“Sugar is the enemy!” is the mantra of many in the weight loss industry. Partly as a result of this, the use of artificial sweeteners has skyrocketed in the past several decades. Aspartame was approved for use in foods by the US FDA in 1974. (NutraSweet is probably the most common brand of aspartame, AminoSweet is another.) Since then it has been widely used in many foods and drinks to reduce their calorie content while maintaining a sweet taste. This should in theory reduce the calories consumed. But despite the wide use of zero calorie artificial sweeteners, the epidemics of diabetes, metabolic syndrome, and obesity have worsened severely. Could it be that artificial sweeteners have unintended consequences that may lead to unhealthy weight and metabolic problems?
Many of the most avid consumers of diet soft drinks and foods are severely overweight. This caused researchers to wonder how can that be if they cut their calorie intake by replacing sucrose (the table sugar mix of 50% glucose and 50% fructose) with zero-calorie artificial sweeteners? Several studies show it does reduce calorie intake if the volume of food consumed stays the same. But others suggest that people consuming artificial sweeteners may eat more calories via increased overall volume of food intake.
Aspartame May Raise Blood Glucose Levels
Surprisingly, it appears that artificial sweeteners such as aspartame may actually raise blood glucose levels much like regular dietary sugars (sucrose and fructose) do even though they do have fewer calories. There are some indications that they also increase appetite. They may do so by mechanisms similar to how consuming sugar raises blood glucose and often produces an insulin surge that later results in increased appetite as high insulin lowers blood glucose excessively and triggers hunger to push a person to eat more to once again raise the blood glucose levels.
Because of their impact on glucose and insulin, artificial sweeteners could lead to health problems such as metabolic syndrome, diabetes, and abnormal blood lipids much like regular sugars. But the risks from one of the most common artificial sweetners, aspartame, may be worse than that.
In 2010, French doctors published the paper Aspartame-induced fibromyalgia, an unusual but curable cause of chronic pain describing how aspartame has been linked to some case of the chronic pain condition fibromyalgia. They noted how a woman afflicted for more than a decade with fibromyalgia found that when she went on a vacation and her diet changed to no longer include aspartame, her pain subsided. Similar reduced pain levels were noted in a man suffering from fibromyalgia when aspartame was removed from his diet. They are suggesting that people with fibromyalgia or similar chronic pain conditions should try removing aspartame from their diets to see if their conditions improve.
In 2011, Korean researchers published the paper Modified apolipoprotein (apo) A-I by artificial sweetener causes severe premature cellular senescence and atherosclerosis with impairment of functional and structural properties of apoA-I in lipid-free and lipid-bound state that describes how artificial sweeteners may promote atherosclerosis and elevated cardiovascular disease risk by damaging beneficial HDL cholesterol and cause senescence (aging to the point where cellular replication no longer works) of human skin cells. Aspartame, acelsufame K, and saccharin were the three artificial sweetners found to cause such adverse effects in this study.
A 2009 estimate is that 15% of the US population consumes artificial sweeteners. Therefore problems with artificial sweeteners could affect many tens of millions of people in the US alone.
Stevia May Lower Blood Glucose Levels
Fortunately, there’s a natural alternative sweetener available that has a track record of more than four decades of use in Japan. It’s called stevia. It’s produced and sold by many vendors under different brand names with somewhat different production techniques and formulas. What all these forms of stevia share is that they are extracted from the leaves of the Stevia rebaudiana plant from South America and processed into a extremely sweet zero calorie sweetener that looks much like table sugar (sucrose).
Reseachers wanted to know just how stevia stacked up against aspartame and regular table sugar in terms of effect on calories consumed, appetite, and blood glucose and insulin measurements for people consuming each type of sweetener. They designed a study to “preload” people with a breakfast containing sucrose, aspartame, or stevia as the sweetener and then let them choose their lunch. The study participants did not know which sweetener was used for each person. The researchers found that both stevia and aspartame reduced overall calorie consumption and blood glucose, but that stevia was significantly better at reducing after-meal (postprandial) insulin levels than aspartame. It appears that stevia does something more than just reducing the number of calories consumed that somehow causes insulin levels to be lower. This suggests that it may be improving insulin sensitivity. As the study authors wrote:
Consumption of stevia in preloads significantly lowered postprandial insulin levels compared to both aspartame and sucrose, as well as postprandial glucose levels compared to sucrose. Consumption of aspartame in preloads also reduced postprandial glucose compared to sucrose at twenty minutes following consumption of the preload. These effects on postprandial glucose levels are likely due in large part to the lower caloric and carbohydrate intake in the aspartame and stevia preloads compared to the sucrose preloads. However, these effects do not appear to be solely due to the lower calorie preloads in the stevia condition, as participants consumed identical calorie amounts in the preloads used in both the stevia and aspartame conditions. If future studies confirm these findings, then stevia may be helpful in managing postprandial hyperglycemia, which recent studies indicate is an important contributor to the development of insulin resistance and Type 2 diabetes (Viswanathan, Clementina, Nair, & Satyavani, 2007).
