Saturday, July 04, 2009

What's Your Poison? (Continued)


[[This is the continuation of an essay, Part 1 of which can be read by clicking here.]]

As we noted earlier, there is considerable demand for artificial sweeteners that will provide the sweet taste of natural sugar without its calories or other health complications. That turns out to be a tall order: [1] no, or very few, calories (sugar has 18 kcal per teaspoon); [2] no adverse effects on the consumer's health; and [3] tastes like sugar. The consumer, coming as s/he does at the end of a long chain of interactions -- chemical, dietary, legal, and commercial -- with the product, is likely to take the first two items more or less for granted, and to focus on the third. And this in turn will have its own commercial ramifications, because if the product doesn't taste convincingly like sugar, it is doomed to failure.

But what does sugar taste like? This is not as easy to answer as it might initially seem, but most people would agree that refined cane sugar has a 'clean' sweetness: it doesn't give the sense of having been flavored with anything else, and it leaves no aftertaste behind (beyond a lingering hint of that very sweetness for which it is being used). It is this simplicity -- and the immediate, enduring attractiveness of that taste -- that 'addicts' people to table sugar. Sometimes one may crave other types of sweetness, and at such times one will opt for molasses, brown sugar, maple sugar, or the various honeys; but the default 'flavor' for sweetness seems always to be that of plain sucrose. Thus, the most successful artificial sweetener is likely to be one that most convincingly imitates the taste of sucrose itself.

(The other major commercial source for sucrose, besides sugar cane, is the sugar beet; despite industry protestations to the contrary, it appears that cane sugar is superior in flavor to beet sugar.)

A whole series of such artificial sweeteners has paraded through American (and thus through global) culture over the past several decades. Saccharine was discovered in 1878 by a man working on coal tar derivatives; in the 1960s and 70s there was considerable research into the possibility that saccharine might be carcinogenic. The argument over this has raged ever since, but products containing saccharine were for a time required (in the US at least) to carry a health warning not unlike that on packets of cigarettes. (Saccharine is known in the US under various brand names including Sweet 'n Low™.)

During the early 1960s, when many were looking for a viable alternative to saccharine, the use of a sweetener known as cyclamate became extremely widespread in America. Cyclamate had been known since 1937, but it was the mid-century anxiety about saccharine -- and the very convincingly sugar-like flavor of cyclamate -- that propelled the latter to tremendous popularity. In one of the great ironies of gastronomic history, cyclamate was also identified as a carcinogen, and actually banned by the FDA in 1969. (Cyclamate was known in America under the brand name Sucaryl™, which is still available outside the US.)

Meanwhile, of course, scientific research and development continued unabated. In 1965 came the discovery of aspartame. The preceding uproars over saccharine and cyclamate led to an unprecedented eight years of the FDA's testing this new substance, after which aspartame was pronounced unequivocally safe. But this status was not to last long; challenges to that adjudication have continued ever since was first approved. (Aspartame is known in the US under various brand names including Equal™.)

The discovery of aspartame was followed by that, in 1976, of sucralose. Sucralose, marketed in the US under the brand name Splenda™, is touted by many as the safest of all artificial sweeteners, but recent studies have suggested that it may have adverse effects on the environment as well as on individual human health.

As of this writing, saccharine, aspartame, and sucralose are the three artificial sweeteners most commonly found in the US. They tend to be packaged, regardless of their manufacturer or distributor, in color-coded packets: pink for saccharine, blue for aspartame, yellow for sucralose. All of them are effectively non-caloric; none of them appears to contribute to dental caries or hyperglycemia; and none of them is entirely satisfactory. Generally speaking, people who use them seem to favor either aspartame or sucralose, and to evince an actual dislike for the other one (saccharine taking third place in this anecdotal evaluation).

