Natural Alternatives to Artificial Sweetners

Cupcake Sprinkles and Frosting --- Image by © Royalty-Free/CorbisI have wanted to write about the negative effects of artificial sweeteners for some time now. With so many people concerned about weight, they have turned to no-calorie sweeteners like aspartame (the technical name for Nutri Sweet), Equal, Spoonful, and Equal Measure. This article will deal mainly with aspartame and the current research that has been surfacing since its inception in the mid seventies. We will also discuss reasonable alternatives to artificial sweeteners that have been used for centuries without side effects.

Aspartame was discovered by accident in 1965 when a chemist for G. D. Searle, a pharmaceutical company, was testing an anti-ulcer drug. It was approved for dry good use in 1981 after having been denied approval in 1974 due to objections by neuroscientist Dr. John W. Olney who voiced concerns to the FDA.

Let’s look at what might have initiated these concerns. Aspartame accounts for over 75% of the adverse reactions to food additives reported to the FDA (Food and Drug Administration). Many of these reactions are serious and have caused seizures and death according to a report in 1994 by the Department of Health and Human Services. The report noted that the following symptoms were related to aspartame consumption: Headaches/migraines, dizziness, seizures, nausea, numbness, muscle spasms, weight gain, rashes, depression, fatigue, irritability, rapid heart beat, insomnia, vision problems, hearing loss, heart palpitations, breathing difficulties, anxiety attacks, slurred speech, loss of taste, tinnitus, vertigo, memory loss, and joint pain.

According to researchers and physicians studying the adverse effects of aspartame, the following illnesses can be triggered or worsened by ingesting this substance: Brain tumors, multiple sclerosis, epilepsy, chronic fatigue syndrome, Parkinson’s disease, Alzheimer’s, lymphoma, birth defects, Fibromyalgia, thyroid dysfunction and diabetes.

Have you ever read the fine print that appears on foods that contain aspartame? It specifically states not to be used by pregnant mothers, young children and the elderly. Also it states not to be used by people suffering from PKU, a disorder where the amino acid phenylalanine is not metabolized. Did you ever wonder why?

Let’s look at the chemical makeup of this substance. Aspartame is made of three chemicals: Aspartic acid (40%), phenylalanine (50%), and methanol (10%). Aspartic acid and phenylalanine are natural occurring proteins; however, they can have negative effects on the body. Aspartic acid acts as a neurotransmitter in the brain by aiding the transmission of information from nerve cell to nerve cell. Excessive amounts can over-excite the nerves and cause damage and ultimately death to these cells. This is especially of concern in elderly, infants, pregnant mothers and those suffering neurological disorders, according to the Federation of American Societies For Experimental Biology.

Phenylalanine is normally found in the brain and works with the amino acid tyrosine for neurotransmitter production. It has been shown that ingesting aspartame along with carbohydrates can lead to an excess of this amino acid. This excess has been the cause of decreased levels of the neurotransmitter serotonin, which regulates mood, sleep, appetite, cardiovascular and immune functions. Decreased levels have been responsible for depression, autism, eating disorders, sleep disturbances and chronic pain. Think about how many people are on Prozac for depression. Do you think there might be a link?

Methanol (better known as wood alcohol) is a deadly poison. It is a neuro-toxin that breaks down into formic acid and formaldehyde in the body. The recommended limit of consumption is 7.8 mg daily. A one-litre aspartame sweetened beverage contains 56 mg of methanol. Heavy pop drinkers can get as much as 250 mg per day; 32 times the limit set by the EPA (Environmental Protection Agency). Methanol poisoning exhibits the following symptoms: Headaches, dizziness, nausea, chills, weakness, memory lapse, numbness, shooting pains, and behavioral disturbances to mention a few. The results of aspartame consumption can have immediate effects; and in some, these effects take place over a longer period of time.

The most recent addition to the list of artificial sweeteners is sucralose, sold under the trade name Splenda. Splenda has taken the market by storm with promises of tasting like sugar because it is made from sugar. What they haven’t told you is that Splenda is not natural and is closer in chemical composition to DDT, a deadly pesticide, than to sugar. Sucralose is a synthetic chemical which in a five step process adds chlorine molecules to sucrose. But, if the FDA approved it, it’s ok, right? Well, the FDA approved aspartame, too. As of 2005, only six human trials had been conducted on Splenda – with a grand total of 36 human subjects. And, in one year, Splenda sales topped 117 million dollars. If you are eating Splenda, you are acting as a guinea pig since NO ONE knows what the long-term effects of Splenda will be.

Let’s look at some reasonable alternatives to artificial sweeteners. Why do people want something without calories? Most people are trying to lose weight and think that restricting calories is the way to go. Let’s take a closer look at how the body handles these sweets. When you eat something sweet the sweet taste is registered by the receptors on the tongue and a message is sent to the brain to prepare the body for carbohydrate metabolism. With an artificial sweet, the taste is there and the body gets ready for food-containing carbohydrates. The digestive functions get ready as do the pancreas, the liver, etc. When the food doesn’t come, the body has to readjust itself. In this process metabolic functions are decreased and the appetite is activated. Does this sound like a way to lose weight? So what are the alternatives?

The most versatile of the natural sweeteners is xylitol, a sugar alcohol discovered in 1891. Xylitol has been well researched and is backed by 1500 published studies over 25 years. With a crystalline consistency that looks and tastes like sugar, xylitol is appropriate to use in place of sugar in similar quantities. Xylitol, which is absorbed very slowly by the body, is safe for everyone, including children and diabetics. It also has some amazing health benefits including reduction of tooth decay, improved bone density, and prevention of ear and upper respiratory infections.

An herb that has been in use for centuries all over the world is a plant called Stevia or Sweet Leaf. It is indigenous to South America and has been in use since the sixteenth century. It is a member of the aster family and there are over 200 varieties of the plant. The one used as a sweetener with the highest sweetness is Stevia Rebaudiana, and it is considered to be between 50 to 400 times sweeter than cane sugar. One nice thing about Stevia is that it has no calories and no toxicity. It is available in individual packet, liquid form and the whole leaf. I like using Stevia as it only takes a few drops to sweeten a glass of tea. It can be used in baking, but one will need to experiment with the quantity. It is safe for diabetics and those with other sugar disorders. There are cookbooks available to aid those who want to get away from artificial sweeteners.

I urge you to do more research into the aspartame issue. There are some good books on the topic. Excitotoxins: The Taste That Kills by Blaylock, Russell: Aspartame, Is It Safe? by H.J. Roberts: The Bitter Truth About Artificial Sweeteners by The Aspartame Consumer Safety Network.
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