Aren't artificial sweeteners more dangerous than sugar? After all, sugar is natural!

Ah, yes. The "it's natural" argument for sugar. I hear this a lot. Here's the short form answer: So are cocaine and heroin.

Outrageous comparison? I don't see why. All three are crystalline powders of naturally occurring plant compounds that have been extracted, refined, and concentrated. And in all three cases, it seems to be that extracting, refining, and concentrating that make them really dangerous. After all, the Bolivian natives have chewed coca leaves for centuries without much of evidence of the sort of wholesale physical and mental destruction that comes with the use of crystalline or crack cocaine. You can get enough opiates from eating a poppy seed roll to test positive for heroin on a drug test, but it's the white flour in the roll, not the poppy seeds, that will make you nod off after lunch.

Likewise, if all the sugar we ever got were in the form it is found in nature, we'd probably be okay. How is sugar found in nature? In modest quantities in fruits and vegetables, where it's combined with lots of fiber, which A) fills you up, so that it's difficult to overeat and B) slows the absorption of the sugar into your blood stream, thus damping blood sugar spikes and big insulin releases. ( Keep in mind, too, that the fruits and vegetables we know today have been bred for higher and higher levels of sugar, in the interests of flavor, so that even these have a somewhat "unnatural" level of sugar.)

Once you separate the sugar from the fiber, you start to run into trouble -- for instance, a glass of apple juice has more sugar in it than a comparable amount of Coca Cola. And once you get to the white crystalline powder state (or, for that matter, the corn syrup state), we're talking a substance of tremendous power.

Natural? You'd have to eat three and a half pounds of apples to get the sugar in one Hershey bar. Are you likely to do so? Of course not. That's about 10 apples! There just isn't any way in nature to get the concentration of sugar that the average American eats.

Well, okay, there's honey. But finding a honey tree and successfully getting past the bees was not exactly an everyday occurrence for your average hunter-gatherer. Further, putting on weight was a good thing for them, since food supplies were cyclical, and most folks went hungry for a while every year. I'd be willing to bet that there's no one reading this who goes hungry for several weeks out of the year involuntarily. (There's an easy bet. If you can afford a computer and online service, you can afford food.)

Perhaps more importantly, since they didn't abuse their carbohydrate metabolisms every day from earliest childhood with fantastic quantities of sugar, their occasional indulgence in a windfall of honey was likely far better tolerated than our sugar Indulgences. American children now get fully half their calories from sugar, which is downright suicidal. Perhaps people who haven't grown up on soda pop and Kool Aide and Sugar Crisp and Oreos and such can eat an infrequent dose of sugar sweetened stuff with no problem. But I don't know any way for you and me to get there from here.

Does all of this mean that I think that artificial sweeteners are good for us? No, not really. I'm wary of large amounts of aspartame, although I do use it occasionally, in modest amounts, and I'm aware that aspartame sweetened beverages and such seem to stall weight loss for a hefty percentage -- about half -- of low carb dieters. (As mentioned in the last issue, there's a controversy as to whether the problem is the aspartame or citric acid, another common ingredient often found along with it.) I've tried acesulfame K and a few products sweetened with it, and find it okay. I've read some objections to it, but most of them seem to amount to "It's artificial, so it must be evil." I've seen one claim that Ace-K (commonly called Sunnette) is carcinogenic, but then, we know for sure that cancers feed on sugar, so even if that's true, it's surely not a reason for using sugar instead. Saccharine -- mostly sold in the form of Sweet 'n Low -- isn't very useful for anything more than sweetening coffee or tea, since it's so bitter when used in quantity.

Splenda, made from the sweetener sucralose, is new on the market here in the US, tastes wonderful, and so far seems to be pretty safe. It does contain some carbs in its Splenda form ( 0.5 g per teaspoon, which is 1/8th the carbs of sugar ), but for me has become the sweetener of choice. So far, I haven't found anything it doesn't work in, but no doubt I will. Certainly it won't give the same texture as sugar -- sticky, gooey, moist, all that stuff.

I do think that over all, the ideal is to wean ourselves away from needing sweet stuff all the time. I have reached this goal; I made a sugarfree dessert this weekend for the first time in over a month. However, reaching this degree of indifference to sweets took me quite a while; I ate sugar free chocolate mousse every day when I started low carbing! I feel that what happened to me was that as my physical craving for sugar subsided, I slowly got to the point where the taste of sweet stuff just didn't draw me like it used to. I've known the same thing to happen to low carbing friends. I do use small amounts of artificial sweetener -- generally Splenda -- in a number of general cooking applications, like adding a touch of sweetness to a cole slaw dressing, or making sugar-free ketchup. The amounts I get this way are small indeed.

There's stevia, of course. For those of you who haven't encountered it, stevia is a completely natural, carb and calorie free sweetener from the South American shrub Stevia Rebaudiana. It's seriously sweet! (How seriously sweet? The amount of stevia extract that would fit on the head of a pin would be plenty to sweeten a cup of coffee or tea -- perhaps even too much.) It's also better in some things than in others. I know some folks, for instance, who find stevia to be just fine in coffee or tea. I've been known to use it in protein shakes, and that's good, too. On the other hand, when I tried to use it to make a sugar free chocolate cheesecake, the results were nothing short of vile. Stevia, used in any large quantity, has the same sort of edgy bitterness that saccharine does. It's useful, but it's not a viable substitute for sugar in all applications, by any means.

I do think that moderate use of artificial sweeteners, while perhaps not nutritionally ideal, is a whole lot safer than eating the truly unnatural amounts of sugar we've grown accustomed to. I would suggest that you start to cut back on your consumption of very sweet things in general, so as to encourage yourself to lose the taste. In particular, it's very easy to take in a vast amount of artificial sweetener and other interesting chemicals by drinking pop or Crystal Light every time you're thirsty. Water (plain or sparkling), tea, coffee, herbal teas all are worth trying. If you're genuinely thirsty, there's nothing like water. Indeed, even though I drink my tea unsweetened, I'm trying to get in the habit of drinking a big glass (I have glasses that hold a whole liter!) of water when I'm thirsty, and then deciding if I want tea as well. Try to learn to quench thirst with water, saving other beverages for when you really want the flavor or the caffeine or whatever.

Too, pay attention to your changing sensitivity to sweetness. I know that many things taste sweet to me now that didn't used to, simply because I'm not overloading my taste buds with sugar. One of the pleasant results of this is that fruit really is a very yummy, sweet-tasting dessert treat to me now, which is something new for me. A half a grapefruit tastes like heaven! Strawberries are incredible! As fruit comes into season, I'll be working on dessert recipes using the lowest sugar fruits, and I think that you die hard candy freaks will be surprised how good you find them after keeping away from sugar for a while.

But if it's a choice between eating an artificially sweetened dessert, and eating one that's loaded with sugar -- if the artificial sweeteners are the thing that is allowing you to walk away from the sugar -- I say eat the artificial sweeteners, even if they are "unnatural".

Be wary of the word "natural". Rattlesnake venom is natural. Death angel mushrooms are natural. Three out of every five babies dying before their fifth birthday is natural. Natural ain't all it's cracked up to be.