Wednesday, June 13, 2012

When it comes to sugar substitutes, what about stevia?

Blue, pink, yellow? d) None of the above

Yesterday, The New York Times ran a story entitled “Choosing a Sugar Substitute”. I found the article, like most sweeteners, unsatisfying. We’re told “for any of the sweeteners, one can as easily find a study that offers reassuring analysis of safety as one that enumerates potential alarming side effects.” When it comes to food and nutrition this “jury is still out” reasoning doesn’t work. As far as I’m concerned, the risky results have more clout. The article further tries to ameliorate potential risk by quoting a layperson and self-described “yellow girl” (yellow referring to Splenda affection) saying “hundreds of millions of people swallow food and drinks containing artificial sweeteners and so far, no widespread calamities of health have swept over them. “ I would love to know if yellow girl feels migraines, obesity and cancer are "widespread" enough. I don’t know if she equates danger with immediate death but we’re not talking about snake bites. With toxins, things can take time. Walter Willet expressed “if you smoke cigarettes, the lung cancer risk doesn’t go up for 30 years.”  Trans fats weren’t seen as problematic for 90 years. You can read my thoughts on artificial sweeteners here in “Better Safe Than Sweet

The best way to test a sweetener isn’t always research, where funding can introduce its own bias, but time. Sugar has been used long enough that we know the downside and concerns. Stevia has also been used for centuries in many cultures though only marketed (and approved) in the US recently. I was disappointed the Times article snubbed stevia. It is a plant you can grow in your garden. Detractors will say, “Just because it’s natural doesn’t mean it’s safe” and this is true but I’ll still take the garden over the lab as a starting point.  I love a brand called NuNaturals, which has no stevia-y aftertaste but also have this local honey and maple syrup in my home. Liquid stevia can seems rather pricy but a small bottle can last months, even a year because it’s much sweeter than sugar. Since it’s much sweeter than sugar, you use it sparingly.

Even the title of the Times piece rubbed me the wrong way. Sweeteners aren’t mandatory. Whether it’s honey or maple or stevia, I don’t believe our food should be doused with sweetness. Sweet begets sweet and the more you have the more you crave. The converse is also true and less sweetness leads to fewer cravings. One “sweetened” item a day is a good guideline. For me, that tends to be my smoothie or an afternoon cardamom cappuccino. So I'm not a blue, pink or yellow girl and truthfully I'm not that sweet.
What sweetener(s) do you use? How many sweetened foods would you estimate you have each day? Have you tried stevia? 

31 comments:

  1. Love this! And your sweet begets sweet advice has been some of the best I've gotten for managing my cravings over the years. I am a stevia user and it's common enough that it's a big miss for The Times to have left it out....

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  2. They gave the "just because natural" argument. Hey NYT just because it's natural doesn't mean it's bad either. 

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  3. Gina (Candid RD)June 13, 2012 at 4:27 AM

    Every once in a while I disagree with you Lauren :)  I mean, I agree with the fact that we are HOOKED on sugar, and it's annoying how our society seems to feel like nothing is EVER sweet enough, but I am a huge fan of Splenda (and happen to know the person who created it, and he's brilliant, and will show you all the research that has been done on it) and I also think it's ok to use the other sweeteners(in moderation, as in, not in everything you eat, all day!).
    Personally I stick to Stevia (NuNAturals!) and Truvia, and Splenda for baking, but I have to say if it wasn't for artificlal sweeteners, I would have a tough time with many of my clients who REFUSE to cut down on sugar.   Who knows, maybe in twenty years you will be proven right, but, I'm still not convinced they are bad in the amount we consume.

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  4. Gina- this blog is great for disagreeing and I welcome any conversation. "Amounts we consume" worries me. The truth is, quantities used in this country are staggering. Even sugar is fine used sparingly but we're not a country who does sparingly well. I'm sure many brilliant scientists created margarine, sweeteners, twinkies and many other accomplishments in food processing but their intellect isn't a criteria I use to make food food choices. I wonder if you'd suggest Splenda for children or your kids? For me, my line is if I wouldn't suggest it to a child, why should my adult clients (or why should I) consume it. One final point, why do we need to methadone sugar addicts? Then you have methadone addicts. If someone comes to me refusing to cut down on sugar/sweet items then maybe they shouldn't be coming to me. There's a reason inpatient detox drug treatment programs exist. Thanks for presenting "the other side".

