- Food and Cooking
Healthier Alternatives to Diet Drinks
Lose the Artificial Ingredients
Each day, more people become concerned about the chemicals used in commercial diet drinks. We have been advised for years to switch to plain water, but let's face it—plain water is blah. So on our way to switching to plain water, there are many alternatives that can serve as a waypoint that are healthier than the diet sodas on supermarket shelves.
While it is true that some of the reports of bizarre health conditions associated with diet pop are probably overblown, there is growing reason for concern about the use of artificial sweeteners, and even caramel coloring. The good news is that humans have loved sweet things for many thousands of years preceding the age of "better living through chemistry," and so there are many natural alternatives to the popular diet drinks that taste much better, too!
Why Give Up Artificial Sweeteners?
There are many reasons to give up artificial sweeteners. First, although you don't realize it, they taste awful! I drank diet drinks for many years, and once I made the decision to quit drinking them, occasionally I had unbearable cravings. When I would go to buy a diet drink, they tasted so awful and so chemical-laden that I could not drink more than a few sips, and then I ended up throwing the rest of the drink away. Natural sweeteners do not have that chemical aftertaste.
As for the other reasons, artificial sweeteners have side effects, and some of them can be quite worrisome. The Center for Science in the Public Interest says,
The food and chemical industries have said for decades that all food additives are well tested and safe. And most additives are safe. However, the history of food additives is riddled with additives that, after many years of use, were found to pose health risks… The moral of the story is that when someone says that all food additives are well tested and safe you should take their assurances with a grain of salt.
- Cyclamates were banned in the USA in 1969, although still sold in other countries.
- Saccharin was required to have a warning label, but then the warning label was removed. However, some people who are allergic to sulfa drugs should avoid saccharin because of the possibility of allergic reactions. Reactions can include headaches, breathing difficulties, skin eruptions, and diarrhea, and can cause irritability and muscle dysfunction. The Center for Science in the Public Interest suggests that this sweetener should be avoided where possible.
- Although sucralose is considered safe, some people react badly to it. Symptoms associated with sucralose are gastrointestinal problems (bloating, gas, diarrhea, nausea), skin irritations (rash, hives, redness, itching, swelling), wheezing, cough, runny nose, chest pains, palpitations, anxiety, anger, mood swings, depression, and itchy eyes. I had a horrible gastrointestinal reaction to it the only time I tried it and would never willingly eat it again. In addition, Splenda™ has 96 calories per cup, compared with sugar's 774 calories, so the Splenda™ brand is not a zero-calorie sweetener. Because of its presence in baked goods, it is very easy to consume a cup of Splenda™ without being aware of it.
- Aspartame must be avoided by phenylketonurics, and many people have doubts about its safety. The Center for Science in the Public Interest suggests that this sweetener should be avoided where possible. Research suggests that aspartame may contribute to headaches, depression, cancer, and increased hunger, leading to weight gain rather than weight loss.
- Neotame is an offshoot of aspartame. People who are concerned about the safety of aspartame are also concerned about netoame.
- Acesulfame K is new, and critics point to the lack of sufficient safety studies. The Center for Science in the Public Interest suggests that this sweetener should be avoided where possible. Acesulfame K contains the carcinogen methylene chloride. Long-term exposure to methylene chloride can cause headaches, depression, nausea, mental confusion, liver effects, kidney effects, visual disturbances, and cancer in humans.
Natural, Zero-Calorie Sweeteners available from Amazon
If you want to sweeten coffee or tea, for my taste there is no better product than stevia! Stevia is a plant native to South America which has been used for thousands of years with no harmful side effects. It is a good sweetener of choice for diabetics because it does not cause a rise in blood sugar, and has certain anti-cavity compounds as well!
What about the natural sweeteners?
- Erythritol is made from glucose by fermentation, has no effect on blood sugar, and does not cause tooth decay. It is absorbed by the body, and tends not to cause the laxative effects of other sugar alcohols. Erythritol is nutritionally unavailable to harmful bacteria, in effect "starving" them.
