Artificial Sweeteners Primer

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Low Carb Dieting -- Artificial Sweeteners Primer. Confused by the types of sugar free sweeteners? This primer will bring you up to speed.

(For recipe linjks see related recipes section below).

I just opened my umpteenth email asking, "What is Maltitol?" and "What is Stevia?" I think it is time we talk. Get a cup of tea or coffee, pull up a chair and let's explore and hack our way through the dense jungle of artificial sweeteners. I'll show you the trail I blazed. First of all let's get the boilerplate disclaimer out of the way:

The following information is not intended to replace the advice of your physician, pharmacist, or other health care professional. It is not meant to indicate that the use of the product is safe, appropriate, or effective for you.

As far back as the fifties, I can remember my mother putting Saccharine in her coffee and tea. It came in tiny pill form and she crushed two of them in a spoon with the back of another spoon. Back then, the technology for easy melting had not yet been invented. I can still see the white bits of undissolved broken particles swirling after the spoon she used to stir her beverage. I was amazed that she could drink it at all, since I had once sneaked a taste of one. Eck! Bitter and nasty.

My introduction to artificial sweeteners was not a pleasant one. Two decades later, after the birth of my third child, I found that my body had changed and I needed to lose a few pounds. By that time, the original Atkins Low Carb concept had been introduced. Unfortunately, the artificial sweetener market had not changed much; Saccharine was still the only mass-marketed choice. Then, a cancer scare, based on a study done with lab rats, prompted the FDA to put a ban on Saccharine. Eventually, this ban was lifted and replaced with mandatory warnings placed on the packaging.

In 1991, the FDA withdrew its proposed ban and in 2000, President Clinton signed a bill that removed the warning label completely. Government, scientists and industry had generally all agreed that Saccharin was safe. But by then Aspartame had been introduced and was well established as an alternative sweetener.

Quite by accident, one day, I discovered that I could combine one packet of Sweet'N Low® and one packet of Equal® and make a much better sweetener. At least it seemed so to me. Though I didn't realize it at the time, I was creating the synergistic effect of combinations. What a simple thing to know that Saccharin based Sweet'N Low® and the Aspartame based Equal® enhanced each other.

Fierce competition for market share would never allow two different manufacturers to admit that blending would produce a better sweetener, so this will never happen. But that doesn't mean that consumers can't figure it out and use the sweeteners to suit themselves. I do it all the time.

I have noticed that some food processors have begun to use combinations in product also. Sucralose and Acesulfame Potassium are common combinations. Which brings us to some of the "other" sweeteners that are now available to the buying public.

By 1999, as I re-entered the Low-Carb WOE, I had become quite internet savvy and did exhaustive research on the whole artificial sweetener issue. I had stopped using Aspartame several years even before the scary emails came out vilifying the product because it seemed to me that I could directly link my bad headaches to its use. Note: this was just my personal experience and I draw no conclusions for anyone else. But omitting Aspartame, which is now used in over 6000 products, meant I had to revert to using Saccharin alone once again.

I surfed the web looking for something new. It wasn't hard to find. It was called Sucralose and marketed as Splenda® but at that time it wasn't available in the US because it hadn't been approved as yet by the FDA. But it looked promising to me so I ordered it online. The packaging had two sides, English on one side and Spanish or French on the other because it came from either Mexico or Canada. It was expensive too, plus I had to pay shipping. But desperation often justifies means, does it not?

I bought my Splenda this way for about a year before it was finally approved and introduced to the shelves. I kept telling people about it but no one knew what I was talking about but I have become quite accustomed to being ahead of my time. I was so excited the first day that I could reach up and grab a box and just drop it in my shopping cart. It was not only more convenient, it was less expensive. And I was even more excited when I found that some products that I loved had begun switching to the Sucralose. One of the first of these was Diet-Rite® Cola. I don't even want to admit how much I paid to have a six-pack shipped to me before it was available in stores. Let's just say it I considered it to be "Gourmet Cola".

But even so, Sucralose was not the perfect sweetener for all the cooking and baking that I did. For one thing, being on low-carb, I was keenly aware that the granulated Splenda lists less than a carb per teaspoon. I don't know what this means, is it a half, a quarter, or a fifth of a carb? They aren't required to tell us. Nevertheless, it means that there are carbs to be counted in Splenda®. A carb is a carb. A cup has 48 teaspoons. Even if "less than" means a half, this could add as much as 24 carbs to a recipe that uses a cup of Splenda®.

Recalling my successful experimenting of the past I continued searching for another sweetener that I could combine with the Splenda®. What I found next was Stevia.

Stevia is believed to have originated in the rain forests of South America, where it is still used extensively as a beverage that is brewed like tea and as a sweetener for foods and drinks. After explorers introduced Stevia to Europe in the 1500s, its use spread to parts of the Middle East and Asia. Today, it is mostly used in Japan as a sweetening agent.

In the United States and Canada, Stevia can be sold as a dietary supplement, but not as a sweetener because the FDA has not approved it as a food additive. The downside to Stevia is that it can be bitter, like Saccharin, if used improperly. For this reason, personally, I rarely use it as a primary sweetener, but only as a booster. Although, I have learned to use it in my coffee. In a large mug I will use 1/8th teaspoon combined with a packet of Splenda®.

The pure Stevia has no carbs but the sweetening factor is amazing. The Splenda® takes the bitter edge off of the Stevia. Once again, the power of synergy comes into play.

