What if we could find something that tasted like sugar- but without the toxic effects to our bodies of fructose? How much would that change our lives? All our experiments this year have been moving in that general direction: not only are we weaning ourselves down from a taste for sweetness on the one hand, but we’ve been working on sweet alternatives on the other. Ideally, happiness and healthiness meet somewhere in the middle, get married, and live happily ever after.
Thus our many experiments with banana and date sweetened cookies, banana and coconut pancakes, and most recently yogurt and banana popsicles. Recently, however, I’ve begun to wonder just how many bananas a person could reasonably eat. Also, I’m getting a little tired of all my cookies— carob chip, peanut butter, raisin— all tasting pretty much like bananas and dates.
So imagine my surprise when my husband Steve came home a few weeks ago with a (get ready) chocolate bar!! Gasp! Avert thine eyes!
But no! he says, we can eat this.
Huh? I thought I had seen it all in my desperation to comb the internet for sweet substitutes that our Year of No Sugar would accommodate. I have yet to try brown rice syrup, but other than that we haven’t found much beyond cutting up fruit, putting it into our recipes and hoping the other ingredients don’t notice.
But this was a bar of what looked an awful lot like my long lost friend chocolate. “Chocoperfection” was the name, with the tag line, “Sugar Free… Naturally!” How could this possibly be okay? Steve’s massage therapist, our friend Ellen, had given him one upon hearing of our project. “I,” she said ominously, “am about to change your life.”
We eyed the gold wrapper. We read the ingredients. We reread the ingredients. There were two I wasn’t familiar with: “oligofructose” and “erythritol.” Hmmmm. Sounded suspiciously fakey- and we don’t do artificial sweeteners, (although according to my husband Diet Dr. Pepper drives a car with diplomatic license plates, and therefore doesn’t count.)
So I looked it up. Turns out, oligofructose is extracted from fruits or vegetables- in this case from chicory root. It is touted as being not only not bad, but in fact health promoting on account of the extremely high amount of dietary fiber (one Chocoperfection bar brings with it an astounding 52 % of recommended dietary fiber) as well as prebiotic effects- which is to say it is believed to stimulate the growth of “good” bacteria in the colon.
Erythritol is a “sugar alcohol,” which doesn’t sound like a good thing. After all, sugar alcohols such as “xylitol” and “maltitol” are known to be associated with laxative properties and “gastric distress.” Ew! However, erythritol is unique; unlike other sugar alcohols it is absorbed in the small intestine and then excreted. Translation? No tummy troubles.
Upshot: together, oligofructose and erythritol have a pretty good thing going. They supplement one another’s sweetness and counteract one another’s aftertaste. What’s the down side? Well, aside from making my digestive area a little gurgly and- ahem- wind-filled (heLLOO fiber!) the number one complaint would have to be it’s expense: one tiny 1.8 oz bar goes for between three and four dollars- that’s nearly a dollar a bite.
But nutritionally? Well, let’s review: what are the complaints about sugar (fructose)? It gets metabolized as fatty acids. This, in turn, creates cardiovascular disease, fatty liver disease, stroke, insulin resistance/diabetes, not to mention promoting the growth of cancerous cells. Basically, every problem known to man except hemorrhoids and hammer toes.
Well- from everything I can discern, oligofructose and erythritol don’t turn to fat in your bloodstream, don’t raise blood sugar levels and don’t even cause hammer toes. Instead, there is a boatload of fiber, which by definition means it isn’t even being processed until it gets to the colon, at which point it ferments into gases and… well, we’re back in the windy city, so to speak. Best of all? Drumroll please… the “chocolate” bar? Is pretty darn good. I mean, good.
Well, at least the “Almond Dark Chocolate” is. “Milk Chocolate,” which we also tried, has a hard-to-place weird taste. (Other flavors offered that we did not try are “Dark” and “Dark Raspberry.”) You can’t buy these bars anywhere around here so, in the interest of pure, selfless, scientific research, we ordered a small box of almond dark chocolate bars and a small bag of granulated “sugar” (!!) to try in cooking.
Unfortunately, the “sugar” doesn’t work as perfectly as one might hope- the texture is a little crunchy/dry/grainy in baked goods (we tried one batch of somewhat pasty peanut butter cookies), and there is a more distinct aftertaste than in the bars. Then again, maybe it’s not so unfortunate. Ever since we tried the “Chocoperfection” bars I’ve felt kinda… weird about the whole idea. Isn’t this cheating? I think.
I wondered, is this an “artificial” sweetener because it isn’t sucrose/fructose, or is it a natural sweetener because it comes from chicory root? If the point is to avoid fructose, as well as artificial sweeteners that have known negative effects on the body, then we were doing that! If the point is to avoid extracted fructose, as well as any stuff that simulates fructose, then we weren’t doing that! Help!
I felt so conflicted and confused that I e-mailed my question to Dr. Lustig, and waited breathlessly for- at last!- a definitive answer. What he graciously sent me, instead, was this:
“As to non-nutritive sweeteners, there are pharmacokinetics (what your body does to a drug) and pharmacodynamics (what a drug does to your body). We have the former (that’s how they got FDA approval), but none of the latter. So I can’t recommend any of them. But stay tuned, this information may be coming in the future.”
Hmm. Well, that’s essentially where I had ended up before: I don’t know. The thing I have to remember is that Dr. Lustig is a doctor and I’m a writer: he’s offering a doctor answer to what might be, for me, a writer question.
Meanwhile, non-doctor David Gillespie has this to say in his book Sweet Poison:
“No amount of rat studies will reassure me that industrial chemicals that have been in our food supply for less than a few decades are definitively safe… It took almost 100 years of mass consumption before researchers started questioning whether sugar was dangerous. Can we really know if sucralose or aspartame are safe after just a few decades?”
Hmm again. I think I’m getting closer to an answer. Gillespie isn’t taking about oligofructose, per se, but as Lustig points out, all these new sweetening options are big question marks at this point. And question marks, Gillespie reminds us, don’t have a terrific track record when it comes to our bodies’ health.
But back to ethics: it just still feels like cheating to me. Steve is a big “Chocoperfection” fan and much less conflicted about the whole thing than I am. His argument is that even with our “special” chocolate bars, spending a year avoiding all added sugar is still really, really hard. Which is true. And yet… don’t you just have to go with your gut, so to speak?
So we slowly, s-l-o-w-l-y finished off the “special” chocolate bars and for the time being have decided not to order more. The bag of “sugar” languishes in the closet. Sigh.