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Newest Sweetener Stirs Up Old Debate

Sugar-like sucralose is popular, but experts say that it's no answer to obesity and diabetes.

July 09, 2001|PATRICIA KING | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Sandy Resnick and her family used to revel in sugary desserts such as huge, hot, chocolate chip cookies with melting vanilla ice cream, chocolate sauce and whipped cream.

But that was before Resnick's 12-year-old daughter, Leah, was diagnosed with Type 1 diabetes. Resnick started realizing how often the family would turn to sugar as a "very, very available quick fix for hunger." Leah also realized that when she ate desserts her blood sugar would spike and she would get stomachaches and headaches until the insulin she injected kicked in.

The Resnicks, who live in La Canada, turned unhappily to artificial sweeteners, one of which ruined a batch of homemade spaghetti sauce with a metallic taste. Then Resnick heard about sucralose, the newest low-calorie fake sugar on the market, which she was thrilled to discover "really tastes like sugar." Resnick now makes cookies, pastries and even spaghetti sauce with sucralose, "everything I used to make with sugar."

Out of solidarity with Leah, Resnick sticks to sucralose-sweetened desserts as well. She's lost 12 pounds and has been inspired to start exercising to lose 20 more. As for Leah, her blood sugar stays lower so she's using less insulin. And to her mother's delight, Leah is also eating "healthier portions" of vegetables, meat, potatoes and rice, foods she didn't have as much room for when she ate sugar-sweetened desserts.

The sucralose-loving Resnicks are not alone. Since sucralose, marketed under the name Splenda, started appearing on supermarket shelves 10 months ago, it has spurred a 10% increase in sales of low-calorie sweeteners, according to market research firm Information Resources Inc.

But many health officials are decidedly less enthusiastic than consumers. They caution that the arrival of one more artificial sweetener--no matter how sugar-like its taste--is unlikely to steer Americans away from the overindulgence that is fueling this country's duel epidemics of obesity and Type 2 diabetes. After all, in the last decade Americans have gotten fatter and the incidence of diabetes has risen while downing record quantities of refined sugars and artificial sweeteners.

"There is no evidence that artificial sweeteners have had any impact at all either on sugar or calorie consumption," says Marion Nestle, chairwoman of New York University's department of nutrition and food studies.

Some disciplined dieters may not fall into the trap of regularly washing down a huge slab of pecan pie with a diet Coke. But for the population as a whole, says Nestle, artificial sweeteners could make things worse by feeding Americans' gargantuan sweet tooth. For those trying to cut back on carbohydrates and calories, hyper-activating one's sweet tooth with artificial sweeteners can backfire. Says Nestle: "They keep people's taste for sweets up because these artificial sweeteners are so much sweeter. It's very unlikely that this techno-fix approach is going to work."

Americans, though, are always looking for a diet fix of some sort. These days, even the Sugar Assn. concedes that the public is particularly receptive to sugar-phobic diets such as Dr. Atkins' New Diet Revolution and "Sugar Busters!"

Charles Baker, vice president of scientific affairs for the Sugar Assn., says the "simplistic message" to avoid fat has been supplanted by the equally simplistic message to avoid sugar: "We're in the bull's-eye. It's like we're wearing a big orange circle on our back." Most health officials concerned about the growing epidemic of "diabesity" think it is excess calorie consumption and lack of exercise that should be in that big orange circle, not sugar.

Does Sugar Have a Bad Rap?

Sucralose is marketed as the only artificial sweetener made from sugar, but it is definitely a lab creation. It was discovered in 1976 by scientists tinkering with the sugar molecule. Substituting three atoms of chlorine for three oxygen-hydrogen groups results in what appears to be a dieter's dream--a calorie-free chemical 600 times sweeter than white sugar. Hard-core dieters prefer their sucralose remain calorie-and carbohydrate-free in the form of liquid, imported Splenda. But most use the boxes and packets sold in supermarkets with fillers that give it sugar-like bulk and add only two calories per teaspoon, one-eighth the calories of sugar.

Sucralose first became available in Canada in 1991. Seven years later it started showing up in the U.S. in products such as Diet RC Cola after the Food and Drug Administration sanctioned limited use. In 1999, the FDA gave sucralose its broadest approval as a "general purpose sweetener" that can be added to any food. Before approving sucralose, the FDA analyzed more than 100 studies on humans and animals. It concluded that sucralose is safe for all populations, including diabetics, because it does not raise blood sugar.

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