There’s a paradox in dentistry. We have more advanced preventive and restorative treatments available to us than at any time in history, but we still have worse teeth than most cavemen. Why? The short answer is sugar.
Americans eat so much sugar that it is a miracle any of us have any teeth at all. In fact, the average American eats about 130 pounds of sugar each year. That’s about 17 times the amount of sugar Americans ate two centuries ago. And with that rise in sugar consumption, we saw a dramatic increase in cavities and tooth loss through the 1950s. It was so bad that US Army recruiters in World War I had to reject 24 out of every 1000 18-35 year-olds because they didn’t have the minimum 12 teeth required for service (and dentures could count toward your 12!).
We’ve certainly improved since then, but we still face many challenges because of the high level of sugar that people eat. If we could find a suitable sugar substitute, it would dramatically improve our oral health (not to mention do wonders for the obesity epidemic). But it’s not an easy task.
More Sweet Than Bitter
There have been many promising sugar substitutes over the years. Most of them fail because they don’t taste quite right. Although these substitutes are plenty sweet enough, they come with a bitter aftertaste. And sometimes it’s even the sweetness that’s the problem. They taste too sweet as well as bitter.
Stevia is one of the most recent promising candidates. Researchers hoped that they could isolate the sweet part of the taste and leave the bitter behind, so they sorted through 40 different sweetening compounds in the sweetener, only to find that the two tastes seemed to be inextricably linked.
Dream of Caramel
What makes sugar so vital in cooking is that it does so much more than add sweetness. It is also vital for the texture of many things. It adds viscosity and mouthfeel to drinks. You add sugar to your coffee and you’re rewarded with a luscious elixir. But put in that pink, yellow, or blue packet and all you get is sweet water. And that makes them taste even more fake: they don’t feel sweet, so when they taste sweet it’s not right.
And if you’re baking with sugar, you get the ability to bind moisture, helping to make your cakes moist and fluffy. With artificial sweeteners, you have to add extra moisture. And resign yourself to having gummy cakes, often with significant aftertaste.
And if you are wanting to caramelize a sauce or make caramels, there’s pretty much no way to do that except with sugar. Or honey or maple syrup, which are just different forms of sugar.
These Are All Safe, Right?
Another problem with artificial sweeteners is that they are constantly dogged by health concerns. The truth is that in general these sweeteners have all gone through extensive testing and they’ve all come up green: few health concerns.
But there are some studies that show consuming ridiculous amounts of sweeteners may carry some level of risk. That creates a nagging sense in many people’s minds that artificial sweeteners may be dangerous. And when you combine that with the faintly chemical taste of the sweeteners, it alarms people and turns them off from the sweeteners.
Sugar in the Morning, Sugar in the Evening, Sugar at Suppertime
The truth is that there may be no good way to design a sugar substitute. Nothing may ever be able to substitute for sugar because nothing else is sugar. The challenge may remain just what it’s always been: learning to do without. Adding less sugar to our coffee, tea, or sauces, and maybe skipping desserts once in awhile. Unfortunately, that’s easier said than done. So we keep hoping for a good substitute.