Are noncaloric sweeteners any better than an teaspoon of sugar in your coffee? Is honey healthier?
Daniel Engber has an article at the online New York Times on the quest for natural no-calorie sweeteners. Some quotes:
As badly as stevia needs the soft-drink companies, the soft-drink companies may need stevia even more. While sweetened carbonated beverages still make up around one-fifth of all the liquids we consume, the volume sold has dropped, per capita, every year since 1998. We’re more afraid of sugar than we’ve ever been. What yesterday were seen as “empty calories” have today been designated “toxic.” Doctors warn that cans of soda put fat into your liver, weaken your response to insulin and increase your risk of heart disease and diabetes. The panic over sugar has grown so pervasive that other dietary boogeymen — salt and fat and gluten — seem like harmless flunkies in comparison. (In 2012, when the market-research firm Mintel asked consumers which ingredients or foods they were trying to avoid, sugar and added sugar topped the list, by a wide margin.)
Some consumers also wonder if the natural sweeteners aren’t simply different flavors of the products they’ve been trying to avoid. At the beginning of July, just as PepsiCo got approval for Reb-D and Coca-Cola said it would be working on Reb-X, a 58-year-old woman living in Hawaii filed suit against Big Stevia. In March she bought a box of Truvia at Walmart because she thought it was a natural product. Now she’s convinced it’s no such thing. Her complaint declared that “Reb-A is not the natural crude preparation of stevia,” and that its manufacture is not “similar to making tea,” as Cargill’s packaging suggests. Rather, it’s “a highly chemically processed and purified form of stevia-leaf extract.”
Hers was not the only attack on Cargill’s natural sweetener. In ongoing negotiations to settle a similar suit, Cargill has offered to remove the phrase “similar to making tea” from the packaging and/or add an asterisk to the product’s tagline, “Nature’s Calorie-Free Sweetener,” directing people to a website F.A.Q. That page would explain that Truvia contains very little stevia, by weight, and that its main ingredient — erythritol — comes from yeast that may be fed with genetically modified corn sugar. “As with almost all finished food products,” the F.A.Q. would say, “the journey from field to table involves some processing.”
But what’s “natural” mean anyway?
It’s a question that has bedeviled beverage-makers, too. In the fall of 2012, a German food company surveyed 4,000 people in eight European countries, to find out how they understood the “natural” claim. Almost three-quarters said they thought that natural products were more healthful and that they’d pay a premium to get them. More than half argued that natural products have a better taste. But the respondents weren’t sure what degree or form of processing would be enough to strip a product of its natural status. Some drew a line between sea salt (natural) and table salt (artificial). Others did the same for dried pasta and powdered milk, though both are made by dehydration.
Read the whole enchilada.
Steve Parker, M.D.