Americans love artificial sweeteners. We stir saccharin into our coffee, drink cola sweetened with aspartame, and chew gum flavored with sorbitol -- all in an attempt to enjoy the sweet taste we crave without the calories we're trying to avoid.
One thing we haven't been able to do, however, is to bake successfully with artificial sweeteners. Replace the sugar in a cake recipe with an artificial sweetener, and you're likely to bake a pale, off-tasting cake.
That could change in August, when McNeil Nutritionals, the company that produces the sugar substitute known as Splenda, introduces Splenda Sugar Blend for Baking. The new product, which is half sugar and half Splenda, makes baked goods that look and taste like those made with all sugar, according to the company.
"It offers half the calories and half the carbs and all of the benefits that sugar brings to the baking and cooking process," says Monica Neufang, a company spokeswoman.
Even if you haven't knowingly used Splenda, chances are you've had it if you regularly consume artificially sweetened foods. Splenda (also known as sucralose) is in more than 4,000 products worldwide, including Coca-Cola C2 and Pepsi Edge, two new soft drinks that have half the sugar, carbohydrates and calories of ordinary colas.
It is used to sweeten products made by Snapple, Ocean Spray, Atkins, Slim-Fast, SnackWell's, Breyers, Klondike and other companies that are introducing reduced-carb, reduced-sugar products. It even can be found in several kinds of over-the-counter medications.
Now, with a version being introduced for home bakers -- and according to the company, some professional chefs plan to use it in their restaurants too -- Splenda will be nearly ubiquitous.
A safe, tasty sugar substitute is good news for diabetics, people who are trying to lose weight and just about anyone who's health-conscious. But, given the worries about previous sweeteners, it's reasonable to wonder whether consuming so much Splenda is a good idea -- and whether it really can help with weight loss.
Although some nutrition experts caution against pinning our hopes on the substance as a diet aid, so far, it does appear to be innocuous.
Splenda is marketed as the only noncaloric sweetener "made from sugar." Three chlorine atoms replace part of the sugar molecule, and the result is sucralose, which is 600 times sweeter than sugar. When sucralose is eaten, it passes quickly through the body without being absorbed. Unlike some other artificial sweeteners, sucralose has not been shown to cause headaches, bloating, gas or diarrhea if eaten in large quantities.
Studies also have shown that Splenda is safe. "To the best of my ability to judge, Splenda seems to be the safest of the alternate sweeteners. I'm not aware of any health professionals who have a serious concern about it," says Suzanne Havala Hobbs, a registered dietitian who teaches in the School of Public Health at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. "I don't personally use it, just because I have such an aversion to any 'fake food.' Nevertheless, it does appear to be benign."
Adds Susan B. Roberts, a senior scientist at Tufts University: "It looks pretty innocent."
But Splenda's new Sugar Blend for Baking is not the perfect answer for people who want to have their cake and lose weight too.
The product can help reduce the sugar and carbohydrates in baked goods, but not as much as you might think. For example, a slice of unfrosted yellow cake made with Splenda would contain 240 calories. That's a savings of about 50 calories over the same recipe made with sugar -- provided you eat one piece of cake, rather than saying to yourself, "It's made with Splenda, so I think I'll have a second piece."
Splenda also sells Splenda Granular, a pure-Splenda product that can be used for baking. Because it contains no sugar, Splenda Granular can be used safely by diabetics because it has no effect on blood glucose levels or insulin secretion. (However, according to the company, baked goods come out better with Splenda Blend for Baking than with Splenda Granular.)
Although Splenda Sugar Blend for Baking will save you calories, it won't save you money. The recommended price is $6.29 to $6.49 for a two-pound bag. That's about five times the price of sugar, though a half-cup of Splenda Blend for Baking replaces a full cup of sugar.
Artificial sweeteners have been a blessing for diabetics, allowing them to enjoy sweet taste without the blood-glucose increase that sugar causes. However, artificial sweeteners also attract people who are trying to lose weight. That's a lot of people: In the U.S., 66% of adults and 16% of children are overweight, according to a study published in the June 16 edition of the Journal of the American Medical Assn.
The question is: Will Splenda and other artificial sweeteners help America slim down? "I think the jury's still out, to be honest with you," says Kathy McManus, director of nutrition at Brigham and Women's Hospital in Boston. "It may help or it may not. We don't have the data to support either."
A recent study published in the International Journal of Obesity suggests that eating artificially sweetened foods may actually disrupt the body's ability to count calories.
Susan Swithers, a professor of psychological science at Purdue University and coauthor of the study, fed one group of young rats a solution sweetened with sugar; the other group received an inconsistent diet -- sometimes a sugary solution and sometimes a solution sweetened with the artificial sweetener saccharin.
After 10 days, when both sets of rats were permitted to eat what they wanted, the rats that had consumed the inconsistent diet gorged on three times as many calories as the rats that had consumed the sugary solution.
Here's how Swithers explains her findings: In childhood, our bodies learn that sweet foods are associated with more calories than less-sweet foods. Because artificially sweetened foods taste sweet but don't deliver the calories our bodies expect, they interfere with the body's natural ability to predict caloric content based on taste.
"It is as if your body can't decide if the food has calories or not," Swithers says, and that can lead to overeating.
Does that mean artificially sweetened foods don't help with weight loss? Not necessarily, Swithers says.
But people who use them must be more conscious of what they eat by reading food labels, counting calories and exercising to burn excess calories.