There are also those who like none of these three artificial sweeteners. Such consumers, looking for a natural (i.e. non-synthetic) alternative, are likely to turn to stevia, a plant (related to the sunflower) whose leaves are naturally sweet. Stevia is extolled as the safest of all sugar alternatives, and there is some indication that the consumption of stevia may actually have a positive effect on insulin function; but it too has come under its share of scrutiny. It was actually banned in the US from 1991 to 1995; its use is currently banned in the European Union, Hong Kong, and Singapore. But apart from the safety issue, there is the problem that stevia simply doesn't taste convincingly like sucrose; many consumers indeed find its taste to be markedly unpleasant.

All the sugar substitutes currently available, as we have seen, have raised some degree of doubt as to their safety as a food additive; and no single one of them has succeeded in convincing everyone that it tastes just like sugar. So we are back to the quandary that faced us earlier: what to do?

Gustatory pleasure, nutritional enhancement, and disease prevention are all quality-of-life issues, although they vary in scope: the first is the most immediate of the three, whereas the other two are more longitudinal in their implications. Particularly where the issue is (or may be) the stimulation or prevention of cancer, one has to bear in mind that the results of ingesting carcinogens may not be detected for years. So, to a certain extent, the problems we have been confronting here involve a balance between present enjoyment and long-term welfare.

It looks as though the (initially) least attractive option might be the best one for the organism over time: backing off from all sweeteners, altogether. It's unattractive, of course, precisely because it recommends the severance of immediate pleasure; and our culture is one of not only immediate but constant, exigent gratification. As a society, we crave novelty. We want things bigger, more efficient, and above all faster. (Need I remind you, gentle reader, that America is the land of the drive-through Starbucks?) So the notion of deferral is by its very nature repugnant to our zeitgeist. Above and beyond that -- or perhaps I should say underneath and beyond -- is what seems to be some biological hard-wiring in the human being, from neonate infancy, to crave sweetness. (Is this related to the sweetness of breast milk somehow, with its vital nutrients?)

But cha dao, the life of tea, offers small and large ways of reordering one's pace, one's priorities, perhaps even one's worldview. Even if one is not ready to dispense with all sweeteners, or with all sweetness in the diet, it is possible to open a window (as small as one wants) on other ways of being. Even if you still love your hong cha sweetened, you might consider trying a tea you have never tasted -- an oolong or a green or white tea -- and drinking this without any additives at all. Be patient with yourself. Give your palate time to readjust, after the clamor of sugar and spice, to the quietude of a simple cup of tea. Savor it, in its clean simplicity. Allow yourself a moment to linger over the brew and become aware of the flavors in it. Eventually (but surprisingly soon) you are going to develop new registers of awareness. You will discover that the 'unsweetened' tea in your cup has its own subtle sweetness. It will whisper pleasure to your taste buds. After several small cups of a good da hong pao, do as they do in Wuyi Shan and sip a small cup of cool pure spring water. It will taste remarkably sweet to you. Over time you may find that this simple habit of sipping tea, and paying a little attention to it while you do, invigorates and illuminates your whole way of being in the world.

For further reading (thanks again to Suki for these links):

Dietary Sugar and Alternative Sweeteners

Sugar and Artificial Sweeteners


Anonymous said...

you know that my poison is more coffee than tea (although I admit to more than a little reservation about admitting that *here* ;)). but i like the idea of substituting the caffeinated drink for sugar/sweetener as a quality-of-life enhancer!

a fourth issue regarding sugar substitutes that tea drinkers don't have to deal with is the *chemical* properties of artificial sweeteners. as an erstwhile baker, i'm always the most fascinated to read about the trials and tribulations of attempting to find a substitute that will stand up to sugar's *chemical* properties: heat stability, browning, moisture retention, etc. that's a whole 'nother level of consideration (and headache).

Anonymous said...


I was intrigued by your essay on sugar and sweeteners, especially apropos of my friend John's study of slavery and the close links between the institution and the tea and sugar trade. I sent him a note alerting him of your post.

