Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Sugar Alcohols

Okay, so I know there is a lot of heat in the natural foods community over the proper place of sugar alcohols in a natural-foods diet. One camp says they are pure poison and should be categorized with aspartame as diabolical monsters of modern science; the other camp says they are healthy and natural, safe for diabetics, and as close as folks avoiding sugars can get to the real thing.

Now, in my personal experience, I've experienced far more intestinal distress with products off the shelf containing maltitol than I have with baked goods I make at home with a mixture of xylitol and stevia (depending on my mood, I often add Splenda, and this is a vice of mine I admit only reluctantly. I want to kick the habit, and I'm working toward it! But I digress.). Most (if not all) of the commercially available "No Sugar Added" or "Low-Carb" goods contain quantities of maltitol and/or isomalt, and whether its directly those two things, or those combined with the other conditioners/texturizers they add (inulin, maltodextrin, glycerin, etc) that hurts me, hurt me it does! Yikes.

Based on some reading I've done recently (here are a couple of the highlights: a broad overview on erythritol and an interesting side-by-side comparison of erythritol vs. xylitol in particular, and their digestive side effects), I've concluded that I'd like to give erythritol a chance, and hopefully replace xylitol completely. I'm awfully confused about it though. Its obvious to me that I should avoid aspartame and saccharin, and cut down on sucralose. But I know that I can't totally give up sweets, and stevia, although it is wonderful, does not fill the bill by itself. It is too bitter, too herbal, and lacks the mellow roundness and mouthfeel I seek in my baked goods and treats. By itself, it is great in liquids (such as salad dressings, teas and other drinks, etc), but I am not satisfied with stevia as a baking product without augmentation.

My concerns about xylitol are mainly the production process; even the most committed-to-natural manufacturers cannot deny the many steps it takes to process xylitol from the natural source, and several of these steps make me wince. Xylitol has a long history of use, starting in Finland nearly a century ago, and holds a great reputation among dentists (as my daughter found out when she was chatting with her dentist last week about the brownies we made at home the night before), but these facts alone are not enough to make me trust it fully. Erythritol is absorbed into the bloodstream differently than other sugar alcohols, and only about 10% of it makes it to the lower intestine (which I surmise is why it has a better track record for digestive symptoms than the other sugar alcohols). There's a rather thick lab report on erythritol's safety here. Just the fact that erythritol is produced by fermenting sugar and merely dehydrated, rather than subjected to a bath in hydrochloric acid (among other unsavory processes) like xylitol makes me feel more comfortable with it. I use guar and xanthan gums pretty regularly, which are similarly produced. Yes, I know they are made from sugar. Yes, I know they are artificial. And perhaps, if I wasn't already sick, I would be using sugars in their unadulterated, naturally-occurring forms, like raw honey, evaporated cane juice, and etc. I use these natural sugars in cooking for family and my kids, who are not trying to manage diabetes through diet. Maybe someday I'll be willing to make the step and give up artificial sweeteners altogether, but for now I'm not, and it seems like erythritol could be a better choice of the lesser evils for me.

I'll let you know how it works out in baked goods; I have never been overly satisfied with xylitol's performance. To get things sweet enough, they turn out almost chemically harsh; a similar effect, in my opinion, to saccharin. Erythritol is supposed to be only 70% as sweet as sugar, so we'll see how that works out. When you are eating only natural foods, even plain oatmeal starts to taste sweet! I ordered some today, so all recipes for sweet baked goods are on hold till I've had a chance to try out this new ingredient. Awesome pricing on both erythritol and xylitol at Emerald Forest (and no, I'm not being paid to endorse them.) and free shipping on orders over $30. :)

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