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.
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
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.
Sugar Twin: Sugar Twin is a saccharin-based sweetener just like Sweet 'N' Low. It bills itself as a cheaper alternative. It contains no calories.
Health notes: See Sweet 'N Low.
Two tests are required here, one in which sugar substitutes go up against plain old granulated sugar in a daily use (beverage sweetening) and one in which sugar substitutes go up against the real thing in the other main sweetener arena: baking.
Test 1: Iced Tea
I brewed six tall glasses of fresh iced tea and sweetened them with, respectively, sugar, sugar in the raw, Sugar Twin, Sweet 'N Low, Equal, and Splenda. I wanted to gauge the sweetness, so I used two tablespoons of real sugar. Because many of these sweeteners require adjustments (Sweet 'N Low, for example, is much sweeter than sugar; one pink packet is equal to two teaspoons of sugar), I followed package instructions to equalize the sweetness levels. Then I did a blind taste of each of the products; I did not know which tea contained which type of sweetener, and I ranked my preferences:
First place: Splenda. To my utter shock, I chose the tea with Splenda as the best-tasting. "Real tea flavor emerges—sweet but not overly so," I wrote. Well, I'll be.
Second place: Equal. Another surprise; I liked the "simple, straightforward taste" of Equal and found the sweetness "subtle."
Third place: Sugar in the raw. "A rich taste, almost honeyed, and not artificial." However, the sweetness here was earthier, less obviously sweet.
Honorable mention: Sugar. "A little too sweet but not bad." The real sugar tasted almost syrupy to me and was less "light" in texture than its substitutes. Perhaps because I'm used to diet sodas, real sugar's "realness" didn't strike me as a good thing. I'm so disappointed in myself.
Test 2: Baking
Can a substitute, with the help of adjustments (say, adding more baking soda into a recipe or by combining the sweetener with molasses—standard diabetic baking book tricks) really compete? It's not enough to prove that iced tea, which is my main poison, may taste OK with sugar substitutes, so I baked six batches of apple muffins and subjected a bunch of friends at a dinner party to them as I compiled the results of my own blind taste test. I tried the six samples without knowing which muffin contained which sweetener. If you want your friends to chide you endlessly about your profession, I suggest trying this at home. Our results:
First place: Sugar. Without a doubt these muffins looked much more appealing than the others; they were an appropriate size and nicely browned. The texture was cakey and more buttery than some others, and the sweetness accentuated the apples. The highest compliment came from my friend Nicole, a nurse, who called these "apple pie-like."
Second place: Sugar Twin. Score one for saccharin; though these muffins were pale in color, they had body ("biscuity," I wrote) and were pleasantly sweet. A pal said they had "a good sweetness, but missing something."
Third place: Sweet 'N Low. I've always thought Sweet 'N Low was nastily, overly sweet, but in baking it performed pretty well: the muffins, while again pale, were mildly sweet; they did, however, have a slight aftertaste noted by all the tasters.
Honorable mention: Splenda. "No pizzazz, but OK," was the general reaction; these muffins, which were noticeably smaller than the others, were pretty bland and slightly floury but otherwise inoffensive.
From here, we were subjected to a huge drop-off in flavor and texture. Both the sugar in the raw muffins and the Equal muffins were barely edible, the former being flavorless (I think the big granules don't melt so well in batters and would be better used sprinkled on top of the muffins) and the latter being anemic-looking, not sweet at all.
So, I guess there's a point to be made about Splenda, and that point is that the stuff really doesn't taste so bad. And you don't even digest it! As far as the other sugar substitutes, such as Sweet 'N Low and Equal, my advice is to pick your (fake) poison: If you must use one, try Splenda in your coffee and Sweet 'N Low or Sugar Twin in your baking. But I'm just talking taste here. When it comes to health, I think it's awfully good that there's an all-clear, so to speak, on saccharin; I'm a little more wary of Splenda and Equal, both newer and both with less clear test results. However, in the end I don't think I'll ever be comfortable with these engineered sugar substitutes so long as I can still pick up 5-pound sacks of Domino's. Even though my taste buds were obviously confused when it came to iced tea, I'm going to remain a sugar snob. Life is short, you know.