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Monday, January 16, 2012

Sweeteners

If you're not sitting down reading this, you might just want to, or grab onto something for support, because I'm going to start this post out doing something I don't all that often: praise Mark Sisson.   The sample menu page on his blog reads:
A typical breakfast for me is a cup of coffee with cream and sugar and an omelet

This page has been around for a good long time and he hasn't changed it, so presumably Sisson hasn't jumped headlong on the stevia wagon.  In the summer, as a kid, we would suck on honeysuckle blossoms for the faint sweetness.  Needless to say, we did this more for the novelty of "hey, this is sweet" than scavenging for every blossom we could find for a sweet kick ... they just weren't that sweet.   If one googles chewing and sugarcane or stevia leaves you will find references to both.    If you are ever in New England in late winter/early spring, you'll see the maple syrup taps on trees.  The dried syrup that may ooze from the tap, etc., also tastes sweet.  We humans tend to like sweet stuff, and when found in nature, we'll chew/suck or otherwise extract the sweet leaving the rest behind.  But the only foods that are truly sweet eaten whole (or at least most) are fruits and honey.  I suppose we could add in the faintly sweet root veggies as well.  

With all the demonization of fructose lately, good old fashioned sugar has been given a bad rap.  Indeed these days we have Gary Taubes on record (a post for another day - grin) saying you can probably eat to your heart's content of pasta and rice and potatoes and not get fat so long as you don't eat sugar like those sugar-shunning Japanese.  The list of anti-sugar tomes is quite long and getting longer.  It is eeeeevil ... worse than crack cocaine!  The cause of the obesity epidemic and the root of all disease.  Not to mention, addictive as all get-out (another post for another day).  But allow me to wax poetic on my childhood for a moment.  It was typical and atypical in that at home there was little sugar to be found.  I think the way I was fed growing up was very WAPF-friendly.  But as a small child I did have access to sugar at my Grandma's house.  Once in school I was somehow amazingly able to trade or otherwise be given some of the sugary treats my classmates brought for snacks or birthday parties.  While my generation didn't grow up with juice boxes attached to our lips, we did have Kool Aid and Tang (marketed to a generation where we watched Apollo launches in the classroom).  At camp, fruit punch was called "bug juice".  Don't get me started on Pixy Stix and  Lik M Ade, both of which were nothing more than flavored sugar.  And we got little lollipops at the pediatrician's office.

Now, I'm certainly not advocating reverting the SAD back to the 60's version.  Nor am I advocating making sucrose a staple in your diet.  But sucrose has been demonized in an unfair manner, IMO.  If one wants to blame HFCS for certain modern woes -- that it is not equivalent to sucrose after all -- be my guest.  I have no need for such in the food supply, and at the risk of getting political, the tariff/subsidy system vis a vis sugar and  corn is nothing short of criminal.  But sugar is a NATURAL sweetener.  Sure white sugar goes through a fair amount of processing (producing molasses as well), but what of some of these sugar alcohols?  Xylitol is often called "wood sugar", although processing from wood is where the term came from, production from corn (yikes!) is quite common these days.  
 
Ditto the darling sugar alcohol amongst low carbers and many paleos alike, erythritol.    That link is to Cargill Foods, and I'm revealing for the first time today, that Cargill was one of the Big Agra players behind that anonymous bunny-eared internet persona.  (At this point full apologies have been made for that, apologies graciously accepted, but it is still funny to think that I might somehow have been a plant to bring down low carbing somehow so I reserve the right to joking references - grin).    Back to erythritol.  Market as "zerose" by Cargill, it is produced by fermentation from corn.  Indeed corn is the source of many sugar alcohols.  But erythritol has become a darling for a few reasons:
  • it is virtually zero calorie at 0.2 cal/g  
  • it is sugar like and can act as a vehicle, eliminating the need for bulking agents such as maltodextrin 
  • it is small and absorbed before it gets to the intestine so produces none of the digestive upset characteristic of other sugar alcohols. 
Although processors claim the product of fermentation is no different from that extracted from plant fibers, a claim that is technically true, I hope we can all agree that the product at right, is no more "natural" than good old fashioned white sucrose.  
How about stevia?  While I'm sure small scale extraction of such a relatively potently sweet compound is quite simple, don't look now, but the stevia in your favorite economical products these days probably came from a rather more industrialized source.  That's right folks, perhaps Big Agra's motives in planting old CarbSane in the LC community was just a diversionary tactic all along.  Because, don't look now, but in 2007 Coca-Cola and Cargill  are/were the big movers and shakers behind the now-widespread availability of cheap stevia, and the US firm Blue California claimed a cheap industrial means of producing stevia.
 
