Newest Sweetener Stirs Up Old Debate

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Sandy Resnick and her family used to revel in sugary desserts such as huge, hot, chocolate chip cookies with melting vanilla ice cream, chocolate sauce and whipped cream.

But that was before Resnick's 12-year-old daughter, Leah, was diagnosed with Type 1 diabetes. Resnick started realizing how often the family would turn to sugar as a "very, very available quick fix for hunger." Leah also realized that when she ate desserts her blood sugar would spike and she would get stomachaches and headaches until the insulin she injected kicked in.

The Resnicks, who live in La Canada, turned unhappily to artificial sweeteners, one of which ruined a batch of homemade spaghetti sauce with a metallic taste. Then Resnick heard about sucralose, the newest low-calorie fake sugar on the market, which she was thrilled to discover "really tastes like sugar." Resnick now makes cookies, pastries and even spaghetti sauce with sucralose, "everything I used to make with sugar."

Out of solidarity with Leah, Resnick sticks to sucralose-sweetened desserts as well. She's lost 12 pounds and has been inspired to start exercising to lose 20 more. As for Leah, her blood sugar stays lower so she's using less insulin. And to her mother's delight, Leah is also eating "healthier portions" of vegetables, meat, potatoes and rice, foods she didn't have as much room for when she ate sugar-sweetened desserts.

The sucralose-loving Resnicks are not alone. Since sucralose, marketed under the name Splenda, started appearing on supermarket shelves 10 months ago, it has spurred a 10% increase in sales of low-calorie sweeteners, according to market research firm Information Resources Inc.

But many health officials are decidedly less enthusiastic than consumers. They caution that the arrival of one more artificial sweetener--no matter how sugar-like its taste--is unlikely to steer Americans away from the overindulgence that is fueling this country's duel epidemics of obesity and Type 2 diabetes. After all, in the last decade Americans have gotten fatter and the incidence of diabetes has risen while downing record quantities of refined sugars and artificial sweeteners.

"There is no evidence that artificial sweeteners have had any impact at all either on sugar or calorie consumption," says Marion Nestle, chairwoman of New York University's department of nutrition and food studies.

Some disciplined dieters may not fall into the trap of regularly washing down a huge slab of pecan pie with a diet Coke. But for the population as a whole, says Nestle, artificial sweeteners could make things worse by feeding Americans' gargantuan sweet tooth. For those trying to cut back on carbohydrates and calories, hyper-activating one's sweet tooth with artificial sweeteners can backfire. Says Nestle: "They keep people's taste for sweets up because these artificial sweeteners are so much sweeter. It's very unlikely that this techno-fix approach is going to work."

Americans, though, are always looking for a diet fix of some sort. These days, even the Sugar Assn. concedes that the public is particularly receptive to sugar-phobic diets such as Dr. Atkins' New Diet Revolution and "Sugar Busters!"

Charles Baker, vice president of scientific affairs for the Sugar Assn., says the "simplistic message" to avoid fat has been supplanted by the equally simplistic message to avoid sugar: "We're in the bull's-eye. It's like we're wearing a big orange circle on our back." Most health officials concerned about the growing epidemic of "diabesity" think it is excess calorie consumption and lack of exercise that should be in that big orange circle, not sugar.

Does Sugar Have a Bad Rap?

Sucralose is marketed as the only artificial sweetener made from sugar, but it is definitely a lab creation. It was discovered in 1976 by scientists tinkering with the sugar molecule. Substituting three atoms of chlorine for three oxygen-hydrogen groups results in what appears to be a dieter's dream--a calorie-free chemical 600 times sweeter than white sugar. Hard-core dieters prefer their sucralose remain calorie-and carbohydrate-free in the form of liquid, imported Splenda. But most use the boxes and packets sold in supermarkets with fillers that give it sugar-like bulk and add only two calories per teaspoon, one-eighth the calories of sugar.

Sucralose first became available in Canada in 1991. Seven years later it started showing up in the U.S. in products such as Diet RC Cola after the Food and Drug Administration sanctioned limited use. In 1999, the FDA gave sucralose its broadest approval as a "general purpose sweetener" that can be added to any food. Before approving sucralose, the FDA analyzed more than 100 studies on humans and animals. It concluded that sucralose is safe for all populations, including diabetics, because it does not raise blood sugar.

Even the Center for Science in the Public Interest, a nutrition watchdog group that has complained about shoddy testing of other artificial sweeteners and disputes the government's recent decision to remove labels from saccharin warning that it causes cancer in laboratory animals, isn't quibbling with the FDA's decision. In its safety ranking system, sucralose rates an "appears to be safe" label, a higher grade than the other artificial sweeteners.

The FDA gives no such safety edge to sucralose. The other three FDA-approved intense sweeteners--saccharin, aspartame and acesulfame potassium--are also nontoxic, says George Pauli of the FDA's Office of Premarket Approval.