This combination was working fairly well for me when I discovered the sugarfree Splenda® based syrups. A new day dawned in my kitchen. The syrups do not have the ingredient that makes the dry Splenda bulk up and also adds the carbs. Thus, the syrups are carb free. It was only a matter of time before I found them incredibly useful.

My first experiment was the Cherry Cheesecake. I used too much Stevia the first time around and it was a tad bitter but my second effort was basically the recipe I still use. It remains our favorite and I often make it for guests as well and no one ever complains.

vanilla smoothieWith this basic recipe I have made many different and wonderful variations. I'll share some of these in future columns. But back to the syrups, once I learned how to use them, I really got creative; my first new experiments began with Smoothies. In a flash, using an unsweetened powdered Smoothie base, I could make a creamy, nearly carb-free Smoothie that I could use for a meal replacement or a dessert or even an afternoon snack. My basic Vanilla Smoothie makes a terrific quick meal, especially breakfast. Toss the ingredients in a blender, pour into a large travel mug and you are out the door, filling breakfast in hand.

By the time I had begun work on my cookbook, 101 Low-Carb & Sugarfree Dessert Recipes, I considered myself something of an amateur food scientist. My kitchen was my lab. I freely admit that every experiment did not turn out well, but even my disasters taught me something about the sweeteners I was using and what they could and would not do.

Several months into the production of my book, I noticed an ingredient reoccurring in the growing number of low-carb products hitting the market. It was called Maltitol. A web search landed me quite a lot of information and a source. Once again, my curiosity peaked, I ordered a two-pound bag. I had no idea what it would do or how it would behave but I was encouraged to believe it might do what other sweeteners had failed to do, i.e., thicken and bind like sugar.

low carb nut brittle recipeCookies and candies in particular need this element that is missing in other low-calorie sweeteners. I found a recipe in a very old cookbook. It seemed simple enough and so I figured I'd give the Maltitol the first test by substituting the sugar for straight powdered Maltitol. It turned out so good that I thought I had died and gone to dieter's heaven. My husband's eyes nearly bugged out of his head when I rushed a still warm piece of Butter Pecan Brittle downstairs to his office and he tasted it. We each gobbled down about six or seven pieces.

Later that evening we were not very happy. Maltitol is a sugar alcohol. Skipping over all the scientific mumbo-jumbo and cutting to the chase, the body apparently doesn't recognize the carbs in a sugar alcohol and so it passes, undigested, to the lower intestine, where, natural bacteria finds it and throws a somewhat raucous party. It's not unlike the same experience as eating a large plateful of fibrous beans. We learned, the hard way, to back off the number of pieces we ate at a time.

Some people have reported negative results from consuming anything with the sugar alcohols in it. The complaints range from lower intestinal distress, diarrhea and upset stomach to stalled weight loss. Some people can't eat peanuts either. This is a fact of life. We are all made differently and we all digest differently. My experience is that the longer I have used it, the more my body has adjusted to it and I have no problems to report. Having said that, it must also be noted that I am not wolfing it down all day long. Sweets and things that are sweetened do not make up the bulk of my daily diet.

With that initial culinary success, I was on fire with this new discovery. I immediately started experimenting with the Maltitol and quickly found that I could make delicious cookies, candies and cakes. A downside to Maltitol, other than the aforementioned gastro-intestinal issue, is that it is only 90% as sweet as real sugar. Guess what I did? Ah, yes, the ole synergy thing. I started combining the Maltitol with the syrups and the Stevia.

There are a number of other new sweeteners out there competing for the billions of consumer dollars that are spent annually on all things DIET. There are even more waiting in the wings for FDA approval. I suggest that each person do his/her own experimentation to find the right combination that works. What works for one might not be what works for another. I tell those who email me asking if they can make substitutions in my recipes to just go for it. What is the worst thing that can happen? Frankly, I've tossed out a lot of strange concoctions that just didn't work. On the other hand, I have had some wonderfully surprising results from nothing more than lucky experimentation.

One of the best ways I use my multiple combinations of sweeteners is in my homemade dressings. Lately, I have noticed there are a number of fairly good salad dressings on the shelf that do a pretty good job of being sugarfree and still remaining tasty. But I have to tell you that hardly anything is better than homemade and that's a fact. Also, homemade tends to be cheaper, per serving, than equivalent store bought products.

low carb wedge salad recipeOne of my favorite dressings is the Faux Honey Mustard but another one, that is amazingly good and works beautifully on my Chilled Wedge Salad, is my Russian Dressing. Once again, always questing for new ways to use the sugarfree syrups, I have a wonderful Spinach Salad with Raspberry Vinaigrette Dressing that is not only delicious it is a beautiful presentation and great for impressing guests. And last, but not least, I often make a huge bowl of the Broccoli Salad for family gatherings. It's the light sweetness that really brings out the flavors in this hearty side dish.

Whatever is your choice for sweetening your recipes without sugar, remember to be a label reader and keep in mind that some sweeteners do have carbs, some still have calories and not all sweeteners are right for everyone.



April S Fields is a retired photo stylist and confessed sweetaholic. She lives in a small lake community in Northern Georgia with her husband, Ron. She has a popular long running column, I Was Just Thinking, in the "Buford Free Delivery." She also has two successful websites, and Her cookbook, 101 Low-Carb and Sugarfree Dessert Recipes has been making a hit with low-carbers all across the country from Hawaii to New York.