And so, readers, I do find the flocking of paleos and naturalist low carbers alike to products such as Truvia, consider this post a public service message from mole-turned-whistleblower CarbSane, and consider a donation to my cause as you would to support other down-trodden whistleblowers!  Because Truvia is:
a stevia-based sugar substitute developed jointly by Coca-Cola and Cargill. It is currently distributed and marketed by Cargill as a tabletop sweetener and as a food ingredient.
The most interesting thing as I've been writing this post is that I didn't know any of Cargill's involvement in this when I started the post.  I was just going to do an off-the-top-of-my-head sort of post on what I see as inconsistencies with regards to what makes something an acceptable "natural" sweetener.  It was just in the quick searches on processes that this all fell in my lap.  

In the end, Sisson makes a good case for incorporating the real deal into a low carb paleolithic-based diet.  I actually did something similar on my VLC days back in 2007-8.  It was a rare day when you wouldn't find a bag of my beloved Lindor Truffles in the cabinet (forget the %, the black dark-chocolate kind) or a can of light whipped cream in my fridge.  Both contain real sugar.  The truffles are 5g carb each, a good squirt of whipped cream even less.  I do use artificial sweeteners as I insist on having my coffee sweet and that would require too much sugar for my tastes, so Splenda it is (liquid sucralose actually).  And if I do drink alcohol, it's vodka in diet soda.  I don't care much for erythritol, and stevia is even more disagreeable to my palate.  So sucralose it is, even on cheat days (I consider alcohol enough of a cheat) except for those things that don't belong sweetened by anything but sugar.  By that I mean if I'm having chocolate it is the real thing, though milk chocolate is waaay too sweet for me these days (while anything north of about 70% is just gross and I'll never understand why anyone would bother eating it).  Ditto for the occasional cake/pastry/pie.  

So in conclusion,  if your goal is more natural ancestral eating, I'd say good old sucrose more appropriately belongs in your diet than any of these other "natural" alternatives.  At the very least, they are no better and possibly worse.    You will probably do better to "own" your intake of sweets in terms of the calories, because that's really where they get you in trouble.                 






26 comments:

Nance said...

Hi, Evelyn! I think you got this exactly right. I put cream with a little honey in my coffee every morning. I don't use sweeteners otherwise except for the major holidays.

As long as your eating is in good control, small portions of sweeteners are no more dangerous than any other tasty foods. And if I'm going for sweet, a natural one like honey or sucrose works much better for me than processed chemicals.

The point is to make food less important overall rather than zeroing in on one element of eating.

BHI said...

ITA too! I haven't seen any convincing evidence to the safety of sweeteners in the long term, so I can't say that they are any better or worse than sugar and as such I choose to use sugar whose reputation although in tatters, is of known pedigree.

Anecdotally, when I use real sugar in my tea I am completely satisfied with 1 cup all day. When I use a sweetener however, 4 cups is usually the average. So for me using sugar saves me a couple hundred milk calories!

MM said...

I think sugar, as with anything is only bad in large quantities. Putting a little in your coffee shouldn't be a big deal, but downing a large Coke with every meal probably is. The problem I see with sugar is that it is almost totally devoid of nutritional content. I stopped eating both white sugar and coconut oil (the darling of the paleo crowd) for this reason. Coconut oil is just as bad as white sugar as far as nutritional content goes. Even crappy corn oil has some vitamin E at least. Go to http://www.nal.usda.gov/fnic/cgi-bin/nut_s.pl and plug in both coconut oil and granulated sugar, and compare. (I love that database!) So, the problem comes when these nutritionally deficient foods either displace good foods or just add unneeded calories.

I've started using brown sugar in my cooking. I think white sugar is one of those cumulative things. A little white sugar now and then is probably ok, but I think those deficient foods can take a little away from you each time they're eaten, and over time maybe add up to something significant. (That's just my personal feeling, which came mainly from Nutrition and Physical Degeneration.) If you look at brown sugar in the above database it has quite a bit more nutritional value. I've yet to find a recipe that I make where brown sugar doesn't work. I suppose you can't make white cake with it, but yellow cake works fine, for example. I usually make cookies on the weekend, and so far it has yet to affect my weight. Time will tell.

LeonRover said...

Surely, to be authentically ancestral, primal or paleo - it can only be HONEY, HONEY, BAAAABEEEE.

And Manuka at that, to take advantage of that New Zealand natural healing.

But it is so DAMNED EXPENSIVE!

There is a from a Gaelic Warrior's love-poem of 2000 years ago - and I paraphrase in English:

"The taste of her mouth was sweeter by far,
than honey drunk through red wine"

Slainte

Galina L. said...

