Friday, August 1, 2008
Sugar Plums and Xanthan Gums
If you're wondering whether or not I have fun making up these titles ... I do! Again, this one is slightly misleading as I won't be discussing Xanthan Gums ... I just wanted to rhyme something sugary with a food additive! Xanthan Gum is a complex polymer used as a thickening agent to increase viscosity in foods (such as salad dressings) and is not the subject of this post. I am, however, going to delve into the realm of artificial sugars or sugar substitutes.
While I'm loving The South Beach Diet so far, I have been concerned about the diets' recommendation of using Splenda as a sugar substitute. With the exception of all things chocolate and the occasional dessert, I'm really not much of a sugar fiend. I don't use it in my tea and don't add it to cereals or anything else. I only keep it in the house for baking and for guests, so eliminating it hasn't been much of a problem for me.
That being said, the advent of summer has presented me a challenge perhaps even greater than Brillo Head: ice cream. I want some. I want some now. And I'm going to want some after dinner too. Lately, I've been having a sugar free popsicle instead and for the most part I've been happy with them. They're icy cold and fun to eat ... and they're also made with Splenda. Sigh. What's a chemical-fearing-dessert-craving Diva to do?
Rather than donning my tiara, I put on my reading glasses and decided to do an exhaustive -well to me anyway - internet search on all the artificial sugars so as to make a better informed decision about whether or not I need to have a Splenda freak-out. And, as it turns out, I don't think I do.
Splenda is the brand name for sucralose - a chemically engineered artificial sweetener which is roughly 600 times sweeter than ordinary table sugar (sucrose). Basically, sucralose is made by replacing three of sucrose's hydroxyl groups with three chlorine atoms ... which is chemist speak for: they take sucrose, remove some stuff, add some chlorides and a new chemical compound "sugar" is formed. Tasty, right? Um, I dunno. Should we be concerned about eating chlorine? Well, it seems that the good news is you're not actually eating chlorine when you ingest sucralose. There's a bunch of complex chemical reasons why - but suffice it to say we're not talking about sweetening your pudding with the stuff you use to clean your pool. Its not the same thing.
Splenda-related internet theories abound. I think I've read them all, including one very amusing website called The Truth About Splenda - which was actually produced by the sugar industry! Does that tell you anything about possible bias? Think they've got an axe to grind? Rather than getting mixed up in the conspiracies I turned to The Center for Science in the Public Interest's website. They're the people that harshed our mellow with that "movie theatre popcorn is death in a carton" revelation. Now I don't know if they have their own axe to grind, but as watchdog groups go, I kind of trust them. They have a really good page on their site about food additives and it gives clear recommendations for what to avoid and what appears to be safe for consumption. They have concluded that sucralose is safe for consumption.
Now, I'm not saying that its ok to eat Splenda, or any artificial sweetener, just because a watch-dog group has deemed it safe. I think its a personal choice. In my case, I eat so little of it that I've decided not to freak-out. I don't think having a sugar-free popsicle a couple of times a week will be the thing that kills me. I might think differently if I was using Splenda several times a day, but I'm not. I don't eat any other sugar-free products or snacks, I don't drink diet soda and don't sweeten any of my beverages period. What I am saying is beware of internet conspiracy theories and be conscious of possible bias when you're surfing about.
There are certainly other, more natural, means of sweetening up your life. Agave nectar and Stevia come to mind. Given the choice, I'd opt for the agave nectar. The Center for Science in the Public Interest has deemed Stevia unsafe for consumption. There is some controversy there as well ... something to do with sugar and artificial sweetener lobbyists. But the more salient point, I think, is that while Stevia is approved for use in other countries, these countries don't use sugar in the excessive amounts that we in the US do - and there have been no long term studies on the effects of increased Stevia consumption. There is some concern about possible mutagens as well. I don't think I like the sound of it. Much like the Splenda though, you can take all of this with a grain of salt because there's clearly some bias at work and very little hard data on long-term use.
As for the agave, though natural, it is not considered a "whole" food. It is processed and there appears to be some concern that some manufacturers have been adding high fructose corn syrup to the nectar to lower production costs. If you buy agave products, be sure to check the label and stay away from those that have added HFCs.
The bottom line here, I think, is moderation in all things. Too much of anything can kill you ... and too much conflicting information can be confusing! (Though I do encourage you to check out the link on food additives, its excellent.) By and large I try to avoid processed foods, and I think its probably a good idea not to over indulge in any of the "natural" sweeteners either. I am certainly not trying to encourage the use of Splenda, or any other substance here, I'm merely offer this post as a spring-board to discussion. I'd like to hear your thoughts on artificial sweeteners and what you've decided with respect to them. Sound off in the comments and let me know how you get your sweet on!