- Stevia has been proven to be safe, and has been used for thousands of years. A plant native to Paraguay, you can buy stevia as drops (plain, or in a wide variety of flavours), packets, tablets, or plain (where you use a tiny amount to replace sugar). Medical research has shown that stevia can have a positive effect on both hypertension (high blood pressure) and diabetes mellitus (Type 2, or adult-onset diabetes). In addition, stevia has no effect on blood glucose levels. If you are so inclined, you can even grow it yourself; however, it is hundreds of times sweeter than sugar, so you will need some experimentation to get the right amount from your leaves. The best way to use stevia you have grown yourself is to bruise the leaves and make an infusion in water, keep it in the refrigerator or freezer, and use as drops to sweeten your food and drink
Stevia has been approved by the FDA as a supplement (although not as a sweetener), and commercial diet drinks are now being marketed with stevia as a sweetener.
Monkfruit is an excellent and good-tasting low-calorie sweetener and does not have the bad effects of the artificial sweeteners.
Liquorice root imparts a sweet flavour to any drink. Make an infusion and mix it with your tea, or add it to your teapot along with your tea bags or tea leaves.
- Monkfruit and similar sweeteners derived from various fruits (mostly exotic) are lower in calories than sugar, and so while not ideal for completely cutting out the calories, they are certainly better for you in terms of your health than most of the artificial sweeteners, and are less caloric than sugar for the same amount of sweetness. Because they are made from fruit extracts, they will tend to taste more "natural" than even liquorice root and stevia (although both products are natural, derived from plants).
- Liquorice root is both non-caloric and generally safe; however, you should check with your doctor if you are going to be using it regularly, as it can have a small effect on your blood pressure in high enough doses.
- Honey and agave syrup are natural; however, they are not non-caloric.
- Evaporated cane juice, "Sugar in the Raw," brown sugar, and sucanat are all derived from the cane plant, the same place sugar comes from. There is evidence that too much sugar can be harmful for you, so you will want to limit your intake. In addition, these are not non-caloric, but contain exactly the same number of calories as refined white sugar.
It's Not Just the Drinks That May Not Be Safe
Chemicals from the drinks can interact with the plastic used in the bottles, and create untested compounds. In addition, chemicals from the plastic interact with the phosphoric acid in the drink and can leach into the drink, so that you end up consuming compounds from the container as well as the drink.
And, of course, all those plastic bottles, even if you recycle, are bad for the environment!
What Can You Drink Instead of Diet Drinks?
So if you've decided to give up artificially sweetened diet drinks, what can you drink instead? Never fear, there are plenty of alternatives that are not only have low or zero calories, but are even healthy for you.
An amazing book documenting the health benefits of drinking tea.
Teas are exceptionally healthy for you, and are loaded with different kinds of micronutrients and phytonutrients. In addition, teas by themselves have zero calories. If you want to cut down on caffeine, you have a choice of many decaffeinated teas, or you can use herbal teas. Iced teas make refreshing drinks! Some teas may even help with insomnia or other health conditions. For example, white tea has been shown in controlled studies to boost your immune system, and green tea is suspected to help with thermoregulation (how fast your metabolism uses calories).
Because tea is made from the leaves, bark, stem, or roots of plants (depending on the kind of tea you drink), when you drink tea, you are ingesting all those helpful nutrients from plants. While drinking tea won't provide you with significant amounts of nutrition, you will absorb some benefits from the phytonutrients available in tea.
However, as with everything, moderation is key. There has been a reported case of a man who drank sixteen nine-ounce glasses of regular black iced tea per day, and suffered kidney problems because of an overdose of oxalates. One way to avoid this health problem is to vary your teas by alternating different kinds of herbal teas with regular black tea. You can also try green tea (unfermented), white tea (immature), oolong tea (semi-fermented), and so-called "red" or rooibos tea, which is actually a kind of herbal tea.
Herbal teas contain many health benefits. Because they are so diverse (practically any plant you eat can be made into a tea), it is better to consider their benefits separately from that of the Camellia Sinensis plant, which is used in black, oolong, green and white teas.
