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Thursday
Jan302014

Sugar Substitutes for your Sweet Tooth

So last week my daughter shopped for and took in snacks for her home room: a bag of Cheetohs, a 2L Coca-Cola, cupcakes made from a mix, and 2 containers of store-bought frosting.  Where, oh, where did I go wrong?!?  My only consolation is that she said she was just thinking about what her friends like.  Hmmmm.

If you follow our Smile Studio facebook page, you know I’m on a huge tirade against refined sugar. You see, I run across SOOO many patients (and it’s not just kids), who have tons of plaque and get white spots and cavities because they have a bad sugar habit (combined with less than stellar oral hygiene!).  And this isn’t just associated with braces.  I’ve seen it before braces are even applied, with clear aligners, and in retention. 

I’m not a whole lot happier at the thought of using artificial sweeteners, especially chemicals such as saccharin (Sweet’N Low), aspartame (Equal) and sucralose (Splenda).  Besides the long-standing concerns about the toxicity of these substances, lately I’ve been reading how artificial sweeteners trick the brain and end up contributing to weight gain and not improving diabetes

Other sweetener substitutes are the sugar alcohols such as mannitol, sorbitol and xylitol.  These are frequently used in sugar-free candies and gum but are rarely used for baking because they’re not as sweet as sugar, still have calories, and can cause bloating and diarrhea.  These are the sugars that “don’t promote tooth decay”, because they don’t feed the bacteria that cause cavities. 

The one I want you to pay attention to, though, is xylitol, because there have been numerous studies demonstrating that it is actually antibacterial to the pesky bugs in the mouth that cause tooth decay, and even to the pesky bugs in the nasopharynx that contribute to ear infections, sinus infections, allergies, and even asthma.  Some people use it as a nasal spray, and some even take it as a supplement.   What I recommend is that you find a xylitol chewing gum that you like, and use it instead of any other gum you are accustomed to using.  Now these can be expensive and hard to find (think Whole Foods).  I have found that Mentos PURE has xylitol as its number one ingredient, though it also has sorbitol and mannitol.  It’s readily available on most candy aisles.  Just be aware that xylitol is toxic to dogs.

I must caution you that I can’t wholesale recommend all products with xylitol or sugar alcohols as 100% good-for-you, because I can’t vouch for their pH.  We know that acidity in our foods and drinks are causing as much trouble for some folks as sugar due to acid erosion.  At least one report questions the widespread use of sugar alcohols without further study of the acidity of other additives.  

Other sweeteners you might consider (though you should know that they aren’t calorie-free or necessarily useful in preventing tooth decay) are whole, natural sweeteners such as medjool dates, molasses, honey, and maple syrup.  I prefer to use these at home in place of sugar when possible, because they are natural sugars that haven’t been refined.  They’re far easier for our bodies to process and less addictive.  You can find lots of recipes online but here’s my favorite “raw” brownie made with dates.  A side benefit to honey is that it is naturally antimicrobial and local honey supposedly helps to reduce allergies to local pollens.  I buy unsweetened yogurt and mix in a dollop of honey to sweeten it to my taste.

Stevia is another good sugar substitute that’s also naturally occurring, but it’s generally sold as a refined product extracted from the stevia plant.  You can buy it in many grocery stores, though it’s a lot more expensive than sugar and artificial sweeteners.  It’s got zero calories, and appears to have multiple health benefits in addition to not promoting tooth decay.  I’ve never tried baking with it, but I do buy it in packets for sweetening tea and coffee.

So the long and short of it is that we Americans have insatiable sweet teeth, and sugar substitutes don’t seem to take away our desire for more.  My personal rule of thumb is that if Mother Nature made it, it’s probably OK in moderation.  If it’s been manufactured by humans, I try to avoid it.  Of the refined or processed naturally occuring sweeteners I prefer Stevia and Xylitol, because of their proven health benefits.   

Dr. Farrar’s tips for managing your sweet tooth:

  • eat fresh, whole fruits, or drink juices or smoothies made from them
  • nibble on a small piece of dark chocolate, savoring the flavor with a warm beverage
  • chew xylitol gum (Mentos PURE will do just fine), especially after a meal for up to 20 minutes
  • sweeten hot beverages, oatmeal, and plain yogurt with local honey
  • if you bake, try some recipes using whole, natural sweets such as medjool dates or maple syrup or honey
  • if you must sweeten your beverage, use xylitol or stevia packets instead of Equal, Splenda or Sweet’NLow

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