Monthly Archives: November 2007

The Trouble with Sweet: Part III Saccharin – “The Pink Stuff”

The Trouble with Sweet:  Part III Saccharin – “The Pink Stuff”

Competency # 11 Sugar

Reference: Sweet Deception by Dr. Mercola

We’ve talked glucose (our bodies gasoline), sucrose (table sugar and over a hundred pounds a year), fructose (natural sugar in fruit but problematic in purer forms and laced with reactive, destructive compounds).  Now let’s go artificial with sweet and figure out the rest of the puzzle.

We adore the flavor sweet.  Our bodies long for it.  We give it wrapped up in nice paper as gifts.  We put it out in bowls at our desks to welcome people and cheer them up.  No wonder we’ve put lots of creative energy into finding ways to make the flavor sweet without the consequences of weight gain.  Artificial sweeteners aren’t exactly new.  Saccharin goes back to the 1879 and our first established research hospital, Johns Hopkins University.  Of the first 5 doctors hired to do research and teach at our first national medical school, Dr. Remsen hired a young, budding research named Constantine Fahlberg to study the chemical toluene.  Falhberg was “messing around” in the lab and spilled one of his samples.  That night, at dinner, he noticed his food tasted oddly sweet.  Obviously, this was still the era of not washing hands often.  He traced back the flavor to his spilled chemical and called it saccharin, as it was sweet just like “saccharides” the name for all sugars.  Falhlberg snuck off and patented saccharin in 1894, and made a fortune selling the stuff.  Much to Remsen’s disgust, he didn’t share with his mentor or his institution.

The production of saccharin marked the epoch of science in universities being mixed with a desire to develop products for commercial use.  The company, Monsanto, was founded to market saccharin in 1901.  Another small obscure company called Coca Cola started using it in 1907 to make sweet flavored colas with no sugar in them.  An industry was born of sweetened drinks with no consequences of weight gain.  Or so we thought.  When the invention of products is mixed with commercial gain, one would expect scrutiny for safety to go hand in hand.  One would assume… well, don’t.

That was a hundred years ago.  We’ve had sweetened drinks for a hundred years.  Saccharin has a very long history in the market place.  This is where it gets interesting and teaches us how food safety works in America.  Saccharin was on the market before the Food Additives Amendment to the Food, Drug and Cosmetic act was passed in 1958.  It was grandfathered in because it was “Generally Recognized as Safe” (GRAS).   BUT, the Delaney Clause in the act called for a zero tolerance for any chemical found to cause cancer in animal testing.  So, in 1969 a Canadian researcher found that saccharin causes bladder cancer in lab rats.  50%!  Oops.  Canada banned saccharin.  There was a huge public uproar.  Congress intervenes and says saccharin can be sold if it has a warning label.  Then, in 1991, long-term studies in humans showed very minor efforts towards cancer.  Another study showed that lab rats have a different metabolism that makes them more at risk for bladder cancer. President Clinton (the male version) signed an exception allowing saccharin to be used without the warning label.  The Delaney clause was fudged to suggest that it didn’t cause a “major” risk.  Instead of “any risk”, “major risk” was added. And the warning label could come off.  This is all because we, the consuming public, demand the flavor sweet and want it with no consequences of weight gain.  So, pink packets are back in the restaurants.

It’s only been in the last few years that we have discovered that all sweeteners create habits in us of wanting more and more sweet, and of having less and less plain water.  In fact this column has covered the evidence that shows the correlation between drinking diet sodas and metabolic syndrome.  We don’t know all the details, but our taste receptors do have connections to our internal signaling and tasting sweet sets off some of the same reactions as just plain eating sugar.  That’s a hot area of research still to be completely sorted out.  Stay tuned.  Next week, we will cover the “Blue Stuff” and then the “Yellow Stuff”.  Finally, at the end, hope is coming.

As for saccharin, no obvious track record of ”major risk” cancers, overt allergic reactions, no obvious poisoning, even in large doses.  With some reluctance, I’ll state I can’t find much other evidence that saccharin is dangerous.  It’s just not a natural substance.

Points to take away:  1.  Saccharin is an artificial chemical but may be the safest of the sweeteners that are chemically made.  2.  We need to learn about food safety as one of our skills of self-care.   3.  Our addiction to sweet is what we have to personally own.  4.  Our political and economic systems aren’t perfect, and we all need to be aware and speak out to give meaningful voice to reforming it.

What Will Work for me.  Saccharin tastes lousy.  It has a “hang to it”, to quote my spouse.  But it is sweet.  And it has a long record of use without the emergence of “major risk” of toxicity yet.  It’s the habit of sweet that probably is the problem.  And my innocence towards the assumption that our food supply is safe is gone.  I now see our food safety system as suspect to manipulation and political pressure.  It’s all about market demand and relative risk.  I’m trying out having my tea less sweet.  So far, not succeeding.  I’m eager to explore alternatives.