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  5. I don't use many sweeteners since I don't bake much, and I drink my coffee black.  I do occasionally use sugar is holiday baking, stevia in occasional mug cakes, and honey/maple syrup in "healthified" baked goods.

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  6. Lingering worries about safety aren't limited only to toxicity. In the case of artificial sweeteners the scientific community keeps asking the question of what the metabolic consequences might be. 

    Artificial sweeteners are not associated with weight loss -- quite the opposite. They are also associated with type 2 diabetes, strokes and the metabolic syndrome. All these associations don't prove cause -- better, controlled studies are much needed.

    What's for sure is that as you say, sweetened food is a habit that's hard to break: Sweet begets sweet.

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  7. Love having a doctor "in the house". They're not good for weight, not good for health but "better than sugar" I beg to differ. Lethal injection or the electric chair? Can't we say neither?

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  8. black coffee, that's a level I haven't achieved. And "mug cake" can you explain?

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  9. Lauren- thank you for your article! I agree with your one "sweetened" item per day guideline... it is better to not be accustomed to the sweet taste whether it's artificial or real. I am trying to avoid all artificial sweeteners at the moment, and it is difficult with how widespread they have become. I even found artificial sugars in my FiberOne cereal! As for stevia, I tried that back in the spring and experienced strong side effects - headaches, stomach cramps, mental fuzziness, etc - the symptoms disappeared about a day after I stopped. I have not had this sort of reaction to other artificial sugars though I do think the others cause me to overeat in general. Everyone's reactions (short term) to these sugars is going to vary, but you are absolutely right when you say we don't know the long term affects and the negative data should absolutely outweigh the positive.

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  10. haven't heard those side effects from stevia, it's known to be very safe. However, I get a massive head rush from anything sugary so anything is possible. Less sweet and good ingredient reading (a great point) thanks Kristen.

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  11. Totally agree with you. Good point too that sweeteners aren't mandatory! It's so true that the more you have, the more you want. 
    When I quit diet soda a few years ago, my sweet tooth fell out too. Figuratively speaking, of course. It would be quite strange to have an actual sweet tooth. 

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  12. great visual Jess "my sweet tooth fell out". I have temporarily parted ways with dark chocolate and I have zero sweet cravings. Feels good.

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  13. Lauren, you need to get on pinterest!  That is where you learn about things like mug cake  http://www.food.com/recipe/magic-chocolate-mug-cake-microwave-322553  I have been drinking coffee without sugar during the week, but agave nectar on weekends (weekends are my "cheat days").  Other than that, I really don't use sweetners on anything and I NEVER touch the fake stuff.  Honestly, I would rather use full-on sugar than the pink, blue or yellow stuff.  Good call on the stevia, I was using a packet of it a long time ago and didn't like the after taste, will try the little dropper bottle you posted here.  :)

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  14. Carrie, we are on pinterest, check out Foodtrainers' page (is it called a page?) ha ha. Try nustevia, the bottle will last forever, it's the best I've found. 

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  15. I think the best thing for us to do, as a society, is to re-train our sweet taste buds like you said. When I do have something sweet, the "sweet" part usually comes from maple syrup, organic cane sugar (avoid beet sugar since it has GMOs), but I have found with my baking experiments I can often cut back considerably on the sweetener,without effecting the taste. My kids (who like sweet things) have even commented that sometimes things I haven't baked/made taste to sweet for them, so taste buds can be re-trained. As far as my daily sweetness goes, I usually have 1-2 sweet things per day, but I'm very content with small portions. I have not parted ways with dark chocolate like you :-), but I find 1 square usually suffices. I'm currently obsessing over a bar of dark chocolate with sea salt that I bought back from a recent trip to SF. As for the artificial stuff, I do have occasional stevia (I like the Nu Naturals drops too), but not too much of that either. Since I work with clients with food sensitivities, I have heard accounts of some people having symptoms from stevia, so it is possible. It doesn't bother me, but I can tell you that when I was in college and drank diet sodas with aspartame, it would absolutely give me migraines.

