Robosugar 

I've got a friend who makes the same joke every time we go out to breakfast. When the coffee is poured, he offers a sugar packet, and a pink and a blue sweetener packet and asks, "Diabetes, cancer or memory loss?" I thought the dumb joke would finally end when I started using the new yellow Splenda packet, but now he's started to add "mystery disease" to his choices. I've read your column long enough to know you will tell me to eat with someone else, but aside from that, what's he talking about?

—Sue

Au contraire. I encourage you to spend more time with him; in fact, both lunch and dinner would be ideal. Anyone who can successfully run a good joke into the ground has my greatest respect. I can only aspire to do likewise in my weekly column, having taken every sideways opportunity to squeeze Star Jones into the unending variations of my alternative medicine opinions. A man like yours—he's definitely a keeper.

Now about the little yellow packet: Sucralose, the sweet component of the brand Splenda, was the first artificial sweetener to be approved by the FDA in the 10 years prior to 1998. It had a number of advantages over the then market leaders, aspartame and saccharin, in that sucralose has little aftertaste and is heat stable for cooking and baking. Like the others, Splenda contains essentially no calories or carbohydrates and can be useful for dieters, diabetics and those a little obsessive about dental plaque. In the years since approval—and due in part to the popularity of low carb diets—Splenda now leads the sweetener wars and is contained in more than 3,000 food and beverage products.

What little controversy there is, and there is very little, likely originated because the Splenda marketing tag line states, "made from sugar, so it tastes like sugar." Literally true, it is essentially misleading. Sucralose is made by removing three hydrogen-oxygen groups from sucrose (table sugar) and replacing them with three chlorine atoms. This new substance is no longer sugar, but is miraculously 600 times as sweet—thus raising the possibility of adding three chlorine atoms to Star Jones. An analogous example of a product vs. source question is explosive liquid hydrogen. It may be made from water, but you still wouldn't want to drink it. Uncertainty surrounding this new chlorine-containing molecule has unsettled at least one grocery chain, Whole Foods Market, who chooses not to sell any products containing sucralose.

But, in my opinion, this is a classic tempest in a teapot. The FDA reviewed more than 100 animal and human studies over the prior 20 years before approving sucralose. Although their motivations and methods are often questioned, their conclusions haven't been challenged by any significant new research or medical case studies since. Those shouting loudest about the dangers of Splenda most often cite a study that found a reduction in size of the thymus (the gland where immune system T-cells mature) in rats fed sucralose. Conveniently left unsaid is that the rats were fed the equivalent (by human body weight) of more than 8,000 packets each day for a month, and that they could actually eat the equivalent of 4,000 packets every day for two years with no observable adverse effects. That amount might sweeten just enough caffeinated skinny lattes for me to pay attention to Ms. Jones on The View.

It will come as no surprise that leading the charge against Splenda is The Sugar Association, a group representing sugar beet and sugar cane farmers. If they, or the other critics, could show evidence of a single symptom or condition associated with the sweetener—rather than a vague list of possibilities—I might be more convinced. Time may prove my opinion wrong, but I don't believe there is any factual support for avoiding Splenda. Curiously, there is a similar lack of evidence that the use of artificial sweeteners by dieters actually assists in weight loss at all.

My realistic advice is to use as many yellow packets as you wish, but not to depend on them as your complete diet plan. And though, like my readers, you must suffer through running jokes from which every last drop of humor has been wrung, it's better than eating alone. Without company, you risk your only breakfast companion to be Star Jones' new book Shine—something you'll likely judge to be at least two chlorine atoms short of a bestseller.

Dr. Ed Rabin is a chiropractor practicing at Life Chiropractic Center in Boise. Send your Star Jones fan mail and health-related questions to theantidote@edrabin.com (on the Web at www.edrabin.com).

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