Sweetness and Light and Distress and Diarrhea

A passing reference to maltodextrin, a sugar-based sweetener, on BoingBoing turned on the little lightbulb what hovers over my brain, and I Googled around to find this:

Sugar substitutes and the potential danger of Splenda

Saccharin, the first widely available chemical sweetener, is hardly mentioned any more. Better-tasting NutraSweet took its place in almost every diet soda, but saccharin is still an ingredient in some prepared foods, gum, and over-the-counter medicines. Remember those carcinogen warnings on the side of products that contained saccharin? They no longer appear because industry testing showed that saccharin only caused bladder cancer in rats.

Most researchers agree that in sufficient doses, saccharin is carcinogenic in humans. The question is, how do you know how much artificial sweeteners your individual body can tolerate? That being said, some practitioners think saccharin in moderation is the best choice if you must have an artificially sweetened beverage or food product. It’s been around a relatively long time and seems to cause fewer problems than aspartame.

I don’t argue with this recommendation, but I encourage you to find out as much as you can about any chemical before you ingest it. Artificial sweeteners are body toxins. They are never a good idea for pregnant women, children or teenagers — despite the reduced sugar content — because of possible irreversible cell damage. If you decide it’s worth the risks, then go ahead, but pay attention to your body and your cravings. Once you start tracking your response to artificial sweeteners, it may surprise you.

On Saturday, my husband David's parents invited the whole family to their place for lunch. It wasn't a Seder for Passover – that doesn't start until Tuesday. It was just comfort food. As always when we arrive, David's mom offered us soft drinks. And I asked for "anything with real sugar and no caffeine." This prompted a discussion of the various kinds of soft drinks and the artificial sweeteners that make them go, comparing them to "real sugar" soft drinks, and whether Dr Pepper has caffeine. Turns out it does, at least in Illinois, but I still prefer soft drinks with sugar, for very good reasons of my own.

But I digress. Some background music:

The day after we returned from vacation, I settled down with that most comforting of comfort foods, a bowl of cereal and milk.Specifically, Honey Nut Cheerios, which I had purchased the night before in a whirlwind, jet-lagged provisioning frenzy because we got home late in the evening and had no food in the house. Soon after, my Lazy Saturday relax-o-thon was disrupted by some very uncomfortable symptoms, something I'll just call "distress" and leave it at that, m'kay? M'kay.

There was a certain…redolance of parfum de Cheerios, however. When I haven't had Cheerios in a long time, the first time or two I seem to be a little over-sensitive to something in them. It sometimes happens with other cereals, like Basic 4, that have some sort of malty-nutty-sweet flavor

I have a few minor food allergies, but none of the "biggies:" I'm not allergic to nuts so far as I know, but I had some pretty nasty reactions to saccharine when I was a teenager. Mom unfortunately discovered this: when she tried to get me to use Sugar Twin on my Cheerios (the old-school, unsweetened kind), because she was afraid I'd become a diabetic or something. I broke out in an agonizing, horrible, itchy rash all over my body. Woops! We figured out pretty quickly what the culprit was, because the only major change in my life was the Sugar Twin stuff. I was quite happy to be allergic to the most common sweetener then on the market, because I didn't like the taste of the fake stuff and preferred sugar to almost any other sweetener (love honey, too).

In college, I had another allergic reaction when friends convinced me to try Diet Dr Pepper. Currently, it's sweetened with Aspartame, but in the late 70's? I can't remember for sure, but it wasn't saccharine and I thought it was worth the risk. It tasted pretty good, so I started drinking more of it, and within a couple of days, I realized I was starting to break out with an itchy rash anywhere that my skin was warmer and sweatier. Lovely! So, no diet sodas at all for me in college.

I've had aspartame in some foods – yogurts and the like – but don't really like risking an outbreak, so I rarely indulge (!) in artificially sweetened yogurts or chewing gums.

The really annoying and possibly health-threatening thing is that artificial sweeteners are showing up more and more often in more and more unusual and unexpected places, like medications, condiments, and many kinds of packaged foods. And I was not pleased to read that saccharine was quietly reintroduced a few years back, while all this time I thought it had been permanently banned because it was thought to be a carcinogen. Silly me! Those powerful sweetener manufacturers were able to convince Congress that saccharine was no biggie, so hurray! We can have as much as we want! Bladder cancer for everybody!

Many of these "hidden sweeteners" are also derived from corn, and although I don't think I'm allergic to corn in its simpler forms (corn chips, tortillas, straight off the cob, etc.) it's possible that cutting down on corn syrups and related sweeteners would be a good thing. My friend Steve is convinced that corn syrup is the root of all health evils, and who knows?


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4 thoughts on “Sweetness and Light and Distress and Diarrhea

  1. I have had the same reaction every time I eat cheerios. I’ve heard this is from the tripotassium phosphate, not the sweetners. Whatever it is, I’m staying away from Cheerios.

  2. I believe it may be the tripotassium phosphate also. It used to be trisodium phosphate. If you try to feed them to birds, they will not even touch them. Not a very natural food. Stick to more natural cereals.

  3. Since then I’ve settled on Special K (with honey) and also natural oatmeal with raisins, almonds, and brown sugar. The cafeteria at work makes it, need to ask if it’s instant or the real deal.

    Oh, and it turns out that saccharin is chemically related to sulfa drugs, and yes, it’s in some prescription mouth rinse I use. Bleargh!

  4. Just came across this while searching for the side effects of saccharine sodium, the artificial sweetener used in–of all things–a generic version of Pepto-Bismol. It certainly does not “help” the symptoms I took it for. One usually does not expect an increase of certain “distress” when one takes an OTC. Not a pleasant experience. From now on I’ll read the package more carefully AND not buy the generic version of the real thing. Unless the real thing contains an artificial sweetener as well. Thanks for the post.

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