When I just came to live in the USA, In order to feel more comfortable with my English language, I went to work into a big department store - sort of paid practice . I made tons of very interesting observations while watching people. Among other things I noticed - people always spend more money on goods which were on sale. It looked like they felt staff was there for free. It looks like many treat food in the same way - if it is low in undesirable nutrition - it is devoted of calories. I am well aware of that trap, but still, no sugar for me, please. I would rather eat something worth eating(like 1/2 of a Macintosh apple) within my carb limit, then that useless thing.

Princess Dieter said...

I use sucralose and I ain't about to stop. :) I reserve sugar (and its calories) for special treats, like REAL dark chocolate, maybe once a year, I'll have a bit of real sugary lime mousse or chocolate mousse. I let some dried sugared cranberries in a spinach salad once in awhile. But for me, since I can't eat a whole lotta calories, and since sugar does seem to be a slight gateway trigger food for me, it's best to control. I like my coffee and tea VERY sweet, and it would be tablespoons of sugar in my coffee...and that's not an acceptable caloric or carb trade-off for me. So, fake stuff it is.

But I don't do the orthorexia "never, ever" thing. I do the "kinda rarely" thing. :D I'd rather save my calories form sugar and have other carby stuff like cherries or pineapple or some gluten free rice pasta as a side. Sugar just doesn't give me the big satisfaction like another carby thing does. I like my coffee just fine with fake stuff. So, why bother?

bentleyj74 said...

@LeonRover

Awesome...it's been a long time since I heard any of those. [raises glass]

@Princess

Agree.

Fleur said...

I'd agree that sucrose in small amounts at a time is not harmful, especially in the amount found in coffee.

I'm not following the argument made by MM that using white sugar would take something away from you in a way that brown sugar would not.

Sue said...

"I'd agree that sucrose in small amounts at a time is not harmful, especially in the amount found in coffee."

I agree too.

Sonnenschein said...

From what I understand it is the fructose part of the sugar that is supposed to be problematic (may or may not be true). The Jaminets consider it toxic but have no problems with rice syrup (pure glucose)even if is the only glucose source in a person´s diet. I do not know if there is something about the fructose hype. People seem to feel better if they have a black list with food to avoid and can tell themselves: "I am doing fine as long as I avoid xy!".

Evelyn aka CarbSane said...

I have a real problem with this position by the Jaminets. As I recall, in PHD book they state outright that fructose = poison ... adopting Lustig's position. I have a problem with a lot of the studies on fructose and claims. There's this cut-off claim that consuming <50g/day is OK ... that's 100g/day of sucrose. That is a lot. That is more than 10 apples in a day ... which is why fructose overfeeding studies are almost always done with fructose sweetened beverages. And many of the studies in the context of caloric surplus to boot (e.g. the Havel study cited by Taubes was like 150g fructose with caloric intake only partially compensated for so the subjects ate like 300 cal/day surplus if memory serves). I have a hard time imagining Americans actually AVERAGE over 50g/day fructose, but if they do, the distribution is not likely to be normal (as in bell curve) where half of Americans consume more than that. More like the former Jimmy Moore's (just the several liters a day of Coke habit alone) and such skew the average badly.

@Princess - my thoughts exactly! I don't eat a lot of sweets, but I'm particular about my coffee. I wouldn't say I like it super sweet, but the amount of real sugar to get it to where a drop or packet of sucralose does -- plus I drink giant mugs. Perhaps the coffee habit needs to be addressed. Sigh :(

@Nance: I'll put a little real honey in tea on occasion, but honey in coffee just not my style. Still even in tea, I'd rather save those calories.

@Fleur: Brown sugar does have some micronutrition to go with the sucrose. This is where the sugary beverages really fail us. All most provide is the sucrose (though now they add in vitamins and such). Even Lustig seems to acknowledge this with the fiber in fruits.

Tonus said...

I put creamer and sugar in my coffee. That is non-negotiable for me. In general, over the past year I cut down my sugar intake significantly, because where I used to have some kind of sweets almost every day (and not a small amount, either) I very rarely purchase them anymore. I can eat sweets, and quite a lot of them, even if I'm not hungry for them. I can eat them past the point where my body would otherwise say "I've had enough" and straight through to the point where my stomach starts screeching in pain.

So when I have sweets in the house (we have a box of cookies and some pop-tarts at the moment) it's a struggle to make sure I'm not eating them because they are there. Since I don't really care to have to go through that struggle, we usually don't have them anymore. And since I do not have a problem with avoiding them in the store, it's worked out well. I will indulge occasionally because, hey... soft-baked chocolate chip cookies are really really good and because I know that if I simply deprive myself, at some point I'll give in and it won't be pretty.

One thing I've learned about eating is that I can break it down into smaller and much more winnable battles. Eliminating sugary soft drinks was easy enough. Managing my sugar intake was a separate battle, but it has also become pretty easy to do. I also learned that there are some things that I can eliminate outright, and some that I simply need to manage.

Galina L. said...