The Trouble with Sweet: Part 2 Fructose and HFCSs

The Trouble with Sweet:  Part 2  Fructose and HFCSs

Competency: # Sugar

Reference: Dr. Chi-Tang Ho’s Presentation to the American Chemical Society, reported August 28th.

Let’s tackle fructose.  What is it?  It is a single sugar molecule, a cousin of glucose (your body’s gasoline).  It is the dominant natural sugar in fruits, hence the name.  And it’s the other half of table “sugar” which is glucose and fructose combined, otherwise known as sucrose.  But it is also the dominant sugar in High Fructose Corn Syrup or HFCSs.   10% of America’s calories come in the form of HFCS.  Manufacturers like HCFS.  It’s cheaper to make than table sugar whih comes from sugar cane or sugar beets.  In liquid form, it’s easier to transport and to mix with foods.  And it lasts longer without spoiling on the grocery store shelf.  It saves an estimated penny a can in making sodas.   It’s sweeter than table sugar.  That’s why our efficient, industrialized food making industry has used it.  It just makes sense.  It’s sweeter, cheaper and abundant.  What’s not to like?  But HFCS is not pure fructose.  It’s actually only about 55% fructose in most of its preparations.  That tiny extra increment of 5% is what this column is about.

Four things not to like!   One:  It’s too cheap!  Our farm subsidies and sugar tariffs combine to lower the price of domestically produced HFCS.  Hence, HFCS (fructose) is in many of our foods and our genetically programmed “sweet tooth” can’t resist it.  Add it to food, and we obediently eat more of it, tons of it.  Most of it is tucked away in cans and bottles of soda.  The data for HFCS are 26 kgs. per person per year in America.

Two:  It makes us fat.  “Sugar” (table sugar and HFCS) is the ONLY food directly linked scientifically to America’s obesity epidemic.  The introduction of cheap sugar to our food is directly and immediately associated with the pounds we’ve put on over the last 30 years.  The inverse side of this bad news is that avoiding sugar may be one of the simplest and most effective methods to start shedding that tonnage.

Three:  Even more insidious, your liver can’t take it anymore.  There’s something odd about fructose and your liver.  From fruit, fructose is a healthy food.  But make it liquid and concentrate it in HCFS, and the whole story changes.  Your liver accumulates fatty molecules.  In fact, the cells of your liver look stuffed with fat.  Rats, on a pure fructose and vitamin diet rapidly die, whereas on a glucose and vitamin diet do just fine.  We can’t ethically do the study in humans, but a diet of HCFS in the movie “Super-size Me” almost killed Morgan Spurlock from liver failure in just a month.  The net effect is that America has a strong pattern of increasing “non-alcoholic liver disease” which is explained in animal models by the extra fructose in HCFS.  Every month there are many articles explaining the hunt for the mechanisms in humans.  The national “Liver Association” has put out warnings about fructose and “non-alcoholic liver disease”.  It’s dangerous.   Lesson: too much fructose kills your liver by stuffing it with fat.

Four:  Poisons?  That’s what Dr. Ho is worried about.  “Activated carbonyl compounds” are in HFCS.  They probably are introduced by making industrial quantities of HFCS at high temperatures and pressures.  Activated carbonyls are very chemically reactive compounds that are linked to the complications of diabetes, and may be part of causing the disease by the damage they do in your body.  They chemically attach to all sorts of delicate molecules in your body and make them function improperly.   Dr. Ho found 5 times the concentration of reactive carbonyl compounds in multiple foods prepared with HFCS than are found in diabetics.  Diabetics have higher levels to start with, and one current hypothesis of how diabetes gets started is the damage from reactive carbonyls.  Lesson:  HCFS, sweetened sodas in particular, have a foreign chemical in them that may damage your inner chemistry, putting you on the road to diabetes.

For now it’s an association. Remember, this is how science works.  We find “associations” first by teasing out clusters of symptoms and disease.  Then, in step two, we figure out how that works down at the chemical level.  Finally, we do a randomized controlled trial.  That’s considered proof.  Absolute proof takes time.  A prudent health conscious consumer might make reasonable conclusions to simply avoid the stuff.

WWW:  What will work for me.  I haven’t got that much time.  There are no reactive carbonyls in table sugar, just empty calories.  I’m trying to get my waist line a little emptier, and the last thing I need are empty calories.  I’ll get my fructose from fruit, the whole fruit.  This idea of “Whole Foods” gathers appeal doesn’t it?  So, this week, as I wrote this article I found myself squinting in the bright light at the fine print on food labels for every food I ate that came in a package to see if it had HFCS in it.   I avoided one “nutrition bar” because of it.  I better get better at reading labels if my body is going to be a perfect temple.  (Imagine that visual!)  Well, how about at least a little shack in which I can sleep comfortably and safely.  And lose the HFCSs.  Fructose from fruit.  Whole fruit.