You do not need any special equipment to make iced tea: you can simply put a few teabags or bruised herb leaves into a large glass container, fill with room-temperature water, and wait. So while an iced tea maker is handy, and I use one myself, I also make tea the simpler way and it works just as well. However, there is one kind of herbal tea that really benefits from heating the water for infusion, and that is linden. For some reason, the floral fragrances in this particular tea do not release well in cold water, so for this particular kind of tea, steeping the bags in hot water is a must.
My absolute favorite herbal tea blend!
Where many people get into trouble with tea, is that they like their tea very sweet (I do, too!) and this creates a problem because pre-sweetened teas that you buy in the grocery store are loaded with sugar, one or more of the artificial sweeteners listed above, or even worse, with high-fructose corn syrup. By using one of the natural low-calorie sweeteners listed above, and making your own tea from scratch, you can have that sweet taste without sacrificing your health, and in addition, you will be gaining all the health benefits provided by drinking tea!
The French Connection—Antésite
One of the joys of my life was my ability to live in foreign countries, and in France I discovered what I think is the greatest drink additive of all. Back in the year 1898, a French pharmacist named Noel Berton-Perrot, who lived and worked in Voiron, France, was concerned about the plight of the railway and construction workers, who often drank wine at lunch and suffered terribly both from dehydration and alcoholism. Mr. Berton-Perrot did extensive experimentation and discovered the liquorice root has hydrating properties, as well as other health benefits. Following those experiments, he developed a concentrate that could be added to water to both flavour the water and provide hydration over and above plain water. This product, named Antésite, which comes in a small glass bottle, is added to water (about ten drops to a six-ounce glass). The original flavour, anise (liquorice) was followed in the 1920s by lemon, orange and mint. Cola (yes, it really tastes like cola!) was added to the product line in 1976, and a tea flavour was added in 1997. Development of new flavours continues, with pink grapefruit/lime, apple/cinnamon, and eucalyptus/pine flavours released in the last year or two.
Now, you may be wrinkling your nose at the thought of liquorice, and I have to admit, I was never a fan. However, except for the anise flavour of Antésite, the liquorice flavour is completely unnoticeable, and even the anise flavour tastes great! Antésite comes in a 4.4 oz bottle, and each bottle flavours 87 liters (91 quarts) of water. Each bottle costs (at present exchange rates) about $6.00 plus shipping, and can be ordered from the Antésite website (if you are looking for the apple/cinnamon or eucaplytus/pine flavours, click on "Gamme Active" in their menu. They are considered the French equivalent of "energy drinks" and contain caffeine.)
Why should you consider Antésite? Except for their "active" line, these products contain no caffeine. None of their products contain sugar, and all their products in the Antésite line are free from calories. However, because they contain liquorice root, you should consult your doctor to make sure you have no contraindications for Antésite. I have been drinking Antésite since the 1990s and order a new box of flavours every year or two—it has certainly made me a much more pleasant person to work with in the heat. And I am not alone in liking it; all my friends who have tried Antésite have been wowed by the fresh taste and pleasant feeling of no longer being thirsty! One of my neighbours has a SodaStream, and we tried the cola flavour and it was amazing!
If you have any connections with your local grocery that prides itself on natural foods, I encourage you to sit down with the manager and explain to her or him why their store should begin to carry Antésite. If enough people begin asking for it, we may soon be able to buy it everywhere!
If you miss the carbonation of diet drinks, consider adding Antésite to plain carbonated water (like you can make in a SodaStream) or club soda. Add the Antésite to the sparkling water, and not vice versa, or it will overflow and make a foamy mess!
One of the best beginner juicers on the market! The wide mouth and big pulp bin mean less mess.
Fruit and Vegetable Juice
While commercial fruit juice is probably no better for you than colas, homemade fruit and vegetable juice is healthy and delicious. Again, using a SodaStream will help replace the missing carbonation, or you can add a teaspoonful of homemade juice to a sixteen-ounce glass of water to flavor the water.
How to make homemade fruit or vegetable juice? The best answer would be a juicer; however, you can achieve a similar result with a blender, a little water and a good-quality strainer. You can simply peel and core the fruit or vegetable, removing seeds, and then run it through the blender and press through a strainer. Be sure the save the juice in a labeled glass container in the refrigerator, and use it up as quickly as possible.
