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Fat and sugar substitutes: a health-conscious eater's dream?

Today we can enjoy everything from sugar-free sweets to practically fat-free meals, treats and condiments. But successfully fitting such products into a well-balanced diet demands perspective.

Who would have thought just 10 years ago that you would be able to walk into a McDonald's today and order a nearly fat-free hamburger? Or that you could drizzle creamy-tasting, reduced-fat dressing over your salad or top off a meal with a wedge of nonfat chocolate cake? And who could have predicted in the not-too-distant past that millions of Americans would someday be guzzling sweet-tasting yet sugar-free soda pop and hot cocoa as well as eating artificially sweetened yogurt? Welcome to the future, where technology, it would seem, has finally caught up with the demands of a populace that wants to eat whatever it pleases yet not pay the dietary price. Sugar substitutes, of course, have been in the marketplace a lot longer than fat replacements.

Americans have been consuming saccharin, in fact, for more than 100 years. And cyclamate, an acid derivative 30 times sweeter than sugar, entered grocery stores in the early 1950s. It is currently banned because of government concerns that it may promote the growth of cancerous tumors, but there are plenty of other sweeteners available to take its place.

Aspartame (trade name NutraSweet), a combination of two amino acids, is 180 times sweeter than sugar and is used only in cold foods and beverages because heating causes it to break down. Acesulfame K (trade name Sunette) is 200 times as sweet as sugar and can be used in cooking and baking as well as in refrigerated items. Saccharin, with a sweetness 3,000 times as intense as sugar, can also be incorporated into cooked as well as cold foods.

There are more artificial sweeteners awaiting approval from the Food and Drug Administration (FDA). One is alitame, which is made from amino acids and is 2,000 times sweeter than sugar. Another, stevioside, comes from the leaves of a plant native to South America called the stevia and is currently used in several other countries, including Brazil and Japan. And a third, sucralose, is being considered for use in such items as fruit spreads and milk products. Manufacturers everywhere, it seems, are angling for a piece of the $1.3-billion-a-year artificial sweetener market.

Fat Has Plenty of "Impersonators," Too

Fat stand-ins, and the products into which they are being incorporated, appear to be proliferating at an even greater rate than sugar replacements. Consider that in 1981 only 38 reduced-fat and fat-free foods were introduced. By 1992, that number grew to 1,257, a 33-fold increase.

Today, approximately 124 million Americans, or two-thirds of the U.S. adult population, use reduced-fat products. It seems people are making an effort to heed advice that reducing fat intake could help them avoid heart disease, certain types of cancer and a variety of other chronic diseases.

There are three basic ways in which food manufacturers reduce or eliminate the fat in the items they sell. One of them has nothing to do with substitutes for fat per se. Rather it involves the use of conventional ingredients in innovative ways. That's how, in part, Entenmann's makes its fat-free chocolate crunch cake, raspberry coffeecake and several other fat-free dessert selections. Specifically, it uses egg whites instead of whole eggs and nonfat milk instead of whole milk. It also varies the proportions of other ingredients. The end result is a poundcake, for instance, that has no fat as opposed to the company's all-butter pound-cake, which contains five grams of fat (45 calories' worth) per one-ounce serving.

A second method for eliminating a food's fat without sacrificing all the taste is to substitute any number of additives that fall under the heading "complex carbohydrates." These include everything from gums to gels. Many of these substances are not new and have been used for decades to increase a product's shelf life. Now food technologists are finding more ways to use these "impostors" in carrying the flavors of other ingredients and supplying fat's bulk and smooth, creamy or otherwise desirable texture.

Carrageenan, a gelling agent derived from seaweed, is a case in point. McDonald's adds it to its McLean Deluxe hamburger because it retains moisture in ground beef and thereby compensates for the loss of juiciness that occurs when most of the fat is taken out of a party. The carrageenan-fat switch allows for a quarter-pound burger that provides 10 grams of fat (90 calories' worth) instead of 21 (189 fat calories).

Another gelling agent, cellulose gel, mimics some of the properties of fat in Kraft Free nonfat mayonnaise dressing. Light n' Lively nonfat sour cream contains agar, a seaweed derivative that performs its gelling function by adding the viscosity usually supplied by fat. All of these substances are virtually calorie-free because they pass through the body unabsorbed.

It's the same with gums, including carob bean gum, xanthan gum, guar gum and locust bean gum, the last two of which are ingredients in Borden's fat-free ice cream.

