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   Mar 18

Zero calories – and totally natural. But is the ‘miracle’ new sugar substitute too good to be true?

The ‘miracle’ ingredient, stevia, is between 250 and 300 times sweeter than sugar

You may not know it yet, but a quiet revolution is taking place on our supermarket shelves.

After years of research and testing, scientists think they’ve found a natural sugar substitute that has zero calories, zero carbohydrates and won’t raise blood sugar levels.

The ‘miracle’ ingredient, stevia, is between 250 and 300 times sweeter than sugar, and so by adding it to foods and drinks, manufacturers can drastically reduce the calorie content.

You may well already have had some.

Look on the label of a can of Sprite and you’ll notice stevia in the ingredients — that’s why it’s now 30 per cent lower in sugar.

You can also buy Truvia, a sweetener made from stevia manufactured by Silver Spoon, and stevia as a powder to add to drinks or cereals, not to mention stevia chocolate bars and yoghurts.

Sugar substitutes are, of course, nothing new — artificial sweeteners such as aspartame, saccharin and sucralose, made from amino acids and chemicals — have been around for more than 40 years.

But while these have been approved by regulatory bodies and are widely considered safe, many consumers remain suspicious of them.

Food and drink manufacturers are all too aware of this, and have invested millions of pounds into finding a natural alternative to sugar.

The hope is to have what’s known as a ‘clean label’ — an ingredients list free of E-numbers and artificial additives.

With sugar widely agreed to be a major cause of our obesity and diabetes epidemic, the drive to find alternatives has added impetus.

This month, the World Health Organisation called for people to halve the amount of added sugar in their diet.

Sugar substitute: Sales of honey, maple syrup and agave syrup have soared

The concern is that excess sugar in the diet is stored as fat around the liver, leading to weight gain and the development of type 2 diabetes.

Some scientists have also suggested sugar acts on the brain in the same way as cocaine.

The solution would see a simple switch to sugar alternatives.

And many people are doing just that, swapping to ‘natural’ sugar sources, such as honey, in the belief these are healthier.

Sales of honey, maple syrup and agave syrup (made from the naturally sweet water in the agave plant) have soared.

However, experts unanimously agree these natural sugars are no better for us than regular sugar.

‘They contain very slightly fewer calories, about three per gram compared with four per gram in sugar,’ says Bridget Benelam, a scientist at the British Nutrition Foundation.

‘People like them because they’re natural, but whether there’s any benefit is debatable. Sugar, after all, is a natural plant product.’

And more importantly, the body metabolises these ‘natural’ sugars in the same way.

As Naveed Sattar, professor of metabolic medicine at the University of Glasgow and a leading diabetes researcher, says: ‘Sugar is sugar and a calorie is a calorie — whether it comes in the form of honey, agave syrup or white sugar, the body will process it in exactly the same way.’

It’s been pointed out that while regular sugar, honey and maple syrup are made up equally of glucose and fructose, agave syrup is much higher in fructose — and when fructose is metabolised it doesn’t cause an increase in insulin levels.

Instead, it’s taken into the liver, where it is metabolised.

But while this may sound a good thing, says Bridget Benelam, ‘it is not a good idea to consume large amounts of fructose, as studies have found excessive amounts may increase the circulation of fatty acids in the blood, a risk factor for heart disease’.

So could stevia be the answer? Extracted from the leaves of the stevia plant, native to Paraguay, it has been used as a sweetener for 40 years in Japan and longer in South America, although it was approved for use in the EU only in 2011.

Its drawback is that some extracts have been found to have a bitter, liquorice-like aftertaste.

The World Health Organisation has called for people to halve the amount of added sugar in their diet

This means it’s not yet been added to cola drinks; it works in Sprite because lemon flavouring masks it.

‘Stevia is normally used in combination with sugar, to mask its aftertaste,’ says Jack Winkler, former professor of nutrition policy at London Metropolitan University.

‘That means it is only a partial replacement for sugar in products — currently 20 to 70 per cent.’

But stevia is not the only option.

Pepsi is said to be working on ‘taste potentiators’, chemicals which have no smell or taste, yet work on the taste buds to enhance the sweet flavour.

And in the U.S., a zero-calorie sweetener from the melon-like Chinese monk fruit, 200 to 300 times sweeter than sugar, is being used in products such as drinks and biscuits.

Professor Winkler believes such developments could help to improve the sugary British diet.

‘Education isn’t working. We’ve been telling people to ditch the buns and eat broccoli, and all the while we’ve got fatter and fatter.

‘So instead of trying to get people to eat different foods, let’s start with foods they like and try to improve their nutritional profile.’

The benefits of switching to sweeteners is borne out in research. Dr Margaret Ashwell, a former government adviser on nutrition, carried out a systematic review of trials.

She concluded that switching from sugar-sweetened foods and drinks to those made with artificial sweeteners does help with weight loss, at an average rate of about 0.2kg per week.

In 2012, a study in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition showed that people who replaced calorific beverages with water or diet drinks over six months were more likely to lose weight than a control group.

Diet sweeteners help people who are overweight quite simply because they are taking in fewer calories, says Professor Sattar.

‘For many people, a big proportion of their excess calorie intake is sugary drinks. If they can cut those out by having a diet drink, it will reduce their calorie intake.’

But not everyone is convinced by artificial sweeteners.

Some scientists have suggested sugar acts on the brain in the same way as cocaine
One enduring concern is ‘over-compromising’ — the idea that when people have sweetened diet drinks and foods, they believe they can indulge in other unhealthy foods, and so don’t lose weight.

‘None of these things will reduce calorie intake if the rest of your diet isn’t controlled,’ says Bridget Benelam. ‘It’s not a silver bullet.’

Indeed, studies that show sweeteners can help with weight loss, such as Dr Ashwell’s, show only a fairly minimal loss.

And then last year came research suggesting artificially sweetened products were linked to an increased risk of obesity, type 2 diabetes and cardiovascular disease.

Researcher Susan Swithers, a behavioural neuroscientist and professor of psychology at Purdue University in the U.S., suggests this is because sweeteners taste like sugar, and may confuse the body’s natural ability to manage calories — which could, ironically, lead to weight gain.

Normally, when we eat something sweet, the brain starts to get ready for the arrival of sugar and calories, so the hormone insulin is released.

But, says Professor Swithers, when we have an artificial sweetener, we get the sweet taste, but the calories and sugar don’t ‘show up’.

So your body will adjust to that and won’t release the hormones to deal with the calories, or won’t release as many of them, she says.

She suggests that, over time, calories don’t activate the ‘reward’ centres in the brain — they don’t satisfy you as they should, and you’ll end up eating more.

This was borne out in animal studies: rats fed on foods with artificial sweeteners went on to eat more than those that had been fed on natural sugar.

‘The standard mantra is that the problem with artificial sweeteners is that when people have them they think they have carte blanche to eat whatever else they want,’ says Robert Lustig, endocrinologist at the University of California and author of Fat Chance: The Hidden Truth About Sugar.

‘But this shows that it might not be simply a psychological problem — biochemistry is driving the energy storage, and that would be true even of natural sweeteners such as stevia.’

Professor Sattar is not convinced sweeteners are the problem, arguing that most of the evidence shows the risk of diabetes is significantly higher in people who drink sugary drinks.

But he adds that the simplest solution is to train ourselves not to have a sweet tooth.

‘I believe people can adjust their palate by, for example, training themselves to have unsweetened tea.

‘I’d rather people have sweeteners than sugar, but I would much prefer that they didn’t have sweet things at all.’

Source: Daily Mail

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