A sugar is a water soluble carbohydrate. Carbohydrates are made of monosaccharides, disaccharides, or polysaccharides. Examples of a monosaccharide include glucose and fructose. A disaccharide is made of two monosaccharides, for example one glucose plus one fructose makes sucrose (table sugar). Polysaccharides are commonly known as starches and are insoluble in water. Therefore enzymes are required to break apart the starch into water soluble monosaccharides before they can be digested.
In nature sugars are rare and so valuable that humans have developed a unique taste for them. Sweetness, which is one of only five basic tastes, naturally appeals to all people. Only through training can a person learn not to like sweetness. This is because sugars provide a dense source of energy while requiring little energy to digest.
Nutritional Anthropologists estimate that only 300 years ago the average person consumed four pounds of sugar per year. The average modern American consumes approximately 160 pounds of sugar per year (and this figure is continually rising). Whereas our ancestors’ diets would rarely have seen a piece of fruit or lump of honey, today fruit is seen as a healthy snack and sodas replace water (the average American consumes 1.75 cans of soda per day).
Modern humans are clearly consuming more sugar. For some the sugar calories are in excess of their requirements. These are stored by the body as fat. For others the sugar calories replace less dense (more nutritious) sources of calories and become malnourished. These people are generally plagued by illness.
Many believe that our modern addiction to sugar is a result of economics rather than an irresistible desire for sweetness. For the first time in history the cheapest calories are from sugar. They are cheap because they come from the most abundant agricultural crop on the planet. In the United States we grow 332 million metric tons of Dent Corn (Zea mays indenata ) per year. This variety is sought after for its large endosperm which is made up of starch, oil, and protein. Using enzymes this starch is broken down into High Fructose Corn Syrup (HFCS). Though the public perceives HFCS negatively, there is little hard science to say that it is any worse than other forms of sugar. In fact it is about 10% sweeter than table sugar meaning less can be used. The real problem with HFCS is that it’s cheap. As a result food manufacturers have use it in everything. Calories from HFCS make up 12% of the average American diet. There is an overwhelming correlation between the popularity of HFCS and frequency of type two diabetes.
In the fight against diabetes and weight gain many have turned to artificial sweeteners. Artificial sweeteners (A.S.) are often so intensely sweet that they must be diluted with corn starch to make them more palatable. Due to the fact that they can be patented they are also very profitable. A.S. have life cycles similar to pharmaceutical drugs. New A.S. come to dominate the market until evidence of health problems becomes so overwhelming that they are forced to withdraw from the market. Conveniently a new A.S. is always pending approval.
Today the most popular A.S. is called Aspartame. Aspartame is used in everything from diet sodas to toothpaste. Its discovery in 1965 is attributed to James Schlatter who was developing a drug to treat peptic ulcers. Schlatter was handling the drug then licked his finger to help lift a piece of paper, what he tasted was the future of A.S. Though its producer G. D. Searles and Company and the FDA claim it has no side effects, at one point 80% of complaints to the FDA for food additives regarded Aspartame. For over 15 years, study after study linking Aspartame to seizures and brain tumors kept the product off the market. Then, in 1981 Donald Rumsfeld became CEO of G.D. Searles and used his political power to manipulate FDA procedures and ultimately approve Aspartame’s use in foods. Unlike most A.S., Aspartame breaks down in the digestive system. One by product of the digestion of aspartame is methanol (wood alcohol). The Environmental Protection Agency says that more than 7.8 milligrams of methanol consumed per day is poisonous. Yet 16 milligrams of methanol are produced from digesting just one can of diet soda made with Aspartame. Brand names for Aspartame include NutraSweet and Equal.
In 1999 Splenda moved into the A.S. market to capitalize on the negative publicity surrounding Aspartame and saccharin (Sweet’n low). Splenda is the brand name for sucralose (actually this scientific sounding name was made up by the original producer, Tate and Lyle, to sound like a natural sugar). Sucralose is almost 600 times sweeter than table sugar and is therefore diluted with maltodextrine (an anti caking agent) to produce Splenda. Sucralose was discovered by accident in 1975 by a graduate student in London, named Shashikant Phadnis. Phadnis and his professor were developing a new insecticide similar to DDT. Their experiment involved chlorinating sugar, thus the slogan “Made From Sugar, So It Tastes Like Sugar.” On a molecular level sucralose has nothing in common with sugar; it is no more than a coincidence that the production process involves sugar. Phadnis’ professor asked him to “test the powder”, however, he heard “taste the powder.” To his professor’s astonishment Phadnis reported that it tasted sweet. Thousands of claims have been reported to the FDA concerning Splenda. The claims include headaches, skin rashes, joint pain, seizures, heart pain, irritated eyes, lungs and nose, just to name a few.
Though it is best to control ones desire for sweetness, there are safe alternatives. One such sweetener is Stevia. Stevia has been widely used in Japan for 30 years with no negative reports. It accounts for 40% of the sweetener market in Japan and is even used by Coca Cola in Japan for their diet sodas. The herb has been used in tropical regions around the world throughout human history. Yet in 1991 the FDA labeled Stevia as an “unsafe food additive”. The labeling is controversial, because this designation violates the FDA’s own guidelines under which natural substances used prior to 1958, with no reported adverse effects, are generally recognized as safe (GRAS). For now Stevia must be bought as a dietary supplement and added by the user. However, large companies including Coca Cola and Cargill are lobbying to allow Stevia’s use in packaged foods.
One other safe zero calorie sweetener is Erythritol which is naturally found in fruits and many other foods. Erythritol is produced by first fermenting a sugar solution with yeast. After fermentation the alcohol is filtered and evaporated to form crystals similar in size and shape to table sugar. Many advocates prefer Erythritol to Stevia because of the minimal processing required. The flavor is similar to table sugar except has a slight cooling effect on the tongue and is only 70% as sweet. Erythritol is considered GRAS by the FDA and can therefore be used in packaged foods. With a more memorable name and some marketing Erythritol should become wide spread in the years to come.