Popular diet gurus who advocate fewer carbohydrates believe all of the artificial sweeteners are safer than refined sugars, which they say are addictive and have made Americans fatter and thus at risk for developing the most common and fastest-growing form of diabetes, Type 2. But other diet programs say it is not necessary to banish sugar completely. Terri Brownlee, nutrition director of the Duke University Diet and Fitness Center, says the most successful dieters do not swear off a whole food category, such as sugar-sweetened desserts, though they may swear off a particular food, such as ice cream: "They keep it as specific as possible."

The American Diabetes Assn. no longer recommends abstinence from sugar for diabetics either. The ADA says numerous studies show that sugar does not raise blood sugar any faster than other carbohydrates, though sugar consumption has to be monitored. In addition, the American Dietetic Assn. says claims that sugars have "caused" the increase in Type 2 diabetes and obesity are "unsubstantiated."

Neither are claims that sugar is addictive, says Los Angeles dietitian and ADA spokesperson Gail Frank, though it may appear that way to dieters who sheepishly wolf down a batch of meringues. "It's not an addiction. It's normal biology." Studies have shown that infants and even unborn fetuses have a preference for sweet food: "Our most highly developed sensual pleasure is sweetness. We cannot change our biology."

Some dieters believe, however, that their biology is severely out of whack. Says Pasadena clinical psychologist Keith Valone: "I am totally addicted. Maple syrup out of the bottle. Corn syrup out of the bottle. Frosting, forget the cake. Really disgusting things like that." Until Valone was introduced to sucralose by his personal trainer, he had never found any artificial sweetener that could satisfy his sweet tooth and help him stay on a high-protein, moderate-carbohydrate and moderate-unsaturated-fat diet that controls his "chronic, severe weight problem": "There was always this chemical aftertaste." Sucralose satisfies his need for sweets but it doesn't set him off: "I don't get into bingeing with Splenda."

Artificial Sweeteners Could Backfire

But even some weight-conscious Americans who use sucralose say that caution is in order. Dana Carpender, the 42-year-old author of "How I Gave Up My Low Fat Diet and Lost 40 Pounds," says that, at the age of 14, she used to steal money from her mother to support her "sugar habit." That habit included five or six packages of wild cherry Lifesavers, a half-pound Mr. Goodbar, a half-pound Hershey Bar and three to five school cafeteria desserts daily. These days she avoids sugar in favor of sucralose-sweetened desserts. Carpender says the desserts help her and a lot of other people stick to their diets, but she warns that they should be eaten abstemiously: "You're still talking about eating empty calories that displace nutritious foods in people's diets."

That's hard advice to follow for some dieters. Chris Rupley of Tucson, who lost 48 pounds since fall 1999 by cutting down on carbohydrates, cutting out sugar and indulging in desserts such as sucralose-sweetened flourless chocolate cake, has sworn off sucralose until she loses her last 40 pounds: "It's too good. I just started wanting sweet things more and more."

Laurel Mellin, professor of family and community medicine and pediatrics at UC San Francisco, says that's not surprising because obesity is not all biochemistry: "If you really have a drive to overeat emotionally, tricking yourself by consuming low-calorie food is just going to set you up for a binge. You will overeat, whether it's sucralose-sweetened cookies or sugar-sweetened cookies."

Even sucralose's biggest boosters agree that it is not a panacea. Dietician Hope Warshaw, a consultant to Splenda maker McNeil Specialty Products Co., a division of Johnson & Johnson, says it is "one more aid" in what has become for many Americans the battle to stay or become slim and control blood sugar: "People should stop looking for a magic bullet."

Natural-food advocates believe that the closest thing to a magic bullet for fat and diabetic Americans is natural, unpatentable, unprocessed foods, including the no-calorie herbal sweetener stevia that is sold in health food stores as a dietary supplement. They are outraged the FDA has rejected petitions to approve stevia as a sweetener while it continues to approve synthetics such as sucralose that are backed by big companies. Says Rob McCaleb, president of the Herb Research Foundation. "There is more than enough evidence that stevia is safe. It should be approved."

But CSPI sides with the FDA on the stevia issue. The group says stevia "is not ready for prime time" because there is not enough good research on it. If a consumer wants to go natural, asks Michael Jacobson, executive director of CSPI, why not savor the sweetness of a juicy strawberry?

Jennifer Eloff, a homemaker who lives in Alberta, Canada, thinks that's a great idea in theory. "It would be better if I were a perfect human being and cut out Splenda and sugar." Nevertheless Eloff has spent the last decade perfecting recipes for sucralose-sweetened desserts such as Peach Melba Chiffon Cake and Raspberry Cream Truffles because she is afflicted with a demon sweet tooth, a belief that sugar is "poison" and an extra 10 pounds now that she's middle-aged. For those similarly afflicted, she sells cookbooks at her Web site, http://www.sweetyhttp://.com. "I'm just one of those people who needs sweet things. None of us likes to feel deprived." Certainly not a lot of diet-conscious Americans who want to have great-tasting, sugar-free cake and eat it too.

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