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Pick Your Packet: Choosing The Best Sugar Substitute


Which is your favorite sweetener packet --white, pink, blue or yellow?

That would be white for regular white sugar, pink for saccharin (Sweet 'N Low), blue for aspartame (Equal), and yellow for sucralose (Splenda) -- the most common ones found in restaurants and used in artificially sweetened drinks.

The New York Times recently did a roundup of sugar substitutes, a timely topic in light of the fact that New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg recently proposed a ban on super-sized, 32-ounce sugary drinks while allowing super-sized diet sodas.

The Times points out that research published last year that analyzed health data on more than 100,000 nurses in the United States over nearly 25 years found a strong correlation between weight gain and consumption of sugar-sweetened beverages and desserts. There was no weight gain for those who drank beverages with artificial sweeteners.

Walter Willett, M.D., chairman of the nutrition department at the Harvard School of Public Health, said liquid calories seem to be particularly problematic.

"Many foods contribute to weight gain, but it does appear that sugar-sweetened beverages are the single, by far, most important problem," Willett told the Times.

However, artificial sweeteners, although they are useful for diabetics and don't contribute to dental cavities, have had their own history of health controversies over long-term side effects and possible cancer links.

As Wired Science points out, research has also raised the question of whether artificial sweeteners might be fueling, not fighting, our obesity epidemic. When University of Texas Health Science Center epidemiologists conducted a 9-year-long study of 5,158 adult residents of San Antonio, they found a link between sweeteners and obesity.

So before you pick up one of those little packets, here's what to keep in mind:

Sweet 'N Low: The Food and Drug Administration wanted to ban saccharin in the 1970s because it gave bladder cancer to rats. But Congress imposed a moratorium to delay the ban, and the pink packets remained on restaurant tables. The FDA withdrew its ban proposal in 1991, and the warnings were taken off saccharin in 2000 after research showed that it acts differently in rats and humans, and no conclusive increase in cancers was observed in people. However, the advocacy group Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI) still advises people to avoid it.

Equal and NutraSweet: Aspartame is essentially two amino acids plus methyl ester. About 1 in 25,000 Americans have a genetic condition that prevents them from metabolizing one of the amino acids, phenylalanine, and those people are warned on labels not to eat anything containing aspartame. A huge Italian study  found that rats given aspartame had higher rates of leukemia and lymphomas, but the National Cancer Institute reviewed health data from a half a million retirees and found no correlation between beverages with aspartame and these cancers.

Splenda: Although it starts out as sugar, chemical reactions are used to remove parts of the sugar molecules and replace them with chlorine atoms. The chlorine effectively camouflages the molecules, and most pass through the body undigested. The result: zero calories. Some wonder if the chlorine in the sucralose molecules that are absorbed by the body might cause a problem, but CSPI says animal testing of sucralose was sufficient for a "safe" rating by the organization.

Sugar: White sugar offers the purest taste of sweetness. It is natural, has only about 15 calories in a teaspoonful, but a lot of it can make you fatter. And considering the country's epidemic of obesity and its subsequent health problems -- diabetes, heart disease, cancer -- all-natural sugar isn't without its own health problems.

So, artificial sweeteners or real sugar? There is no ideal solution. Diet sodas, as Willett tells the Times, are like "a nicotine patch," helping people with their sugar addiction, but having their own problems.

(And what about the less common sweetener Stevia, derived from a South American shrub? The jury is still out on its safety, although a purified extract -- sold under the brand name Truvia -- was approved by the Food and Drug Administration in 2008, according to a summary of the government's health concerns over Stevia in Eating Well magazine.)

Perhaps the best idea, as you might have guessed, is to cut back on eating too much of any kind of sweet stuff.

In other health news:

Panel questions benefits of vitamin D supplements. The federal U.S. Preventive Services Task Force recommended against healthy postmenopausal women taking vitamin D and calcium supplements daily, saying the supplements don't reduce the risk for bone fractures, National Public Radio reported. The recommendations do not apply to women with osteoporosis.

Increased diagnostic imaging use adds to radiation worries. Reuters reports that use of diagnostic imaging in the United States has doubled since the mid-1990s, raising fears that radiation exposure from technologies such as computed tomography (CT) scans may raise a person's lifetime cancer risk, researchers said on Tuesday.

Women doctors paid less than male counterparts. From the Associated Press, research finds that women physician-scientists are paid much less than their male counterparts, with a salary difference that over the course of a career could pay for a college education, a spacious house, or a retirement nest egg. Why the difference? Men tend to be more aggressive at self-promoting and asking for pay raises than women.

Filing for divorce after 115 years. A century together can strain even the best relationships. Or so it seems for two giant tortoises who grew up together and had been living as a pair at an Austrian zoo until, well, they started to get on each other's very last nerve. One kept attacking the other until the zoo finally had to split them up, People magazine reports. A divorce is in the works.

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