As for the tea practice of drinking baicha, white tea, that is to say water, when drinking tea, it was a custom at many famous springs to take a cup of pure water before preparing and serving tea. An example was Wuxi, site of the Second Spring under Heaven on the northern shore of Lake Tai in Jiangsu. Situated on one of two small mountains in Xihui Park, the spring produced a water so rare and pure that the Ming literatus Li Rihua issued a subscription to his friends who wished to have the water sent in stone jars from Wuxi to their houses in distant towns. A visitor to Wuxi arrived at the spring from a short path up the slope of the hill and given a cup of hot spring water. This was a tasting meant to present the remarkable quality of the spring's water. In the cup, the water was clear and pure with no hint of color. The steam rising from the water possessed no odor; a sip possessed no flavor. The only sensation was a heavy wetness, the perfect medium for making tea.

Regarding sugar and sweeteners with tea, the Japanese have long preserved the continental custom of serving fruit, nuts, and seeds with tea. In Chanoyu, the guest is served kashi, a small, sweet cake made of seasonal ingredients. For the month of July, one of the remarkably beautiful kashi was Iwa-moru-mizu, “water trickling out of rocks,” a cooling image reflecting the warm days of summer. The cake was made of kuzu, a transparent sweet made from the finest Yoshino arrowroot. Yokan, green sweet bean paste, was embedded within the cake, the clarity of the kashi suggesting pure, cool water running over moss-grown rocks. Once eaten, the kashi freshened the palate, the sweet lingering on the tongue to provide counterpoint to the anticipation of the bitter tea to come.


Jason Witt said...

I agree with what you've written here, especially how at the end you recommend people give themselves a little time to adjust to getting rid of the sweet stuff. I'm vegetarian and I don't eat animal products very often and almost never have any sugar. I don't like refined white sugar and if I have some I'd noticeably crash sometimes even within just a few minutes. Once your palate adjusts you'll be much more sensitive to different flavors. A recommended sweet tea is a real Cloud Mist tea like one that sells for about $100 a lb. It's a Green Tea that's naturally sweet and like an Oolong it doesn't get bitter with any oversteeping.

Veri-Tea said...

Corax, thank you very much for these two interesting and thoughtful (as always) posts.

I would be interested to know what longer-term studies on the effects of xylitol ('natural' sweetener made from things like corn and birch bark, meant to actually be good for dental health) might show, as well.

corax said...

@paleo: yes, chemical properties. i almost mentioned these, so i'm glad you brought them up. i know the makers of EQUAL have tried to cope with this problem by producing a sugar-equivalent called SPOONFUL. i don't know that it was all that successful.

@steve: thanks as always for your erudite additions. interesting that the bai cha at wuxi is served hot; in wuyi shan it was cool. i wonder how temperature itself interacts with our perception of sweetness.

@jason: thanks for the tea recommendation! i also find that bi luo chuns can be quite sweet.

@veri-tea: i'm grateful to you for reminding us about xylitol [which appears to be safer than its cousin sorbitol]. as you indicate, it not only does not promote tooth decay -- it may actually prevent it [e.g. by reducing plaque]. i have often tasted xylitol in sugar-free chewing gum, but i wonder how it would taste as a sweetener in tea?

Veri-Tea said...

@corax I occasionally use xylitol in tea, and it is probably the most similar thing to sugar - I never use artificial sweeteners, but occasionally honey or rapadura sugar - the latter is usually negligibly sweet and difficult to detect in the tea, the former often has a strong distinctive taste of its own that can be problematic, depending on the type of honey and what you're drinking, of course.

Oh the irony - I just discovered a competition in a magazine I subscribe to, for which the prize is A$2000 of gorgeous Royal Albert tea set - but to enter you have to submit your best recipe using Equal in place of sugar. *sigh*

corax said...

veri-tea, at your encouragement i have just ordered some xylitol. will be interested to see how it does in my tea.

i think you should enter the competition. even if you don't love aspartame -- think of the prize!

Singingcello said...

For my home brewed green tea (which I ice down and refrigerate), I always use agave nectar to sweeten as it dissolves easily in cool liquids and has a very low glycemic load, unlike cane or beet sugar.

corax said...

cello, please see part 1 for comments on agave syrup.

corax said...

and now i see that the LA TIMES has done a sort of primer of sweeteners ... though, inexplicably, failing to cite CHA DAO ...