A sugar snob taste-tests Splenda and other sweeteners.

How to be the best consumer you can be.
Sept. 11 2002 12:27 PM

Sweet Relief?

A sugar snob taste-tests Splenda and other sweeteners.

Illustration by Nina Frenkel

During her hilarious routine "Goodbye, Saccharin," the late, great Gilda Radner once explained, "Statistics prove that most guys prefer skinny girls with cancer over healthy girls with bulging thighs." Radner nailed two key American health obsessions in that one line—cancer and weight—both of which are tied up in our attitudes toward sugar and the various substitute products for it on the market.

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I admit it: I'm a real-sugar snob, mostly because I do a lot of baking. Sugar in baking has textural relevance; it makes foods moist, tender, more caramelized or brown ("done" looking), and provides structure and volume. Nevertheless, I was intrigued when I recently heard about Splenda. This is a new sugar substitute that my many friends on the Zone and Atkins diets have been loudly advocating. Made from sucralose, a calorie-free chemical that happens to contain sugar but is not absorbed by the body, it is sort of like olestra but without the "passive oil loss." (And, as the health notes on the Splenda Web site explain cheerily, it also offers "no active transport … across the blood-brain barrier.") Splenda is the next great white hope in the crowded artificial sweetener niche.

As a pseudo home economist, I wondered what the difference was between the taste of sugar—the stuff that God gave his children—and its substitutes—tested on lab rats to satisfy the sweet tooth of the weight-conscious. (Well, that's not totally fair; they're also for diabetics and others who must regulate their blood's sugar content.) If the new sugar substitutes are healthier than the old, why not switch if you can't notice a difference in taste? Maybe it's high time for me to get off my high horse.

The Contestants and the Science

Splenda: The new sucralose-based sweetener. Contains no calories.
Health notes: Even though it's made from sucrose, sucralose is not broken down by the body (very, very little of it is absorbed, and that tiny amount is excreted the natural way); as a result, the Food and Drug Administration has approved it for all people, including those with diabetes. It has been submitted to rigorous tests and has proven to be nontoxic, noncarcinogenic, and noncarbohydrate.

Equal: Controversial because it contains aspartame. Equal has been on the market since 1981 and contains no calories.
Health notes: Aspartame has been the subject of major health debates and the rumored cause of all sorts of cancers (especially brain cancer), though it was approved by the FDA and continues to be sold. The American Cancer Society takes great pains to explain all of the many scientific tests aspartame has been subjected to, none of which conclusively proves that it causes cancer. However, it is true that an increase in reported incidences of brain cancer occurred at the time aspartame was introduced to the market, though no one has been able to successfully draw a link between these two events. One thing is sure: Aspartame is harmful to people who have phenylketonuria, a rare genetic disorder; sufferers from this cannot metabolize one of the acids in aspartame and should not consume it.

The Centers for Disease Control were pelted with consumer health complaints after aspartame was introduced but found them to be minor and issued a statement saying that "although it may be that certain individuals have an unusual sensitivity to the product, these data do not provide evidence for the existence of serious, widespread, adverse health consequences attendant to the use of aspartame." The ACS says, "Current evidence does not demonstrate any link between aspartame ingestion and increased cancer risk." Plenty of people disagree with the CDC; click here to find out more about them.

Sugar: The real thing, Domino Cane Sugar. Contains 15 calories per teaspoon.
Health notes: Sugar, of course, is the natural carbohydrate found in fruits and vegetables; it is separated from sugar cane (and sometimes beets) and sold for commercial use. The Food and Drug Administration's report, Evaluation of the Health Aspects of Sugars Contained in Carbohydrate Sweeteners, was a comprehensive assessment that affirmed that sugar does not cause diabetes, heart disease, obesity, hypoglycemia, childhood hyperactivity, or nutrient deficiencies. Overconsumption of it, however, can cause all of those things. (A diet that consists of 10 percent of total calories coming from sugar is recommended by the FDA.)

Sugar in the Raw: Made from pure Hawaiian cane sugar, these are chunky, granular brown nuggets (thanks to natural molasses flavors in the cane). Contains 15 calories per teaspoon.
Health notes: Sugar in the raw's health profile resembles that of regular granular sugar, and overconsumption of it has the same hazards.

Sweet 'N Low: The first name-brand sugar substitute (or "tabletop sweetener"); released in the U.S. market more than 40 years ago. These pink packets of saccharin contain no sugar and no calories.
Health notes: Saccharin was "discovered" in 1879 by scientists at Johns Hopkins University and remained controversial until fairly recently. The most damaging report about saccharin appeared after a 1977 Canadian lab test showed bladder tumors in male rats that had been subjected to large amounts of saccharin. These results were later disputed because it was determined that the animals were fed the human equivalent of hundreds of cans of diet soft drinks per day for a lifetime. After many, many more tests could not link saccharin conclusively with cancer, in May 2000, the National Toxicology Program took saccharin off its Report on Carcinogens. On Dec. 21, 2000, President Clinton signed a bill allowing the removal of saccharin's warning label.