If you are turning up your nose at the thought of drinking vegetable juice, a good vegetable to start with is cucumber. Its mild flavor is refreshing, and a tiny bit of sweetener will make it more palatable if you are accustomed to overly sweet drinks. Instead of drinking the juice straight, add a small amount of the juice to water, or use a few tablespoons in a Sodastream bottle or add it to club soda or sparkling water.
Fruit, Vegetable or Herb Infusions
Ready for something a little more exotic? Consider an infusion from herbs, fruits, vegetables, or a combination. Take any fruit, vegetable, or herb, cut it up if necessary, lightly bruise it, and place it in a container of water. Leave the container of water overnight in the refrigerator. In the morning, you will have a delicious drink all ready to go!
Don't be afraid to try some new combinations: my current favorite is a strawberry-basil infusion, but cucumber is also a great summertime drink.
Believe it or not, you can use essential oils to flavor your water! If you buy a brand that is safe to consume by mouth, such as Young Living, you can add a drop of flavoring to your water and have all the benefits of the essential oils as well as the benefits of the water.
If you choose to do this, be aware that some essential oils may scar or discolor plastics, so be sure to use those only with glass containers.
If you miss the carbonation (which I did), skip the concentrate bottles and add about twenty drops of Antesite, or a few tablespoons of fruit or vegetable juice to the Sodastream bottle. You'll be amazed at the result!
Use with your SodaStream
For me, the hardest part of giving up diet drinks was giving up the carbonation. I noticed that the carbonation in those drinks helped my digestion significantly. (There are two reasons for this: one is that the bubbles do help digestion, and the other is that many people have low stomach acid, and carbonated water is more acid than still water.) That is why I was thrilled when I recently received a SodaStream as a gift (read my review), and I have been happily drinking carbonated drinks ever since. However, if you use this machine, you have to be careful. The SodaStream concentrates sold for use with the machine all use sucralose, one of the artificial sweeteners mentioned above (even the non-diet ones), and so I have experimented with numerous combinations and have developed quite a library of natural SodaStream recipes, as well as using it with Antesite.
Is carbonated water safe? For a while there was some controversy, but now the science is clear: carbonated water is just as safe and as healthy as plain water, so you can enjoy without any guilt!
These lovely bottles are a useful way to flavor your sparkling water without dirtying your SodaStream bottles. This price is for a case of six, enough for a whole suite of flavors, and the bottles clean easily with a bottle brush or some small metal pellets.
Problems with the SodaStream and How to Solve Them
As much as I love the SodaStream, there are several problems with the plastic bottles that the manufacturer provides:
- They cannot be washed in the dishwasher (even the so-called "dishwasher safe" bottles)
- The plastic picks up off flavors from the refrigerator
- If you flavor the water in the bottle, the flavor leaches into the plastic and stays there
- Chemicals from the plastic can leach into the water, especially if it gets moved to the back of the fridge and gets forgotten
I get around these problems by using a wiretop glass bottle, rather than using the SodaStream bottles provided by the manufacturer. I chill the water in glass, pour it into the SodaStream bottle, and carbonate it immediately, and then immediately pour the carbonated water into the wiretop glass bottle. Alternatively, you can pour the carbonated water into a drinking glass and flavor it in the glass you are going to drink from.
By flavoring the water in a wiretop glass bottle, any of the alternatives above can be made into a sparkling fizzy drink. Simply place a tea bag, your fruit or vegetable pieces, Antésite, a tablespoon or two of juice, or even concentrated coffee into the bottle with the carbonated water, let infuse for a few hours, and enjoy these healthful and delicious alternatives! My mother loves carbonated water with lavender essential oil and a little sprinkle of black pepper, so don't be afraid to be adventurous!
If you don't want to invest in a SodaStream, you can always buy plain club soda at the store and use any of these suggestions with club soda. However, the same problems with plastics apply, so try pouring your club soda into a glass wiretop bottle to prevent chemical leaching and off flavors.