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With faux sugars, real suspicion

Americans love sweeteners but can't shake their distrust of the stuff. The science can confuse.

November 19, 2007|Emily Sohn | Special to The Times

What is it about artificial sweeteners?

As never before, they pervade the American diet -- in pink, yellow and blue packets on diner counters, in sugar-free cookies and diet juices, in sodas and smoothies and low-calorie yogurt and boxes of powder for baking.

And, as ever, many Americans view them with suspicion.

Every few years, a study links one to cancer. People get scared. Follow-up research finds nothing to worry about. Decades may pass, but sooner or later another scary study comes along. And still, we keep eating these faux sugars.

Today, nearly 200 million Americans consume sugar-free or low-calorie products, according to the Calorie Control Council, a group that represents the diet food industry. About half of those people consume an average of four of these products every day.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Tuesday, November 20, 2007 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 44 words Type of Material: Correction
Artificial sweeteners: Monday's Health section article on artificial sweeteners said the nation's annual soft-drink sales were $200 million and attributed the figure to John Sicher, editor and publisher of the trade journal Beverage Digest. In fact, Sicher provided the correct figure of $70 billion.
For The Record
Los Angeles Times Monday, November 26, 2007 Home Edition Health Part F Page 10 Features Desk 1 inches; 44 words Type of Material: Correction
Artificial sweeteners: A Nov. 19 story on artificial sweeteners said that the nation's annual soft drink sales were $200 million and attributed the figure to John Sicher, editor and publisher of the trade journal Beverage Digest. Sicher provided the correct figure of $70 billion.

Diet sodas make up 29% of the nation's $200-million annual soft drink sales, and the percentage is rising, says John Sicher, editor and publisher of the trade journal Beverage Digest.

That we're consuming artificial sweeteners is clear. Whether we'll ever do so with total ease is not. Suspicions about the safety of man-made sweeteners started soon after saccharin was invented more than a century ago. Studies, later disputed, led to warning labels on one sweetening product, the banning of another, intermittent mistrust of others.

The most recent volley in the sweetener wars came from researchers in Italy who say aspartame causes cancer in rats. Similar fears have been levied about newer sweeteners, including sucralose, commonly known as Splenda.

Supporters and critics of the substances each criticize the methods and motives of the other side. Many food chemists say it is impossible for people to eat or drink enough of any man-made sweetener to cause health problems.

Sweetener skeptics, on the other hand, say that safety studies are often funded with industry dollars and there aren't enough data to be sure about the safety of most artificial sweeteners.

Behind the seemingly endless cycles of debate, there may be something cultural at work in the way we think about what we eat, says USC sociologist Barry Glassner, author of "The Gospel of Food," which urges people to abandon food fads in favor of calmer attitudes toward eating.

A few generations ago, Glassner says, people looked to science and technology as salvation -- it was the time of Kool-Aid, Tupperware and pasteurized processed cheese.

Today, he says, there's an increasing emphasis on "natural," a view that demonizes anything in our food that comes out of labs. Instead of electric colors and chemical flavors, increasingly our culture worships whole grains, organic greens and local produce.

"There is tremendous nostalgia, right now, for an imagined past in which everything we ate was pure and came straight out of some magically clean Earth," Glassner says. "That never existed -- except in our imagination."

In line with this cultural shift, some people are turning to a new crop of sweeteners based on "natural" ingredients, such as stevia, a calorie-free herb from South and Central America. Already popular in Asia, stevia is now available in the U.S. in natural food stores (U.S. food companies can't yet include it in their products), and sales of it rose 19% in the last year, according to SPINS, a natural-products market research firm.

Cargill Inc. is working with Coca-Cola Co. to test the safety of what they say is an aftertaste-free stevia-derived sweetener, rebiana, which they hope to introduce to American taste buds.

The Food and Drug Administration has approved five artificial sweeteners for use in the United States: saccharin (found in Sweet'N Low and Tab), aspartame (in NutraSweet, Equal, Diet Coke and Diet Pepsi), sucralose (Splenda, and in Diet Hanson's sodas), neotame (in newer formulations of Tang and some sparkling waters) and acesulfame potassium (Sweet One, Sunnett and, with Splenda, in Diet Snapple and Diet Rite). Others are under review.

Another sweetener, cyclamate, which used to be in the U.S. versions of Tab and Fresca, has been banned in the United States for decades, after studies -- later disputed -- conducted in the 1960s and 1970s showed a cancer link in rodents.(Cyclamate is legal in Canada and in dozens of other countries and is found in Canadian Sweet'N Low instead of saccharin. That's because saccharin -- legal in the U.S. -- is banned in Canada.)

Each sweetening product uses a different type of molecule (or blend of them) to trick the tongue into thinking it's tasting something sweet. Thanks to the substances' chemistry, it takes only a tiny amount of each to trigger the same taste receptors that recognize sugar molecules. That makes them hundreds and in some cases tens of thousands of times sweeter than the real stuff. (A can of Coke, for example, contains about 10 teaspoons of sugar, while a can of diet Coke contains less than a tenth of a teaspoon of aspartame.)

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