To Your Health

I'm working hard to limit sugar for my family and for me. There are several new artificial sweeteners, and I don't want to be surprised with unexpected health concerns as I was with aspartame. Is there any good news on the horizon?

Q. I'm working hard to limit sugar for my family and for me. There are several new artificial sweeteners, and I don't want to be surprised with unexpected health concerns as I was with aspartame. Is there any good news on the horizon?

A. There is good news and bad news. First the bad news: The brain will trigger the release of insulin at the first taste of sweetness, so any sugar or sugar substitute will provoke a rise in insulin, which for most of us would be harmful. This rise is even more detrimental if an artificial sweetener produces it since there are no calories for the insulin to work on. The good news is that any sweetener has less impact on insulin release if it is used at mealtime when the shock will be cushioned by other food components.

More good news: Before you go for an artificial sweetener there are painless ways to reduce your intake of regular sugar. First, most recipes can be prepared using about half the sugar the recipe calls for and still taste sweet enough for anyone. Of course, this means less reliance on convenience foods, when you have no control over the sugar content, and more home cooking. Other than reduced sugar, home cooking also means fewer preservatives and artificial flavors and colors.

Second, there are already available several tried and true sweeteners to use in place of regular sugar. Although about five times more expensive than regular sugar, fructose is about twice as sweet, which means you can use less for the same sweetness plus the higher cost is added incentive to cut back. In addition, fructose is less of a challenge to the blood sugar regulation system, with about one-third the "glycemic index" of regular sugar.

Several sweeteners, like honey, molasses, maple sugar, date sugar, barley malt, rice syrup, and evaporated cane juice (brand name Sucanat™) may not have much advantage over regular sugar, but they have interesting flavors and supply small amounts of vitamins and minerals.

Assuming cyclamate and saccharin are not in the running, there are several new sweeteners that are promising, though not all are available in America, and it will be several years before we can be sure they are really OK. These include alitame (brand name Aclame™), sucralose (brand name Splenda™), and acesulfame-K (brand name Sunette™), which do OK in taste tests if they are used in reasonable amounts. They are, respectively, 2,000, 600, and 200 times sweeter than sugar (saccharin is 300 times and aspartame 200 times sweeter), which means that truly miniscule amounts can be used. There are concerns that the manufacturers have not been entirely truthful about their safety, although each may be safe when used conservatively.

Stevia leaf extract, a South American product, is 300 times sweeter than sugar, but people often complain that it has an unpleasant aftertaste. If you are diabetic or if you place a premium on "natural," it seems to be the best option. Licorice root, another natural option, in small amounts will impart both a sweet taste and a flavor that is sublime to some, sickening to others.

Sorbitol, mannitol, and xylitol, the "sugar alcohols," can be used in small amounts, but more than six or seven teaspoons per day may cause diarrhea and intestinal gas.

A recent survey shows that two-thirds of Americans regularly buy the high-sugar soft drinks and convenience foods that we know are bad for us. Dare to be different. Find one or two sweeteners that you are comfortable with, use them sparingly, and use the others to add a little variety.

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