Seduced by sweet nothings
Sugar's reputation has never been worse. It has been linked to obesity and heart disease - but does this make alternative sweeteners a healthier option?
It depends on who you believe. Though some call sugar sweet poison, that's nothing compared with what many internet sites say about the artificial sweetener aspartame, which has been blamed for everything from vaginal irritation and weight gain to Parkinson's disease and multiple sclerosis. Often used in soft drink, as well as some weight-loss products and yoghurts, aspartame is considered safe by Food Standards Australia New Zealand, except for people with the rare genetic disorder phenylketonuria, for which all newborn babies in Australia are screened.
Artificial sweeteners once linked to cancer in animals, including saccharin and cyclamates, have been given the OK, cautiously, by the World Cancer Research Fund, which says the evidence suggests no ''detectable effect'' on cancer risk.
On the face of it, artificial sweeteners let you have your cake and eat it; a sweet taste without the price of extra kilojoules from sugar. But is it possible they perpetuate and even increase our reliance on highly sweetened foods?
The answer is unclear, but an associate professor in food and nutrition at Deakin University, Russell Keast, thinks artificial sweeteners may leave us hankering after the real thing.
''Besides having receptors for sweetness on our tongue, we also have them through the digestive tract, where they pick up signals telling us that carbohydrate foods are on their way,'' he says.
''But with a food like an artificially sweetened soft drink, you get the sweetness but the carbohydrates never come and the body is saying, 'You promised me energy and it's not here.' The body may feel cheated, which drives appetite or increased hunger.''
Whether this happens with foods that contain carbohydrates, such as artificially sweetened yoghurt, isn't clear.
If you want to eat less sugar and also avoid artificial sweeteners, there is a middle road: stevia, a plant-based sweetener. It is so intense - 290 times sweeter than sugar - that it takes only a tiny amount to sweeten food (though it does have an odd aftertaste).
I have been trialling stevia this week with mixed results. For sweetening your cocoa with fewer kilojoules, stevia hits the spot.
It's OK in porridge, too, but less successful in stewed rhubarb. Though sweet, compared with raw sugar it is strangely flat and less satisfying. As for baking, I had more success with CSR Smart. A blend of sugar and stevia, it seems like a good compromise.
When a food is demonised, sometimes common sense gets lost. Too much sugar eaten throughout the day in breakfast cereal, soft drink, cakes, sweets and packaged foods is a problem; a teaspoon on your porridge isn't. Instead of spending research dollars searching for the perfect zero-kilojoule sugar substitute, wouldn't it be smarter to eat sugar the old-fashioned way? Skip soft drink, juice, biscuits and too-sweet yoghurt, and just add a bit of real sugar to real food when necessary.
''It's best to avoid highly processed food and also to remember that our early food experiences are very important for determining our food preferences as we get older,'' Keast says. ''We learn to like what the family exposes us to - and parents should be aware of this.''