The Trouble with Sweet: Part 1

The Trouble with Sweet:  Part 1

Competency # 11 Sugar

Reference:   Dr. Chi-Tang Ho’s Presentation to the American Chemical Society on Corn Sweeteners, reported August 28th

This is a complex topic.  I’m changing the sweeteners I use and just about everywhere I go, people ask me, “What’s the good sweetener?  The pink one, the yellow one…?”  But I’m a sweet tooth.  So are you.  We all are.  Let’s start with the basics.  We’ll get to corn sweeteners and artificial sweeteners one by one.

Our tongues have a receptor for sweet.  No kidding!  Sugar is rare in nature, and it usually means a ripe fruit that is full to dynamite nutrition.  When the apple tree is ripe, we are designed to gobble up apples because that tree will be ripe for two weeks, and then it’s a year until you get apples again.  So, our tongues are designed to go ballistic when we taste sweet.  Primitive societies eat about 4 pounds of sugar a year.  Now, in America we eat 158 pounds a year.   That’s some 10% of our calories.  Some folks get 20-30% of their calories from sugar.

What is sugar?  Actually, let’s start with glucose.  Table sugar is two “sugars” attached to each other.  Glucose and fructose.  Both are 6 carbons formed in rings.  Glucose is your body’s natural fuel.  We convert all the food we eat into glucose, if we can.   That’s what your liver does.  It takes extra protein and turns it into glucose, if you need it, or fat if you have enough glucose.  Carbohydrates (potatoes, rice, bread) are actually long strings of glucose, like beads on a necklace.  Your body gradually chews up those long strings, if they are protected by fiber.  If not, your stomach can turn carbs into free blood sugar almost as fast as drinking the straight stuff.  If you have excess glucose, we change it into a fat molecule and store it.  There are several other basic sugar molecules, but our liver is designed to change them all into glucose.  When we eat table sugar, we can use the glucose right away but the fructose molecule has to be switched around a little.

Now, the gallon of blood in your body (if we drain you dry, like when we draw blood from you in the ER) has about 1 teaspoon of glucose in it.   ONE TEASPOON.  Total.  Get it.  Ok.  So, now drink a glass of OJ with 8 teaspoons of sugar.  If that got into your blood right away, you would go into coma rapidly.  We are designed to eat whole oranges.  We have only figured out how to make OJ recently, in any quantity.  So, a glass of OJ is like a little hand grenade.  But what about a “Big Gulp” of full sugar soda?  A 64 oz “Big Gulp” has 53 teaspoons of sugar.  Now, that’s a real bomb.  The “dynamite” nutrition of whole fruit turns into a metabolic bomb going off inside you when we add pure glucose to our metabolism in that quantity.

Your body has to panic.  It puts out insulin like crazy to control your blood glucose level.  That insulin lasts 4-6 hours.  Insulin tells every fat cell in your body to go into hyper-drive, picking up the glucose to store it as fat.  In an hour or two, it’s all cleaned up, except that your fat cells are still being affected by the insulin and your blood glucose level goes too low.  You feel hungry again.  But your fat cells won’t give any energy up because they are in storage mode.  You are starving hungry.  Your blood sugar goes too low.  You eat more sugar.  Up and down all day long.  Your pancreas is in overdrive.  And gets worn out.  Your fat cells get bigger and take more insulin to respond.  Your pancreas finally says, “Enough already!”  You become diabetic.  Our biological drive to crave sugar turns into the insatiable craving of a junkie.

Here’s the problem.  It’s a big topic.  I wanted you to learn two or three key ideas this week.  1)  You have one teaspoon of glucose free in your blood.   2)  We evolved eating 4 pounds of free sugars a year (honey etc) and are now eating 158 pounds a year.  3) Rapid sugar rise in your blood is hard on your pancreas that has to put out insulin in a panic, and hard on your body in the long run. 4)  You can wear your pancreas out with repeated hand grenades of sugar.

Next week, we will start on high fructose corn syrup and then move on to the sweeteners.  You need to know this stuff if you are to take good care of yourself.

WWW.  What will work for me.  Step one of AA is to stand up and admit your problem.  The food industry knows this about me, and you.  I’m a sugar addict.  I was made that way.  And it’s slowly killing me.  I need to get smart about sugar.  My first step is to create a visual of a little grenade going off every time I have a sugar hit.  Next, I’m going to get rid of sugar in what I drink.  What you drink does not register as calories.  You don’t feel full with the calories you drink. We’ve written about that before.  So, drink water, 16 oz of vintage Lake Michigan, straight up.  Drink tea.  What I’m going to do about brownies with chocolate chips in them, and dark chocolate icing is another matter.  This may take work.