[[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:  no, or very few, calories (sugar has 18 kcal per teaspoon);  no adverse effects on the consumer's health; and  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