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An inevitable question surfaced this past week regarding the use of artificial sweeteners. When you adopt a low carb, no or next-to-no sugar diet, it’s almost assured that you’ll come up against the question at some point. There are as many perspectives on this issue as there are foods containing these products. And, these days, we even have several choices if we choose to go the alternative sweetener route.
It’s a question, we think, each person has to answer for him/herself. It’s admittedly tough to wade through the hearsay, personal accounts, discredited studies, conflicts of interest, and industry talk. One less complicated criterion we suggest applying to the issue is this: as you look at an artificially sweetened food/drink, does the item offer any real benefit (physical or otherwise) that you couldn’t get from an unsweetened source? Sometimes the answer will be yes, sometimes no. For example, an artificially sweetened soda might seem a better choice than a regular soda. But the best choice, of course, is to nix the soda order completely. If a recipe calls for sugar, you could substitute, say, Splenda, but you might also consider leaving out the sugar/sweetener ingredient entirely, substituting with fruit puree (still fructose but with nutrients) or finding a different recipe. (Quick aside: you can find some interesting substitutes and familiar but low carb adjusted recipes on paleo diet sites.)
Let’s face it. We live in a world that expects birthday cakes, holiday treats, and traditional foods with deep emotional and cultural associations. Some of us are more successful than others at wholly realigning our lifestyles and convincing or “training” (as in children) those around us to enjoy a life (and birthday/holiday) without sugar and carbs. As it is, the rest of us occasionally hit up against the dreaded wall of compromise. What now? Sure, you can bring a no-crust quiche for the work crowd (just deal, people), but if mom and dad always celebrate each anniversary with cherry pie and you’re throwing their 40th bash, what’s a cook to do?
And, yes, there’s always the answer: well, I’ll make it for them but just won’t eat any. But sometimes that solution just doesn’t cut it. Or, the fact is, we want to make a choice that at least seems like a “better” option for the people we cook for.
For a lot of folks, the sweetener solution is sugar/honey or nothing. We understand the perspective of the all-natural crowd. Yet, we also see the point of those who believe that they’d rather incorporate a bit of the artificial realm to stay on track, so to speak. As Mark has mentioned in the past, “cheating” on a low carb lifestyle is not only a temporary compromise, it sets your body’s “acclimatization back a week.” He reminds us that the changes in biochemical rhythms and energy shift, so to speak, take “about three weeks of steady adherence.” So, when the occasion calls for sweet, here’s a brief primer on a few of the most popular choices.
Saccharine (Sweet ‘n Low):
Saccharine, in terms of the artificial set, was truly an original and has been around since the beginning of the 20th Century. The sweetener is an organic molecule made from petroleum. It was hailed as an important development for those with diabetes and was used without much concern until the 1970s when animal studies indicated that it caused cancer of the bladder, skin, uterus and ovaries, among other organs. The USDA moved to ban saccharine, but a compromise was reached that resulted in a warning label that might look familiar: “Use of this product may be hazardous to your health. This product contains saccharin, which has been determined to cause cancer in laboratory animals.” The warning was removed in 2000. Though the studies were criticized and many claims downshifted in later years, the stigma stuck in many people’s minds. Today the American Medical Association cautions that children and pregnant women should limit their use of the artificial sweetener since not enough information is available to assess risk. Saccharine is known to cross the placenta.