It’s a sweet, sweet world.

By Stas Zlobinski

Since the beginning of time humans have demonstrated strong desire for sweets. We can see a proof of that in the remains of a cave painting 15 – 20 thousand years old picturing a Neolithic man breaking into a wild bees’ nest. More recent evidence, obtained in scientific studies on newborns and adults, suggests that the craving for sweet is an instinctive rather than a learned response. A theory put forth based on such research suggests that sweet taste may have been an indicator of safety of foods in pre-historic times.

Some form of raw sugar was used in India as early as 327 B.C. It was brought to the New World by the Spaniards at the turn of the 16th century and then quickly and happily spread throughout the rest of the globe. It was first refined 600 years ago after which the white (or table) sugar, as we know it, became the universal standard of sweetness. Many natural forms of sugar have come into existence since then. In addition to honey, which probably is the oldest sweetener on Earth we have maple and rice syrups, barley and rye malts, raw sugar, sucanat, date sugar, various forms of brown sugar, high fructose syrups or HFSs such as corn syrup and other less popular products. All of these are so called caloric sweeteners, containing 50 calories per tablespoon on average. They have undergone various degrees of processing, some of the more natural ones containing a few vitamins, minerals and other biochemical compounds that make them easier to metabolize.

However as time went on and indulgence in the sweetness increased, some of the negative aspects of sugar¹s popularity became apparent. It is widely accepted among medical professionals that high consumption of sugar overstimulates the pancreas and adrenal glands, which, extended over a long period of time, may become manifest as hypoglycemia, behavioral problems in kids, fatigue, fluctuating blood sugar levels and mood swings, diabetes and obesity. The last two, in turn, set the ground for developing atherosclerosis, heart disease and cancer – all major problems in our society today. Sugar also feeds harmful bacteria, which creates dental cavities and candida overgrowth in the bowel.

This far from happy situation set forth a new quest, a quest for an ideal sweetener that would be as sweet or sweeter than sugar, have no calories or aftertaste, be colourless, odourless, stable, readily soluble, non toxic and economically feasible, that would not promote dental cavities or other bacterial action, be metabolized normally or excreted without causing metabolic abnormalities. Not an easy task, but here are some breakthroughs from the world of artificial synthesis.

These are known as high intensity sweeteners, the most popular ones being aspartame, saccharine, acesulfame K, cyclamate and sucralose. They are 200-400 times sweeter than sugar and non-caloric (that is, they contain negligible calories). Some are nutritive like aspartame that breaks down into aspartic acid, phenylalanine and methanol, which degrades into formaldehyde ­ a well-known toxin. The FDA announced in 1984 that no evidence has been found to establish that the methanol byproduct reaches toxic levels, claiming that many fruit juices contain higher levels of the natural compound. But the Medical World News had already reported in 1978 that the methanol content of Aspartame is 1.000 times greater than most foods under FDA control.

Other artificial sweeteners are non-nutritive such as saccharine, which supposedly passes the intestinal tract unchanged. The FDA approved these sweeteners for use in a variety of food categories such as soft drinks, dry beverage and baking mixes, frozen dessert, chewing gum, breath mints, gelatins, puddings and fillings, as table-top sugar substitutes and in pharmaceuticals, vitamins, tooth pastes, mouth washes and aftershave lotions. These additives are proclaimed to be safe for people of all ages and conditions including diabetics, pregnant women and young children. Saccharine is an exception here as the FDA tried to ban it in 1977 because of some studies that showed tumor formations in rats, but the U.S. Congress did not allow the ban, and now the products containing saccharine are required to have warning labels.

Artificial sweeteners are commonly available in supermarkets, cafeterias, fast food places and are given to diabetics in hospitals. They get incredible support from organizations such as the American Diabetes Association, the American Dietetic Association, the Joint Expert Committee on Food Additives of the World Health Organization and the American Medical Association, which praise them as being safe and healthy additions to a low calorie diet. Yet there are over 90 documented symptoms of known aspartame toxicity including numbness in the legs, vertigo, shooting pains, headaches, joint pain, depression, anxiety attacks, blurred vision, memory loss, coma and death.

At a recent Conference of the American College of Physicians, Dr. H.J. Roberts, a diabetic specialist and world expert on aspartame poisoning said that his diabetic patients consuming this sweetener showed evidence of memory loss, confusion and severe vision loss. He has written a book entitled Defense against Alzheimer’s Disease in which he shows how aspartame poisoning is escalating Alzheimer’s disease. At the same conference, Dr. R. Blaylock, neurosurgeon and author of “Excitotoxins: Taste that kills”, said, The ingredients [in Aspartame] stimulate the neurons of the brain to death, causing brain damage of various degrees. Dr. Roberts noted that “consuming aspartame at the time of conception can cause birth defects”.

Phenylalanine concentrates in the placenta, causing mental retardation, according to Dr. Louis Elsas, Pediatrician Professor of Genetics, at Emory University in his testimony before Congress. In his original lab tests animals developed brain tumours because phenylalanine breaks down into DXP, a brain tumour agent. Evidence of aspartame’s effects on the brain led Richard Wurtman, an MIT neuroscientist, to the discovery, (as recorded in The New England Journal of Medicine (No.309, 1983)), that this sweetener defeats its purpose as a diet aid, since high doses may instill a craving for calorie-laden carbohydrates. The list of aspartame’s drawbacks could be continued endlessly, but it would probably be sufficient to note that in 1991, the National Institute of Health (a branch of the Department of Health and Human Services) published a bibliography “Adverse Effects of Aspartame” listing no less than 167 reasons to avoid it.

Irregardless, the FDA claims that there is insufficient proof of aspartame’s danger. Nonetheless there is undeniably overwhelming amount of suspicion, more than enough to make us wander whether or not we want our children or ourselves be part of the experiment.

Fortunately there is always a natural alternative, in this case Stevia, commonly known as the sweet leaf of Paraguay. The leaves of this plant, which are 30 times sweeter than sugar, have been used for centuries by Paraguayans to make sweet teas or to sweeten foods with no evidence of adverse reactions. In the late 1960s Japanese scientists developed a technology for extracting a sweetener out of Stevia leaf that is 200 ­ 400 times sweeter than sugar, called Stevioside. It is currently the largest selling sweetener in Japan after sugar and a very popular non-caloric alternative in South America, Israel and the Orient.

In the United States the FDA, out of loyalty to Monsanto (the largest manufacturer of Aspartame) forbids its use as a sweetening agent, but allows it to be used as a dietary supplement. Stevia leaves have antifungal properties, are a plaque retardant and beneficial in fat absorption, blood pressure regulation and prevention of cavities. Homeopathically, Stevia has been reported to be effective in the treatment of many diseases such as diabetes, various skin conditions, hypertension, obesity and infections to name a few. From the many scientific studies performed on Stevia¹s properties it is perfectly obvious that in addition to being calorie-free, Stevia has no known toxicity and therefore is an excellent product for people who can not tolerate sugar, such as diabetics and hypoglycemics.

The choice is yours.

Published in ALIVE Magazine, March 2000

References: Elson M. Haas “Staying healthy with nutrition”, Jean Anderson and Barbara Deskins “Nutrition Bible”, David Richard “Stevia the sweetest of herbs”, James A. May Stevia: “Sweetener of choice for Future Generations”