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Artificial sweeteners–false promise for lower carb counts?

Last Saturday night my family visited a couple from our congregation and had dinner in their sukkah. When we broached the question of what there would be for dinner so my daughter could get an idea of how much insulin to take, the husband announced that he too was diabetic–Type II, for several years. What followed was a bit of a culture clash.

I’m sure he meant to be encouraging as he declared that through a combination of self-discipline and exercise and not eating more than a very limited number of carbs per day (and they really were about half of what our daughter is supposed to eat) that his A1C tests were down in the normal range and he only had to test his blood sugar twice a week. Which of course is fine and nearly ideal for a Type II diabetic if it actually works.

I’m not entirely sure how my daughter took all of this, but he went on to dismiss another Type I diabetic we know as “paranoid and overdoing it” because she tests 6 or 7 times a day, which he assumed was unnecessary since he didn’t need to do that.

He had the shining confidence of someone for whom not much had ever gone awry and, having no idea how lucky he was, assumed it was down to his own skill rather than the fact that he had a working pancreas, wasn’t growing anymore, and wasn’t a girl. All big factors for blood glucose control. Clearly he’d never had a bad low with shakes from an overdose or hormonal surge, or a really sharp unexpected high from a shot that just didn’t get where it was supposed to go.

I was more tactful than I’ve ever been in my life when I pointed these things out. You wouldn’t have recognized me, I swear!

Oddest of all was his insistence that the real secret was his use of artificial sweetener, which let him enjoy all kinds of great desserts. I was puzzled–baked apples sprinkled with xylitol? Surely the apples themselves were pretty carby–as well as pretty sweet on their own. The carb difference between using artificial sweetener, a tablespoon–or even two–of table sugar for the pan, or just leaving the apples to bake without sweetener, would be pretty minimal per serving.

And indeed our host only took two wedges for himself.

The other dessert–and it did taste decent–was chocolate ice cream sweetened with xylitol. Given that the ice cream in question was a plain flavor from my usual brand, I was able to compare it with the ordinary version for carb with reasonable confidence.

It was plenty sweet–maybe sweeter than normal, for that matter. But for carbs?

There was no difference. 17 grams per 1/2 cup serving, xylitol or no.

Which brings up a sobering question: why use artificial sweeteners if they don’t lower the carb count significantly?

What I see in the baking aisle of my supermarket is a selection of “natural” and “artificial” sweeteners designed to replace sugar and make your life care-free. So–Splenda, Nutrasweet, Stevia, all those…occasionally I look at them. Then I look at the nutrition labels. Then I look at the price per serving. And to tell you the truth, I’m just not convinced that this is the answer, particularly for a growing kid.

First off, the ingredients always list dextrose or maltodextrose along with the artificial sweetener. Dextrose is also known familiarly as “corn sugar”. More exactly, it is known in the chemical world as  “glucose”. Yes. Maltodextrose is not very different, particularly once it hits your digestive system.

The reason for adding starches and sugars to the artificial sweeteners is to give them enough body to measure. Pure Splenda (sucralose), Nutrasweet (aspartame), and so on are designed to be a lot sweeter per molecule than sucrose–which means if you’re trying to measure them out, you’d have to measure a tiny bit to get the sweetness equivalent of a spoonful of sugar. What would you do for baking? So the companies blend the chemicals with dextrose and/or maltodextrose to make them take up enough room to scoop up like sugar.

Which…kind of undoes the carb-lowering benefit, doesn’t it? And yet the companies claim these products are great for diabetics or anyone needing to lose weight, cut carbs, etc. And the magazines–including some of the big diabetes advice mags–accept their advertising and include these artificial sweeteners in their recipes.

But when I look at the recipes, most have about the same carb counts I’d expect with a regular standard recipe. The artificial sweetener lowers the carb by a gram or two at most–for items where the “reduced carb” version is still 30 grams or so.

Is it deliberate deception at work here? Have the companies duped anyone, or is it a matter of patients and RDs wanting it to be true so badly that they tell themselves the sugar substitutes are the answer?

I can’t tell you–and a lot of otherwise bright people are really convinced. What I can tell you is the price difference between sugar and any of the sugar substitutes for baking is quite high. You might be paying 10 to 20 dollars a pound for sugar substitutes, but only 50 cents a pound for sugar. If you’re not really lowering the carb of your desserts by a significant amount, it really isn’t worth it.

What can you do to lower carbs significantly in desserts without artificial sweeteners? (I’m including Stevia and Truvia here; I don’t really care that they’re plant-derived and therefore “natural” in that sense.)

First, look at the whole recipe. Does it use flour? If so, can you sub in almond (or walnut) meal for all or part of it? Almond meal has only about 1/4 the carb of flour, ounce per ounce, and it’s fairly sturdy as a baking ingredient–though it doesn’t make stretchy or very cohesive doughs. Nuts are more expensive than flour per pound, and they contain a lot of fat (though most is unsaturated as long as you’re not talking coconut) but if you really need to lower the carb fraction significantly, they’re a good way to go and they make for moist, flavorful cakes–you could probably cut down the oil or butter in the recipe while you’re at it. Somehow almond meal also makes the sweetness more prominent than with flour-based recipes–my recipes always taste sweeter for the same amount of sugar, so I find I can cut a little sugar as well.

Second, look at the amount of sweetener or sugar. (No, don’t go rushing out for agave syrup–agave may not be “sugar” but it’s got the same amount of carb in a tablespoon–about 15-18 grams. So save your money.) Can you cut the sugar by 1/3 and still have it work? That would be a great deal better savings than substituting artificial sweeteners.

Is there fruit in the recipe? If so, can you rely on the fruit itself for sweetness and skip some or all of the sugar? Does baked fruit really even need sweetening?

Can you add a noncarb flavoring that plays up the sweetness (so you can cut the sugar)? Most desserts include vanilla or cinnamon–up these a little and you have a stronger suggestion of sweet. Orange and lemon rind are also great for heightening the suggested sweetness of desserts.

And maybe the focus should be more on specific flavor than on sugariness. Tart flavors, coffee, cocoa, almond or rum extract, spices, peanut butter, unexpected savories like sage or rosemary, or specific fruits–all of these make for better, more sophisticated desserts than the usual blandly sweet offerings.

I know, I know, with all this detracting from brand-name sweeteners, at this rate I’ll never get a great corporate sponsor.

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