I don’t want to carry on about artificial sweeteners too much. My mother was a huge critic of them as a child, but being an irritable child I just figured she was going on about nothing, being a blabbermouth. But growing up I became more aware of the topic, and many of my friends agreed with my mother. Some well-respected doctors vocally oppose such sweeteners, and a lot of money goes into lobbying for both sides which makes all the claims worth taking with a grain of salt (pardon the flavor-mingling turn of phrase). What’s important for most people is to understand what sweeteners do, how they work, what we don’t know about them, and how we should live knowing what we know. They may not be great for us, but so far they haven’t driven us extinct. Moderation is probably key.
Below I’ll quickly discuss the most popular sweeteners, a little history, basically no chemistry, and let you look up the rest.
Aspartame is a particularly interesting artificial sweetener as it has found quick approval and acceptance in diet and production in a relatively quick time.
First synthesized in 1965, aspartame claims to be unique among artificial sweeteners as it is the only one ‘completely broken down into its inert components: amino acids aspartic acid and phenylalanine, and some methanol.’ It has been the subject of 200+ studies and is approved in over 100 countries – over 200 million individuals are believed to consume aspartame annually. The American Diabetes Association and the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics both approve aspartame’s use. This information was all found on the Calorie Control Council’s website www.aspartame.org.
(A quick note about them: the CCC is an advocacy group that represents 60 ‘lowfat food and beverage companies’. They came around one year after aspartame was created by a chemist, James Schlatter, at Searle (the company that developed Celebrex among other chemical wonders), which was later bought by the totally not controversial company Monsanto, which merged with Pharmacia, now all owned by Pfizer (Monsanto was spun off into a separate company.)) The CCC is defensive of aspartame, but they do have a strong body of cited work and statements from scientists, dieticians, and experts supporting them.
Aspartame decomposes in boiling water, and is not highly soluble. It is 2,000x as sweet as sucrose. The only individuals who must avoid it are those with the rare condition of phenylketonuria who have a mutation in an enzyme that hydrolyzes and eliminates phenylalanine from waste, thereby making them unable to process the essential amino acid by-product of aspartame properly. It is legal in all food and beverages now, though it faced initial struggle and some questionable studies early on. Aspartame’s image was damaged considerably by the 1998 ‘Nancy Markle chain email’ which spread rumors and lies about the damaging effects of aspartame. The FDA recommends no more than 50 mg / kg bodyweight daily; for reference that would be 21 cans of diet soda for a 165lb individual.
One potential mechanism by which aspartame could do harm would be through breakdown of the methanol by-product into formaldehyde and then formic acid which has a long half-life. Methanol is not an uncommon product of the foods we eat and drink, with fermented beverages producing far more than aspartame-containing beverages. Other mechanisms have been proposed, but none have been shown to truly have any effect (like theories on neurotransmitter inhibition or blood chemistry).
Splenda is a sucralose derivative discovered at British Agribusiness company Tate and Lyle in 1976, in collaboration with Kings College London. Sucralose products likes Splenda actually have ~4 calories per serving, which can legally be called calorie free. All of the calories are from maltodextran which is a bulking agent to compensate for the lack of mass without sugar. Most sweeteners have this issue, but since sucralose is so much more potent than sugar the mass and volume of sweetener required is very low.
Splenda markets itself as a sugar derivative – in truth, the discoverers were using sucrose to try and derive biostable insecticides. Their alteration of sucrose enhanced the sweetness a thousand-fold, and all they did was chlorinate several hydroxyl sites. Sucralose is widely considered the safest and least hazardous since it is the most similar to sugar and can easily be metabolized. Recent studies cited risks in rats and other possible mechanisms, but peer review has widely rejected these studies. Sugar companies have sponsored the website www.truthaboutsplenda.com hoping to deter people from using the sweetener based on a 2008 paper discussing gut microbiota (discussed last week). The results may be true, but the long term consequences have not been proven harmful to humans.
Stevia is a glycoside – it contains and is reduced to glucose, but its sweetness is more potent and the glucose produced is metabolized by the gut microbiota and never reaches the blood. The Steviol derivative is stable and passes in excretion. Glycosides are sugar groups bound to any other group (thus not polysaccharides) by a glycosidic bond.
On the timeline of sweeteners I suppose stevia takes the cake as it has been used by native South American peoples as a sweetener for over 1000 years. It is found in the leaves of a plant, stevia rebaudiana. Swiss botanists caught up around 1899, and the structure was found in the 1950s. It came into vogue as an ‘all-natural’ alternative to saccharin and cyclamates in the 1970s, even though it can be and often is synthesized or enhanced. It is perhaps the most globally available sweetener.
Advantame is an aspartame derivative. It is by far the newest sweetener, approved by the FDA in May 2014 and produced by the Japanese pharmaceutical company Ajinomoto Company. It is literally aspartame mixed with vanillan, the flavor component of natural vanilla. The FDA is trying to have as many options as Pinkberry it seems.
So the US has seemed to be pretty lenient on artificial sweeteners, removing almost all regulations citing no credible risks to health. So then how bad must cyclamate be that the FDA won’t allow it in any food or drink?
Well, probably not too much different. It came under fire in the 1960s, after having been first synthesized in a lab at the University of Illinois in 1935. The same studies that cast doubt on saccharin seemed to damn cyclamate. Tenuous links to bladder cancer, male fertility issues, and poor health in animals saw cyclamate be banned in 1969 and never allowed in the US again. Most of Europe, Canada, and Asia use cyclamate in their products.
“Sugar of Lead” – Lead(II) acetate
This chemical was used for sweetening drinks for over a thousand years. It was a salt formed by boiling lead. It had a very sweet flavor and could be readily made when sugar was not available; it also contained lead and was as such a deadly toxin. Oops. Pope Clement II was almost surely killed by sugar of lead poisoning in 1047, and even after it was banned in foods many still used it to illegally sweeten products cheaply, possibly leading to Beethoven’s death as well. Say what you will about Splenda and Equal, we’re all a lot better off with them than with Sugar of Lead!
While the science is shaky on some artificial sweeteners and ever-changing for others, there are a few reasons people may legitimately just hate them. Taste receptors evolved to bind sugars, like sucrose, so while some chemicals may be able to bind these receptors (with much higher affinity, and thus a more prolonged signal meaning a sweeter taste per molecule) those same chemicals behave differently in the mouth. Taste is just a component in the more complex phenomenon of flavor experience – wine drinkers know well the importance of astringency, tannic effects, and mouth-feel.
Some artificial sweeteners may leave a metallic aftertaste (a result of certain receptor inhibition), while others may also activate taste receptors for bitterness or acidity. These sweeteners feel less substantial in fluid and require bulkeners to give body to a drink as we discussed. The introduction of bulkeners helped mask the immediate recognition of some diet drinks, but may have their own taste-altering issues.
And finally, some palates can indeed detect a different ‘character of sweetness’ in the synthetics compared to real sugar. These are all subtle matters of taste; however they are real phenomena and can affect the experience of consuming a reduced fat food or drink. So, while many will warn you about the toxicity of sweeteners and the obesity behind high-calorie drinks for now take your preferred beverages and snacks and, in moderation, keep putting them ‘right in the kisser’.
*Thanks for bearing with the forced Jackie Gleason theme sporadically throughout this post.