All You Need To Know About Sugar Substitutes
What if you could drink all the soda you wanted and never get fat? To some people—computer programmers, harried editors, every ten year old in the world—this sounds like heaven, while others shudder at the proposition. We can't hear enough about how harmful Coca-Cola, Pepsi, and the like are to our bodies (and, thanks to all the excess caffeine, our minds) these days, and every month it seems like a new diet soda arrives to alleviate those worries while still treating our collective sweet tooth. Diet Coke, Diet Pepsi, those pink Tab cans, Pepsi One, C2, Pepsi Max—it goes on.
But even these sodas, designed to appeal to the healthy-minded who can't give up that sweet taste, may have a dark side. A recent study noted a correlation between heavy diet soda consumption and obesity; and while correlation is not causation, there may be some legitimacy to the study's main thrust. People who drink diet soda, the study maintains, are more likely to consume other unhealthy sweet snacks. In essence, you can't "fool" your body by drinking something sweet but light; the body will demand real sweet stuff all the more until its desires are sated.
This isn't the first time people have taken shots at the Diet market. Saccharin, the first artificial sweetener (famous for its pink packets and presence in soft drink Tab), was dogged by cancer rumors from 1907 until the year 2000, when the U.S. government officially retracted a "flawed" 1970s study which suggested the sweetener caused cancerous tumors in lab rats. Its replacement on the market, Aspartame, fared little better; though legal from 1983 onwards, it has suffered constant criticism as a potential toxin. Even Sucralose, the latest and "safest" pseudo-sugar, is not immune—sure, it doesn't have any negative effects now, but give it a few years…
Meanwhile, what's the average person to do? Most simply shrug and use one of the above. But while the ingredients are generally recognized as safe by the FDA, it never hurts to have a backup, right?
Xylitol and maltitol are widely used in sugarfree gums and candies around the world; both are highly sweet, with fewer calories and carbs than plain ol' sucrose.
Xylitol, a sugar alcohol naturally derived from the fiber of many fruits and vegetables, is about as sweet as table sugar but with a third less food energy. While a teaspoon of table sugar contains 15 calories, a teaspoon of xylitol only contains 9.6. In addition, it's carb-free. Bonuses include little to no aftertaste and its toothfree properties; the biggest downside is its mild laxative effect. Xylitol is present in many sugarless gums and is marketed under the brand name "The Ultimate Sweetener."
Another sugar alcohol, maltitol is obtained by hydrogenating maltose obtained from satarch; it contains about half as many calories per gram as sugar (2.1 vs. 4.0). Being extremely sweet, it needn't be mixed with other sweeteners, but it does not caramelize, which can make using it in some recipes difficult. It does not promote tooth decay.
These and other sweeteners are a boon to diabetics or those suffering from obesity. But for the rest of us—is it even necessary to pick through these substitutes? Sugar is a treat. One the body craves often, yes, but not one the body needs all that much of. So instead of pounding those diet sodas for your sweetness-and-caffeine fix, consider some tea and a biscuit. Rather than baking cookies with Splenda each night, make them with real sugar once a week. Go ahead and eat the real thing; just do it sensibly, and you'll never have to worry about cancerous rat tumors while you're enjoying your sweets!
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