Monday, December 21, 2009

Five Ingredients in My Artificial Sweetener

I'm a white woman who grew up in the South. The pink packet of artificial sweetener, best-known under the brand name Sweet'n Low but also available in generic forms, has been an essential part of my food landscape for more than 30 years. I have never paid much attention to its contents, other than offhand cracks about the carcinogenic properties of saccharin.

But I had nothing handy to read while I waited for the coffee machine this morning, so I looked at the small print on my box of Hannaford brand Granulated Sugar Substitute, and decided to find out exactly what I've been consuming all this time.

1. Dextrose (with Maltodextrin). Dextrose first: it's a simple sugar, more commonly known as glucose. It is the main sugar manufactured by the body, and the major source of energy for living cells. So let's be clear: the first ingredient in this packet of sugar substitute is, in fact, sugar.

2. Maltodextrin (that's with the Dextrose, not by itself). A sweet polysaccharide derived from starch, which is added to sugars to provide bulk without calories; one gram of maltodextrin has about four calories. A white powder that can be sweet or not sweet, it is used most commonly as a bulking agent.

3. Calcium Saccharin. The oldest commercial artificial sweetener, discovered by benefactors to humanity at Johns Hopkins University in 1879. According to the story, it was an accident; a researcher spilled some of the chemical he was working with, and licked it off his hand that evening. (A bad idea if you're working with arsenic or radium, but never mind.) Saccharin is 300 times sweeter than sugar, and the calcium makes it highly soluble. The 36 mg of calcium saccharin in each pink packet equal the sweetness of two teaspoons of sugar. If you're worried about the cancer-causing properties of saccharin, read this (and then come back and explain it to me). The main piece of information I took from that study: "the only organ affected by sodium saccharin is the urinary bladder and only in rats exposed for periods including pre- and/or postnatal periods and/or when exposure was begun by 30 days of age." So don't consume saccharin when you're pregnant, immediately post-partum, or nursing, and don't give it to babies.

4. Cream of Tartar. The common name for potassium hydrogen tartrate, an acid salt with many uses in cooking. On its own it feels slippery, almost greasy, and I assume they use it in artificial sweetener to make it flow smoothly. The base of cream of tartar is tartaric acid, which is partially neutralized by potassium hydroxide. The only source of tartaric acid is grapes; cream of tartar is a natural byproduct of wine-making. (A future blog post: five benefits of wine-making to humanity. And then five benefits of beer-brewing to humanity. But I digress.)

5. Calcium silicate. The box says "an anti-caking agent;" it is basically limestone, or diatomaceous earth. It is highly absorbent and is used, among other ways, as an antacid, a fire retardant, and a sealant. It's not poisonous, but it has no nutritional value, either.

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