecules, and most pass through the body undigested. Hence, zero calories. But some wonder if the chlorine in the sucralose molecules that are absorbed by the body might cause a problem. Michael F. Jacobson, the executive director of the Center for Science in the Public Interest, said the animal testing of sucralose was sufficient for a “safe” rating.

The durability of sucralose molecules gives rise to a different concern. Measurable levels of sucralose have been found in the water supply, raising questions about what happens to various animals when they consume it.

Weighing the Risks

With the questions about artificial sweeteners, some may even wonder: How bad is sugar, anyway?

White sugar offers the purest taste of sweetness. It is natural. But its deleterious health effects are the best established: It can make you fatter.

Research published last year that analyzed health data on more than 100,000 nurses in the United States over nearly a quarter-century found a strong correlation between weight gain and consumption of sugar-sweetened beverages and desserts. There was no weight gain for those who drank beverages with artificial sweeteners.

Obesity leads to numerous health problems — diabetes, heart disease, even cancer. Sugary drinks like soda (fruit juices, too) particularly contribute to weight gain. Usually, if the diet changes, hunger signals adjust to ensure proper nutrition. But the human digestive system seems to overlook liquid calories. Someone who drinks the 140 calories in a 12-ounce can of Coke will not subconsciously eliminate 140 calories elsewhere in the diet.

“Liquid calories seem to be different, and that’s why they’re so problematic,” Dr. Willett said. “Many foods contribute to weight gain, but it does appear that sugar-sweetened beverages are the single, by far, most important problem.” (That reasoning led to Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg’s proposal to ban the sale of large sugary sodas in New York City while allowing mega-size diet sodas.)

Dr. Willett said the long-term safety of the artificial sweeteners remained an open question. “It’s interesting to keep in mind, if you smoke cigarettes, the lung cancer risk doesn’t go up for 30 years,” he said. “And that’s a really powerful carcinogen. A lot of things don’t show up for several decades.”

He also noted that trans fats, used since 1900, did not show up on the radar of doctors’ concerns until the 1990s. “It took us about 90 years to discover it was a big problem,” Dr. Willett said. “It’s a bit sobering how long that took.”

In terms of relative risk — the known dangers of sugar and weight gain versus the uncertainties of artificial sweeteners — “artificially sweetened beverages are much less bad than the full-sugar beverages,” Dr. Willett said. Still, diet sodas are less than optimal. “I view them like a nicotine patch,” he said.

The better solution to protect health: Eat and drink less sweet stuff.


One Day the Youngsters will Look Back

All the brouhaha over Mayor Bloomberg’s banning super-sized drinks in NYC–an idiotic concept from the get-go, both the drinks and the ban–reminds me of the 1950s when I was a child and cigarettes were advertised all over the television, even by doctors saying how this or that brand was better for you. My generation looks back on that and thinks how sad it was so many people became addicted to tobacco from which they suffered debilitating illnesses and even death. Many people don’t know that the tobacco companies gave soldiers in World War II free cigarettes which was thought to be humanitarian, but later recognized to be just a brilliant way to addict a whole generation. My spouse who was in the Air Guard during VietNam remembers that drill sargaents would say, “If you have ’em, smoke ’em,” at periodic breaks, but if you didn’t smoke they would have to do field stripping, i.e., pick up the litter. That sort of attitude turned a lot of young men into smokers. Nowadays even smokers will admit that cigarettes are bad for you.

My hope is that the young people of today will look back and shake their heads over the misinformation, the out-right lies and abuse, that created a generation who will die in large numbers of totally preventable illnesses directly related to HFSC, overly refined foodstuffs, and the dangerous proliferation of so-called fast food that is 90% junk, and the idea that we need to be eating most of our waking hours.

This Father’s Day weekend I’m thinking about my dad born in the early 1920s who is lean and very fit, always has been, and has primarily eaten the diet of his ancestors, American farmers since colonial times, with foods like saturated fats and lots of meat, with little sugar. No surprise, the obesity rate was constant for generations. In the 1960s the USDA influenced largely by agri-business, with congress hugely funded by lobbies from those industries, began promoting lower fat, higher grains and sugars, which have turned us into the fattest people on earth.

Dad’s generation were the smokers, he struggled with quitting himself, my father-in-law died of lung cancer after decades of smoking picked up in the war years. Now the baby-boomers and Generation X are victims of sugar-starch-artificial sweeteners and an eat-constantly mindset that didn’t exist before.

Let’s hope that the message gets out about all these poisonous foods and habits so that our grandchildren will not suffer from the same unnecessary health problems brought to us via ignorance and greed.

Yours about learning from generation to generation,

Nan aka Sugarbaby

Gluten is Not What it Used to Be

I recently discovered that I am very sensitive to gluten. What is worrying me is how many people I know in their middle years who are becoming gluten sensitive, even while “heart healthy whole grains” continue to be recommended for people with diabetes and obesity. Reading Dr. William Davis’ best-seller Wheat Belly has been eye-opening; it seems the wheat and other grains I grew up on isn’t the wheat we are eating nowadays, and for many that means major problems.

Along with grains/gluten sensitivity come for many a related sensitivity to casein in milk, though most people can eat the fermented or aged yogurt, butter, cheese.

After decades of migraines that were made far better getting off the sugar, I seem to be (knock on wood!) becoming free of migraines. I would never have guessed that the proteins in gluten, especially in wheat,  could have such a powerful impact. I’ve noted a new clarity in my inner well being, better sleep, and far fewer cravings.

These days we each have to be our own doctor, our own experimental scientist, and our own test subject to find out what may be causing many of our problems, from weight issues to mental health struggles. Thankfully, there is an increasing body of knowledge available online to help us do just that.

The fact is we are what we eat, every cell, and part of what is going on with our weight problems, painful joints, headaches, panic attacks, and on down the list, are our bodies screaming “Enough already!” give me a break from the poisonous matter I didn’t evolve to consume. Our food is now being made with heavily hybridized and genetically modified  crops and animals, that are sprayed, injected, and even packaged in chemicals to a degree that simply didn’t exist even fifty years. While our young bodies have a fairly high tolerance for abuse, but sadly by the 30s-40s onward the collective damage starts to be felt.

All of us would do well to examine critically the things we put in (and on) our bodies, and start a process of eliminating known problem foods like sugar, starch, grains, artificial sweeteners, and continue to experiment until we find relief.

Your food and drink is not what it used to be, and in most ways this is bad.

Yours in discovery,

Nan aka Sugarbaby

Information is Better than Bans

The news is hot with New York City Mayor Bloomberg’s ban on large soft drinks especially considering all the real governing that’s ignored in the process. The better action would be to have clear nutrition labels on all fast food packaging, like on the side of soda cups, so people can see how much they are ingesting of sugars, artificial colors and sweeteners, etc. Information is good, bans are almost always bad. Further it’s a foolish to hypocritical action in light of how much junk you can get legally in any food place in NYC. Even a M&M store!

Legislating in this piecemeal fashion does little to address the primary issue that people need to understand that sugars to the tune of up to 20-30 spoons of sugar are in these beverages. Fruit juice is very little better, so making soda a scapegoat doesn’t make a whole lot of sense. All sugars need to be identified and made clear with labeling.

Yours in commonsense,

Nan aka Sugarbaby