Sugar Replacers and Substitutes
• Sugar alcohols (sorbitol, mannitol, xylitol) provide the bulk of sugar, without as many calories. Unlike sugar, they don’t cause tooth decay, and they don’t cause sudden increases in blood glucose (sugar) levels. Large amounts may cause diarrhea, but otherwise they are considered safe. Sugar replacers are only about half as sweet as sugar, so many foods with sugar alcohols may also contain one of the following intense sweeteners:
• Saccharin (Sweet ’n Low, Sugar Twin) is 350 times sweeter than sugar. Animal studies have shown that
very high doses can cause cancer of the bladder and other organs. In fact, the FDA proposed to ban saccharin in 1977, but the proposal was removed due to loud public outcry. Foods with saccharin must carry
• Aspartame (NutraSweet, Equal) is 180 times sweeter than sugar and is composed of two amino acids, phenylalanine and aspartic acid. As of yet, there is no good evidence that it causes cancer. Although some people report headaches and dizziness after its consumption, research hasn’t confirmed a link. People with phenylketonuria (PKU) should avoid it because they can’t break down the amino acid phenylalanine.
• Acesulfame Potassium (Sunnett, Sweet One) is 200 times sweeter than sugar and was approved by the FDA in 1988. The only safety tests done were in the 1970s, and they were done poorly and indicated some cancer risk in animals at very high doses. No advers health effects have been documented in humans.
• Sucralose (Splenda) is the only noncaloric sweetener made from sugar. It is 600 times sweeter than sugar and was approved in 1998. Unlike many other sugar substitutes, it can be used in cooked and cold foods, and it appears to be completely safe.
Olestra is synthetic fat that cannot be broken down by the body, so it passes through the digestive tract
unabsorbed. It was approved by the FDA in 1996 for use only in “savory snacks” (chips and crackers). While it appears safe, it can cause unpleasant side effects such as diarrhea, loose stools, stomach cramps, and gas. It also reduces the body’s absorption of fat-soluble vitamins and carotenoids (such as betacarotene and lycopene) which are found in fruits and vegetables. Those carotenoids may reduce the risk of cancer and heart disease.
Sulfites prevent growth of mold and bacteria and prevent discoloration in foods such as dried fruit, processed potatoes, shrimp, and wine. The FDA now prohibits sulfite use on foods meant to be eaten raw (except grapes), and it requires that all foods containing sulfites list it on the label. Some people have adverse reactions related to sulfites such as hives, shortness of breath, and in some extreme cases, even death. People with asthma most commonly experience these adverse reactions.
Nitrates are used as a preservative in foods such as bacon, ham, hot dogs, and luncheon meat. They help prevent the growth of bacteria that cause botulism and also stabilize the red color in cured meats. When nitrates combine with amines present in the stomach and meat, nitrosamine can form. Nitrosamine has been found to cause cancer in animals. The formation of nitrosamine is inhibited by ascorbic acid (vitamin C), so many companies add ascorbic acid to their products. While nitrates introduce only a small cancer risk, they’re still probably worth avoiding.
BHA and BHT
BHA and BHT are preservatives used to retard rancidity in vegetable oils, potato chips, candy, cereals, and many convenience foods. Though generally recognized as safe by the FDA, much debate exists regarding these two additives. Some studies have shown these additives to cause cancer in rats, while other studies contradict these findings. The FDA is still reviewing BHT and BHA.
Artificial colors are used almost exclusively in food products with little nutritional value (candy, soda, gelatin, desserts, etc.), so you won’t be missing much if you avoid foods that contain them. The presence of colorings often signals the absence of fruit or other natural ingredients. Artificial colors contribute to hyperactivity in some children and are suspected as possible cancer-causing substances. The FDA recommended that Red Dye #3 (found in maraschino cherries, some candies, and baked goods) be banned, but the recommendation was overruled due to pressure from the presidential administration in the 1980s.
Pesticides are used to protect crops and foods after harvest from insects and other pests. These chemicals
are monitored and controlled by the FDA and other national and international organizations. One major concern with pesticides is the potential harm to health arising from ingestion of residues in our foods. The popularity of organically-grown produce has increased because of this concern. To reduce your pesticide residue intake, remember to thoroughly wash all fresh fruits and vegetables in water with a scrub brush.