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Wednesday November 29, 2006
FOOD SAFETYBY CHIA JOO SUAN
WHEN you look at the label of processed food, you will possibly find sugar as one of the ingredients. Almost all processed foods have sugar added in one form or another. It may not be the sucrose or table sugar that we are familiar with. They can be high fructose glucose syrup, glucose syrup, corn syrup or dextrin derived from the starch of corn, potato, wheat, tapioca or other starchy food.
Sugar gives us energy and makes food tastes good. After years of research, scientists have found that the fructose in sugar used commercially is cause for concern.
Fructose is a simple sugar known as monosaccharide or a simple carbohydrate. It is also present in most vegetables and fruits. The amount of fructose present naturally in fruits and vegetable may help to stimulate proper glucose metabolism.
Fructose has a low glycemic index of 20 compared to 68 for sucrose and 100 for glucose. Since it does not cause rapid rise in blood sugar, it was once thought to be a good substitute for cane or beet sugar.
Fructose is sweeter than table sugar, and thus is more economical to use to obtain the same level of sweetness in processed food. The health concern arises mainly due to the rapid increase in the variety of processed foods and the large amount of sugars added.
Our body is able to recognise the different types of sugar we consume. Fructose is digested in the liver. Glucose, the most basic sugar, is metabolised by insulin released by the pancreas.
When we consume too much processed foods that are loaded with sugars, the liver may convert the fructose into fat, cholesterol and triglyceride. Furthermore, the sweetness and calories from fructose do not make us feel satisfied, and may lead to overeating which causes weight gain. Obesity, high levels of fat, cholesterol and triglyceride in the blood are associated with increased risk of heart disease, Type 2 diabetes and other health problems.
To some people fructose may cause water retention in the intestine and lead to bloating, excessive flatulence, loose stools and even diarrhoea. These may happen depending on the amount consumed and the health of the individual.
Fructose also chelates with minerals, especially zinc, copper and chromium, and decreases their availability. This may lead to mineral deficiency and impairment of the immune system.
If a person is on a weight control programme, it is good to cut down the intake of high calorie food such as soft drinks, cream, confectionary and high fat processed foods.
Commercial fruit juice is also loaded with sugar and should not be taken as a substitute for fresh fruit or juices. Go for home-made fruit juices. This is a much healthier choice.
With changing lifestyle and obesity issues, white sugar has been touted as a white poison.
Different types of sweeteners are surfacing in the food arena. One of them is stevia, which is a plant that can be planted in the garden.
Stevia, also known as sweet leaf, sugar leaf, honey leaf or sweet chrysanthemum, belongs to Stevia rebaudiana, a Compositae of the Asteracea family. The leaves have naturally occurring sweetness. However, the sweetness is not due to sucrose as that in table sugar.
The leaves contain a mixture of diterpene glycosides, mainly stevioside and rebaudiosides that give the intense sweetness. There are also terpenes, sterols, flavonoids, volatile oil and pigments in the leaves.
Some people take awhile to adjust to the taste of stevia as our taste buds take a longer time to taste the sweetness of stevioside. The sweetness lasts longer in the mouth than sugar, but it has a bitter aftertaste. Although it is stable at high temperatures, the bitter taste limits its usefulness in food application.
Stevia leaf is 30 times sweeter than cane sugar and contains no calories. Since its sweetness is not due to the common carbohydrates, it does not promote dental cavities and does not raise blood glucose levels.
Stevia extract is made into non-nutritive sweetener for people who crave for sweet food but are on weight control or are diabetic. Steria is also suitable for persons with phenylketonuria.
The use of stevia remains a controversial subject. For many years, people in Japan and South America have been using stevia as a sweetener in medicine, herbal drinks and food with no report of harmful effects on humans.
However, in early years toxicology studies carried out on animals showed mixed results on the adverse effects of stevia extract. Some reported weak mutagenic activity while others find no safety issues. Fertility study on animals had shown that high doses of stevioside seemed to affect the male reproductive organ, resulting in lower sperm production and might cause infertility. The tested female animals had fewer and smaller offspring.
In 2006, the World Health Organization (WHO) performed a thorough evaluation on studies of stevia and found no acceptable evidence of carcinogenic activity. Studies that showed stevioside having some positive effects in patients with hypertension or with Type 2 diabetes were recognised though this needed further research.
Some researchers believe that it is safe to use stevia sparingly, once or twice a day. If stevia were marketed widely and used in drinks, it could be a potential health threat.
The refined extracts and powdered leaves have been sold as a dietary supplement, but stevia is not allowed to be used as a sweetener in food production due to the controversy surrounding it.
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