Using Stevia In Beverages
Artificial sweeteners are used perhaps more heavily in diet beverages than in any other category of food. Stevia can work fine as a sweetener in beverages, too. In fact this is probably the easiest application for the sweetener.
The best health advice may be that if you can choose to drink anything, filtered water (which has zero calories and fewer impurities than tap water) and green tea are highly recommended over pretty much any of other kind of drink.
But if you want a sweetener to improve the taste of beverages, consider trying out stevia rather than sugar or artificial sweeteners such as aspartame. It works in coffee, tea, juices, and pretty much any other beverage with little effort. Just be sure to read the label on the stevia product you pick very carefully as if you put in a teaspoon of a stevia extract into your tea you may find it so sweet as to be intolerable. High purity stevia extracts are often labeled with instructions to use 1/16 or less of a teaspoon as it is 200 to 300 times sweeter than the equivalent amount of common sugars. Some extracts are mixed with other ingredients to make the measuring less prone to error.
Baking And Cooking With Stevia
Stevia also works for baked goods and other foods prepared at temperatures up to about 392 degrees Fahrenheit. At temperatures above this, it becomes unstable. It’s not a one-for-one substitute for sugar, however. One teaspoon of a high purity stevia extract has the equivalent sweetness to about one cup of regular sugar. Once again, different stevia extracts have varying additional ingredients, so be sure to carefully read the package for substitution directions.
The reduction in weight and volume in the recipe from the use of stevia can affect the taste. That’s particularly the case in foods that typically use a lot of sugar.
Keep in mind that stevia does not caramelize like sugar does. Therefore it may affect the browning and crispiness of foods in which sugar provides this effect. Cookies and cakes are prime examples of this. Considering that the chemical reactions involved in browning also created health-damaging glycated proteins and fats, it’s possible that stevia may be much healthier for that reason alone. But in baked goods it may have some evident effect on the taste unless you make other changes to the recipes.
Once you’ve tried stevia in beverages where it is very easily used and find that it is acceptable to you, you would be well-advised to get a good cookbook of stevia recipies before you go all-out with this sweetener. One of the most highly rated such cookbooks is Stevia: Naturally Sweet Recipes for Desserts, Drinks and More. Beyond simply showing how to use stevia, the book author Rita Depuydt also makes other health improvements to recipes such as replacing fats like butters with healthier alternatives such as applesauce.
If you’re not yet ready to spring for a stevia cookbook, you might try substituting one quarter or one half of the table sugar in baking recipies with stevia and baking a test recipe to see what the result is. This way, you’d probably still get a significant reduction in calories but would maintain more of the tasty (but unhealthy) browning reactions associated with regular sugars.
Selecting A Brand of Stevia
Stevia used to be hard to find in stores, but in recent years I’ve even seen in in many regular grocery stores and even in bulk at Costco. Be aware there is more variation in stevia products than in table sugar. One brand may taste obviously different than another.
Many people claim that KAL brand of Pure Stevia Extract Powder is one of the best tasting stevia powders. The price may seem high given the size of the container. But that small container of a high purity stevia extract with zero fillers may be equivalent to multiple pounds of regular table sugar. As such, you may need to use 1/32 teaspoon measuring spoons to get good control over the results.
Another option that may be easier to use for many is stevia diluted down with another low-calorie or zero-calorie ingredient with some sweetness. Inulin (a soluble fiber), sugar alcohols, and luo han guo are some such ingredients. The resulting mix is usually much easier to measure with the typical 1/8 teaspoon and higher measuring spoons that most people have. Two such options with good taste ratings are Stevia Spoonable that combines stevia with the sugar alcohol erythritol and KAL Pure Stevia Plus Luo Han, 1 g powder that combines stevia with the Asian natural sweetener luo han guo.
If you get excited about stevia enough to want to try to grow the plant yourself and use it to prepare your own sweetener, the booklet Growing and Using Stevia: The Sweet Leaf from Garden to Table with 35 Recipes is reputed to give some excellent tips.
Modified apolipoprotein (apo) A-I by artificial sweetener causes severe premature cellular senescence and atherosclerosis with impairment of functional and structural properties of apoA-I in lipid-free and lipid-bound state
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