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Artificial Sweeteners, Guilt-Free Sweets, Risk and Benefits

There are a variety of natural and artificial sweeteners available to consumers.  In an increasingly health conscious society, there is a definite general interest in finding a healthy and delicious way to sweeten coffee and enjoy sweet snacks.  Consumer demand for sugar free candy is also growing.

In an effort to cut calories, many people have turned to artificial sweeteners such as Splenda, both to sweeten beverages and as a sugar substitute in baked goods and snacks.  Derived from sugar, this sucralose-based artificial sweetener is found in many diet sodas and other no-calorie beverages.  It is sold in boxes of individually packaged single servings as well as in bulk-sized bags for baking, and is the favorite of many diet conscious individuals.  Many people consider Splenda a “natural” product since it is derived from sugar, but others point out that it was stumbled upon in scientists’ search for a new pesticide and insist that Splenda is harmful.  The fact is that no long term studies have been conducted to confirm or deny either perspective.

Many that distrust Splenda’s “all-natural” claims have begun to use a relatively new to the market zero calorie sweetener known as Stevia, short for the herb Stevia Rebaudiana Bertoni.  The website for Pure Via, a Stevia based sweetener manufacturer, points out that Rebaudioside A is the “sweetest and purest extract of the Stevia leaf,” and is more than 200 times sweeter than sugar, making Pure Via a option for health conscious consumers, people with diabetes and others watching their sugar intake.  However, even less tests have been conducted on Stevia than on Splenda, about which similar claims about natural derivation are made; Splenda comes from sugar, and Stevia comes from a leafy herb.
Agave nectar is a sweetener produced from different species of the Mexican agave plant, though usually the Blue Agave species.  This syrup, which is about 1.6 times sweeter than sugar, is marketed for several health benefits and a sweet taste without the after taste that accompanies some artificial sweeteners.  Agave nectar manufactures point out that the syrup has been produced for centuries by native Aztecs in Mexico, who often used it as a healing substance in addition to a sweetener.  The sweetener is marketed today in the US as an alternative to refined white sugars which have a high glycemic index or a strong impact on our blood sugar.  The “All About Agave” website explains that such sugars raise blood sugar and quickly trigger the release of insulin.   The website points out that this can be harmful, as excessive releases of insulin and high blood sugar and insulin levels are linked to several health problems including Metabolic Syndrome, insulin resistance and type II diabetes, weight gain and obesity, problems with blood lipids such as raised triglycerides and cholesterol as well as high blood pressure.   Agave nectar promises low glycemic index, which means an enjoyable sweet flavor without a spike in blood sugar.  In addition, others enjoy agave for its sweeter-than-sugar taste, which allows one to use less at a time.  However, some researchers suggest that the methods of agave nectar production eliminate the health benefits that accompany unrefined sugar.  Many websites explain that agave and other syrups marketed as “raw” are processed at too high a temperature to maintain such healthful properties.
It is likely that more concrete information will surface with time and further research, but until then, it seems that the best way to stay healthy is to enjoy sweets in moderation.  Guilt-free sweet treats and sugar free candy will likely be a hot topic for years to come.
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