Alternative foods No Substitute sweeteners

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Here's a scientific tidbit. Most substitute sweeteners were discovered by accident in laboratories where researchers touched a paper or a pencil, then stuck their fingers in their mouths to discover, "Eureka! It's sweet." As Harold McGee wrote in the first edition of his wonderful On Food and Cooking (Collier Books, 1988), "These stories make one wonder about the standards of laboratory hygiene."

Because substitute sweeteners are not absorbed by your body and don't provide any nutrients, scientists call them by their proper name: non-nutritive sweeteners. The best-known (listed in order of their discovery and/or FDA approval) are:

I Saccharin (Sweet'N Low): This synthetic sweetener was discovered by accident (the fingers-in-the-mouth syndrome) at Johns Hopkins in 1879. A ban on saccharin was proposed in 1977, after it was linked to bladder cancer in rats; however, it's still on the market, and diabetics who have used saccharin for years show no excess levels of bladder cancer. That aside, a warning label nevertheless may appear with saccharin-sweetened products, indicating that it is a mild rodent carcinogen. In December 1998, the executive committee of the National Toxicology Program (NTP) recommended that saccharin be taken off the list of suspected human carcinogens, but this step has not yet been taken. Note: Most people think saccharin is very sweet, but if you hate broccoli, you're likely to think saccharin's bitter. Check out Chapter 15 to see why.

1 Cyclamates: These surfaced (on somebody's finger, of course) in 1937 at the University of Illinois. They were tied to cancer in laboratory animals and banned (1969) in the U.S. but not in Canada and many other countries. Never has any evidence of ill effects in human beings been attributed to cyclamates, which are available for use as a tabletop sweetener in Canada. In the U.S., the FDA is currently reconsidering its ban.

1 Aspartame (Equal, NutraSweet): Another accidental discovery (1965), aspartame is a combination of two amino acids, aspartic acid and pheny-lalanine. The problem with aspartame is that during digestion, it breaks down into its constituent ingredients. The same thing happens when aspartame is exposed to heat. That's trouble for people born with a phenylketonuria (PKU), a metabolic defect characterized by a lack of the enzyme needed to digest phenylalanine. The excess amino acid can pile up in brain and nerve tissue, leading to mental retardation in young children.

1 Sucralose (Splenda): Sucralose, which was discovered in 1976, is a no-calorie sweetener made from sugar. But your body doesn't recognize it as a carbohydrate or a sugar, so it zips through your intestinal tract unchanged. More than 100 scientific studies conducted during a 20-year period attest to its safety, and the FDA has approved its use in a variety of foods, including baked goods, candies, substitute dairy products, and frozen desserts.

1 Acesulfame-K (Sunett): The K is the chemical symbol for potassium, and this artificial sweetener, with a chemical structure similar to saccharin, is found in baked goods, chewing gum, and other food products. In 1998, the FDA approved its use in soft drinks, whose shelf life it seems to prolong.

1 Neotame: This free-flowing, water-soluble sweetener is derived from amino acids (the building blocks of protein, the nutrient that stars in Chapter 6). In 2002, the FDA approved Neotame for use as a tabletop sweetener (the stuff you put in your coffee), as well as use in jams and jellies, syrups, puddings and gels, fruits, fruit juices, and non-alcohol beverages. To date, more than 113 animal and human studies have shown absolutely no adverse effects.

1 Tagatose (Naturlose, Shugr): A white powder made from lactose, the sugar in milk. In 2003, FDA approved the use of tagatose in cereal, soft drinks, frozen desserts, candy, chewing gum, and cake frosting. Although tagatose may cause gastric upset (gas and diarrhea), it can also serve as an aid to digestion.

Table 19-1 compares the calorie content and sweetening power of sugar versus the substitute sweeteners. For comparison, sugar has 4 calories per gram.

Table 19-1

Comparing Substitute Sweeteners to Sugar


Calories Per Gram

Sweetness Relative to Sugar*

Sugar (sucrose)




200-700 times sweeter than sugar



30-60 times sweeter than sugar



160-200 times sweeter than sugar



600 times sweeter than sugar



150-200 times sweeter than sugar



Similar to sugar



7,000-13,000 times sweeter than sugar

  • The range of sweetness reflects estimates from several sources.
  • Aspartame has 4 calories per gram and tagatose 1.5, but you need so little to get a sweet flavor that you can count the calorie content as 0.
  • The range of sweetness reflects estimates from several sources.
  • Aspartame has 4 calories per gram and tagatose 1.5, but you need so little to get a sweet flavor that you can count the calorie content as 0.

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