Other complex carbohydrates that pinch-hit for fats today include modified starches - tiny round globules that mimic fat on the tongue such as cornstarch and tapioca. Betty Crocker uses cornstarch in its Deluxe Light Frosting.

Then there are the large complex carbohydrates like maltodextrin and polydextrose, which replace the bulk lost when fat is taken out of a product. Both the large complex carbohydrates and the modified starches contribute calories but less than half the number fat does and in some cases only a negligible amount.

"New" Fats

The third method for reducing the amount of fat in a product is to invent a fat substitute in the laboratory. The first -- and so far the only -- of these to hit the marketplace is Simplesse, which gained FDA approval in 1990. This combination of egg white, milk protein and whey does not resemble anything in nature. Shaped via a process called microparticulation, Simplesse both feels and tastes like fat on the tongue. The nutritive benefit: A gram of protein containing only four calories replaces three grams of fat containing 27 calories. Unsuitable for cooking because heat destroys its creaminess, Simplesse can be found in frozen desserts and has received the go-ahead for use in cheese, mayonnaise and several other refrigerated products.

Another lab-produced fat substitute -- one that is still in the test tube -- is Olestra, a high-tech combination of sugar and fat known in scientific circles as sucrose polyester. This substance can be put into products that go through a heating process. Olestra still has not received government approval because of health concerns. But if it does, an ounce of, say, potato chips will drop from contributing about 100 calories from fat to no fat calories whatsoever. That's because Olestra makes its way through the body unabsorbed.

A Chocolate-Cake and Potato-Chips Diet?

So, the discovery of many sugar and fat replacements must mean Americans are moving toward healthier low-fat, low-sugar diets -- right? If only everything went according to plan.

Artificial sugar substitutes have been available for more than a generation now, yet Americans today eat more sugar and other caloric sweeteners than they ever did -- some 130 to 140 pounds' worth a year. Whether or not reduced sugar intake helps in the battle of the bulge, overall we're not getting any thinner. To the contrary, we're becoming fatter. Some 28 percent of Americans are now considered overweight, up from 26 percent in 1980, according to the Department of Health and Human Services.

It appears to be pretty much the same story with fat substitutes. We're advised to eat less than 30 percent of our calories as fat. But since reduced-fat foods have arrived on the scene, the proportion hasn't budged. It remains at 36 percent of our calorie intake, just where it was 10 years ago.

One reason for the less-than-encouraging change in numbers may be the mistaken notion that adding reduced-fat, reduced-sugar foods to our diets means we can eat more of fatty, sugary items. Our talent for self-delusion convinces us that using artificial sweetener in our coffee somehow balances out a piece of Boston cream pie.

But that's not the way it's supposed to work. Lower-fat, lower-sugar products are supposed to replace their less healthful counterparts, not be eaten on top of them. Nor should these new products be eaten in extra-large portions.

A second problem is the addition of extra sugar for taste and bulk when fat is cut. That's how it is with Entenmann's fat-free baked goods. Many contain more sugar than the fat-containing items they are meant to replace. Consequently, they do not offer a tremendous savings in calories. It's true a one-ounce serving of the company's fat-free desserts has fewer than 100 calories, a seemingly small amount. But a one-ounce serving is about the width of a woman's finger -- less than even a petite woman would tend to eat at a sitting.

Extra salt is often added to make reduced-fat products tastier as well. Whereas a tablespoon of regular mayonnaise contains about 80 milligrams of sodium, a tablespoon of Kraft Free nonfat mayonnaise dressing has 200, a significant difference for those limiting sodium intake.

Even more potentially problematic, however, is the fact that these products tend to replace foods that are not central to a healthful diet in the first place. After all, soft drinks, cakes, frozen desserts, mayonnaise and sour cream are not rich sources of vitamins and minerals or of fiber and other substances sorely lacking in the American diet. They don't help Americans make the needed shift toward more fiber-rich fruits, vegetables, whole grains and less meat and poultry. In fact, their presence could lull people into a false sense of dietary security that keeps them from making the major food selection changes crucial to better health.

That's not to say these products are "bad." Quite the opposite; they greatly broaden dietary choices for people trying to reduce amounts of fat and sugar taken in. But they do not make a balanced diet in and of themselves. For that, eating at least two servings of fruit each day and three servings of vegetables along with lots of whole-grain breads and cereals -- and an average of no more than six ounces of flesh food -- remains as necessary as ever.
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Author:Lindner, Lawrence
Publication:Arthritis Today
Date:May 1, 1993
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