People have different struggles. I rather not have an open bad with potato chips and nuts in the house, the same is true about fruit-preserves. Cookies are even not tempting for me, especially with chocolate chips, I wouldn't eat pop-tarts. As soon as my coffee is with heavy cream, it could be sweetened with whatever (preferably not stevia). I don't have it every day and no more than one cup.

Ela said...

I really appreciate your posting this, since I'm both hyper-conscious about sweeteners and somewhat of a (raw-vegan and/or gluten free) dessert chef.

I think a lot about sweeteners. In my experience, and that of several people I know, sucralose is bad news. Does bad things to a fragile brain chemistry. I happen to really like stevia, but maybe I'm weird. Some brands are better than others. I like xylitol and erythritol too.

BUT--I also like to use a little raw sugar, maple syrup, and honey in my creations sometimes. When I lived in HI, I worked bees (and ate masses of honey for a while), and was also exposed to sugar cane growing wild, and fresh sugar cane juice--great stuff, and mineral rich.

For me, if there's a ton of nuts and coconut oil in a recipe, I want to use a lower-calorie sweetener. If it's something lighter, I feel ok using sugar/honey/maple. That's partly the calorie count, but partly also how it "sits" in the body.

All that Big Agra stuff, though--a lot of it was over my head, but I appreciate your bringing it to my attention and feel like I should probably find out more.
thanks,
Ela

King said...

What, Stevia is bad now? Meh, I'll use it anyway. A pinch of that stuff is enough to sweeten a big bowl of oat meal. I'm not gonna fret over using a spoonful of Stevia every day.
And whilst reading about Stevia in that link, I noticed they had a news item for Sucralose as well: Sucralose may not affect blood sugar or insulin resistance, study suggests - http://www.foodnavigator-usa.com/Science/Sucralose-may-not-affect-blood-sugar-or-insulin-resistance-study-suggests?nocount
Which is interesting and on topic

Evelyn aka CarbSane said...

Hey King, I didn't say it was "bad", just no better or worse than other natural sweeteners, and no more or less natural when combined with erythritol. If you Google Scholar stevioside, however, there are conflicting reports on its impact on glycemic control ... it has been used in herbal medicine for diabetics for reasons other than it's sweet properties (e.g. to replace glucose), but for hypoglycemic insulin-like properties. Not a bad thing, and studies are not consistent, but stevia is still on the hook in that regard in my book. I just don't like the taste of it.

Genia said...

There are different kinds of Stevia being marketed and sold. The best tasting kinds are pure and not mixed with other junk. The only one that really meets this criteria and is also affordable is KAL Pure Stevia Extract. It comes in powder form in 3.5 oz container with scoop inside. I buy it on Amazon. It's a powerful sweetener, as one tiny scoop will sweeten a cup of my cafe au lait as if I'd put in two teaspoons of sugar. Highly recommended.

Evelyn aka CarbSane said...

Welcome Genia! Thanks for the info. To be clear, I'm not knocking Stevia per se, just that it isn't necessarily a better alternative especially since it is being combined with erythritol with increasing frequency. I think stevia is one of those "taster" things. I think it was saccharin that a certain percent of folks tasted the bitter aftertaste. That's me with stevia, though I admit I haven't tried many different types.

King said...

I'll take no better or worse, 'cause that's how I feel about it. I understand and respect your reservations. I scholargoogled stevioside. There were some interesting results, particularly this one: http://informahealthcare.com/doi/abs/10.3109/09637486.2010.523416

For me, I simply I like the taste (specifically with regards to oatmeal - my gold standard breakfast is to take 150 grams of oatmeal in a bowl, fill it up with water and heat it in the microwave until it's warm and soggy. Add a teaspoon of stevia and mix it in - so good). That said, honey is even better, but I got a big box of stevia in my cupboard and very little honey. Can't throw away food that hasn't gone bad. ;)

Ole said...

Hi,
First time poster here :)
I'm basically a PHDer and I came across this post while doing research on how to improve my oral hygiene. I would just like to add that it seems like xylitol have good anti-microbial properties. Ref http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Xylitol This might make it a good supplement on a low-carb diet...

Nigel Kinbrum said...

Xylitol has quite a low laxation threshold. Have you tried Erythritol?

Evelyn aka CarbSane said...

Welcome Ole! In addition to anti-microbial benefits, xylitol apparently has a remineralizing impact on teeth. It's used in the Biotene line of products (that I don't use now, but used when I had oral surgeries).

Evelyn aka CarbSane said...

It's very strange really ... if I get lax with eating, which can happen when I'm really busy, then the bags of chips and pretzels the hubby brings in the house "call" to me. When I'm eating "clean" (which now includes starch carbs), you could have a half dozen of my favorite snack bags open on the cocktail table and I have no interest in it.

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