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  16. Interesting about beet sugar, did not know. As for college, I can't say my eating habits were stellar and it's important to point out that change can be made. You may have had soda but I had sweetener on my salad and I wondered why I had GI issues and headaches (I don't anymore). I am definitely not coming from a place of look at me I don't eat sugar (not saying you implied this) but like you, feel where it's cut or limited I don't miss it. If anything, I feel better.

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  17. I definitely think we can, and should, retrain ourselves to use very little added sugar/sweeteners. I actually prefer savory over sweet, so I don't use a lot of sugar or sweeteners. (Let's just "forget" about all the diet coke I drank in my 20s... - I still worry about all the "built-up" from it in my body...).

    As far as sweeteners goes, I have some organic sugar as well as NuNaturals drops. Like you, I limit myself to one sweet item a day (and I don't always have it). And I have definitely found that I can retrain myself.

    A while ago I read an article that stated that the problem with stevia products was how it was processed. The article pointed out that it's true that it is a plant, but it's highly processed (like so many things that come from a plant).

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  18. Yes, Dr Mercola (regardless of what people think of him) had concerns before stevia's approval about how processing would affect stevia's "natural" safety and goodness. I guess the take home is, as with other food, quality counts.

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  19. Thanks for sharing this Lauren, excellent piece! You bring up a lot of good points and I agree with you 100%. I would rather trust a plant that's been around for centuries than a chemical that we have no idea what the TRUE harmful effects are (which ultimately there are harmful effects!!).
    I will admit that I like my sweets. I use either REAL organic sugar or NuNaturals (they have sent me TONS of product that will last me forever ha). But even the NuNaturals stevia, I only use a drop or two in my oatmeal if I'm out of vanilla and SOMETIMES I bake with it.
     I agree that one sweet treat a day is a good rule of thumb. I don't count natural sugars, so my indulgence is either a homemade cookie or brownie (not gonna lie, SOMETIMES 2) OR some 90% dark chocolate. Superb way to cleanse the palate after a meal! I wait until the end of the day though, otherwise (like you said) I crave sugar ALL day). If I eat something right after dinner...I'm good!

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  20. Agree with this completely! Quality ALWAYS counts!

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  21. Yea, I'm sorry Gina, I have to still agree with Lauren. I don't think that even a little bit of the artificial is healthy or used in moderation by any stretch of means!

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  22. curious if you're using stevia pregnant...

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  23. I am not a fan of artificial sweeteners. I generally don't like the aftertaste. Also, like you, I believe that the effects of things like artificial sweeteners will most likely manifest many years down the line. Similar to smoking.

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  24. I don't use Stevia daily. I would say...5 times a month I might put some drops in my oats!

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  25. Not only does sweet beget sweet, but food fuels hunger: The more you eat, the more you eat more. 

    Rather than indulge in artificially sweetened items (I can eat more!), reduce (or eliminate) the amount of sugary treats and perhaps eat less in the long run. 

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  26. If we're not sure, let's abstain, right? I'm not sure why people feel there isn't a cumulative effect.

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  27. it's almost a better mindset Caron when we know something is the real deal that we know need to watch portion versus as you said feeling freedom from a "lower sugar" item.

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  28. As a non-coffee drinker, I don't use sweeteners for anything other than baking, for which I always opt to use real-deal sugar.  I did very recently receive a gift of NuNaturals Stevia baking blend, and with your (quite timely!) blessing I might go ahead and give it a try. 

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  29. You see, I'm a coffee drinker who never bakes. So I can't vouch for the baking blend but I'd love to hear about it once you test drive it. Real deal, hopefully organic, sugar has its place too.

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  30. I use stevia and stevia ONLY! :) I have been using it for 10 years! Never going back! never! :) 

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