Saturday, April 28, 2012

Sweeteners, Religion and Zits, oh my!

Let’s face it:  The topic of artificial sweeteners is one that many low carbers are religious about.  By that I mean that people have firmly-held beliefs which may or may not be founded in publicly recognized science, they cherry pick the “evidence” which supports their beliefs and ignore any which doesn’t, there is absolutely no changing their minds, they become hostile if you dare to question or disagree, and they will do their utmost to sway others to their particular beliefs – and often see no need to be polite or respectful to those who don’t want to convert.

Now, let me start off by announcing which church I belong to.  I eat artificial sweeteners.  I sometimes eat sugar alcohols, though not frequently.  I eat Splenda whenever I please.  I rarely eat stevia, but that’s only because I have a hard time finding any that tastes good to me.  I’ve even tried some of the less common sweeteners, like lo han.  I don’t eat saccharine or aspartame, again, because I don’t like the flavor.

I’ve read a lot of posts by people warning against a particular sweetener (mostly Splenda) or against artificial sweeteners in general.  The anti-[Sweetener X] sermon usually goes as follows:  “Sweetener X is artificially created/is treated with Y/contains Z molecules/can be converted to XYZ, and therefore will cause cancer/kidney damage/migraines/demonic possession.  This “doctor” who works for a rival company and has no real credentials says.  Also, there’s all these unverified stories of people who ate Sweetener X, along with God knows what other eating/smoking/drinking/shooting up habits and God knows what preexisting conditions, and they had these horrific problems, so Sweetener X is obviously at fault and unbelievably dangerous.  Don’t quote FDA testing at me because everybody knows it’s worthless, even though I merrily consume other FDA-tested substances 24/7/365.”

The anti-artificial-sweeteners-in-general sermon usually runs something like:  “Not only is sugar addictive, but the taste of sweetness is addictive, so if you eat artificial sweeteners, you’re eventually going to go back to eating sugar.  Also, not only does sugar do all kinds of horrible things to your body, but the taste of sweetness does horrible things to your body too.”  The latter statement, by the way, kind of reminds me of the Catholic idea that you can commit a sin without actually physically doing anything – just wanting it is enough.  Which makes me wonder if I also do horrible things to my body if I dream about eating a Toblerone bar, and if so, what am I supposed to do about it?

It’s said that the devil can quote scripture for his own purposes, and let’s face it, anybody can find a “scientific study” to support anything.  You can use statistics to prove that fire engines cause fires and milk causes juvenile delinquency (yes, I’ve seen those specifically).  The question obviously becomes, whose evidence do you trust?

I’m going to tell a story, and trust me, it’s relevant.  Growing up in rural southern Indiana, a common and traditional Hoosier beverage was sassafras tea.  My grandma and I had it often.  We dug up the sassafras, cleaned and dried the roots, cut them into shavings and brewed up the delicious rootbeer-flavored tea (sassafras root was in fact used in traditional rootbeer) and drank it by the gallon.  How much more natural can you get than shavings of a tree root?  Decades later, the FDA decided that safrole, the rootbeer-flavored chemical in sassafras root, was a weak carcinogen in rats and therefore dangerous to humans, and outlawed the sale of sassafras as a food product.  Never mind that tobacco and alcohol, well-established as massively harmful and addictive as well, are freely sold, or that rats have very different metabolisms than humans and were given, proportionately, a totally surreal amount of pure safrole – enough that we’d probably have to drink down a whole forest’s worth of sassafras in a week to get the equivalent.  Still, gotta protect the public from those evil tree roots!

My point here is that anytime I look at a “scientific study,” I ask, “What’s their agenda?  Who are they working for/against?  Have they started this study with an end result in mind?”  Unfortunately, so many of these studies start out with a decided bias and, not surprisingly, show exactly what the designers want to show because it’s so easy to manipulate results.  Short of seeing raw data and every single parameter of the study, probably none of them are reliable as read.

In the end, the only data I trust are my own.  So here’s how my dogma goes:  It’s entirely possible that some or all of these artificial sweeteners aren’t necessarily good for me.  However, I know from personal experience how much sugar/high fructose corn syrup hurt me:  I got fat, I felt awful, I had horrible blood sugar swings and no energy.  So I know that I don’t want to eat sugar/HFCS.  In fact, I’m a little paranoid about it, simply because the food manufacturers work so darned hard to bully and/or trick me into eating the stuff, and that kind of thing inevitably gets my stubborn up.  That’s Fact 1.

I also know that I like sweetener in my tea.  Sometimes I like a sweet dessert.  I probably don’t require these things to sustain life, but I want them, and nothing makes me want something more than being told I can’t have it.  Every time I’ve tried to get by on willpower and self-denial, I’ve always, always given up and gone back to my old ways of eating.  That’s Fact 2.

So, given Fact 1 and Fact 2, my choices are (1) Eat sugar/HFCS, which I know hurts me; (2) Use nothing and try to get by on my nonexistent willpower, which I know doesn’t work for me; or (3) Use artificial sweetener, which at best confers no nutritional benefit, and at worst may or may not be doing some unspecified harm, but it keeps me content and able to resist sugary goodies.  Obviously, I choose (3) as the lesser of evils.

But my religion isn’t evangelical.  I feel no need to convert others to my way of thinking and I absolutely, 100% respect any person’s choice to believe otherwise.  What’s right for me isn’t what’s right for everyone and I’m not arrogant enough to believe otherwise.  Only you know your strengths, weaknesses and needs, and only I know mine.  Live and let live.  No need for holy wars.

Because religion is like a big, painful pimple.  Everybody gets some sooner or later, but it’s sensitive – leave mine the heck alone, and nobody really wants to hear about yours.


  1. Love it! And you're right, many low carb 'preachers' have turned alternative sweeteners into what sounds like a religious debate.

    I really hate that most of the ones who post recipes will put their sweetener 'gospel' of the month in the recipe without telling the equivalent amount (as in 1 tsp of XX = 1/4 cup of sugar) so I always use guess work if I want to use my preferred which is liquid sucralose or regular splenda, erythritol for some things & occasionally Xylitol. I've also never liked stevia. Now there's a new sweetener 'saint' made from chicory which is so expensive I can't even afford to try it. But the preachers will keep sermonizing about whatever new wonder sweetener comes along.

    Okay getting off my 'pulpit' now :) Love folks like you who tell it like it is!

  2. I cannot STAND the taste of erythritol. Bleugh!!! I found one -- count them, one -- variety of Stevia I liked (NuNaturals' SoooLite Pure Extract), which naturally the company stopped making, and I've never found a replacement that didn't make me gag. I've tried the chicory sweetener (inulin), and I'm not feeling the love. It also gives me gas much worse than sugar alcohols ever did. But I'm open-minded, I'll try anything once. Which I suppose makes me a Unitarian Universalist of sweeteners.