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It’s been about two months since I pretty much gave up artificial sweeteners. I say “pretty much” because I’ll sometimes find a packet hiding behind another pantry inhabitant, and I promised to quit after all of the packets are gone. These packets are, obviously, not gone.

Do I miss my little yellow packets? A little. They gave me free license to make coffee, tea and oatmeal obscenely sweet, without caloric consequence.

I’m glad I tapered off instead of going cold turkey. By the time I really cut myself off, I was accustomed to oatmeal flavored only with cinnamon, walnuts and raisins and cups of coffee and tea sweetened with only a teaspoon or so of sugar.

I haven’t gained any weight from using sugar instead of sweetener. I figure as long as I don’t try to make foods taste as sweet as artificial sweeteners do, I’m good in the calorie department. I can afford the 15 to 30 calories that real sugar adds to a cup of coffee or tea, especially considering I’ve cut back on coffee and tea consumption in general.

An unexpected side effect: My usual cravings for holiday sweets are non-existent. Of course, this may have more to do with the fact that I’m too busy to even THINK about making cookies, much less figuring out how to make eggnog that doesn’t suck.

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This announcement is more serious than it should be: I’m giving up artificial sweetener.

For the better part of two decades, I’ve stirred the blue stuff or the yellow stuff into my coffee, tea and oatmeal with utter abandon. (As for the pink stuff, seriously, how does that bitter mess still even exist?)

I took up the habit in college during frequent visits to my grandparents. My grandfather, despite never gaining all that much weight, had recently been diagnosed with adult-onset diabetes, and my grandmother immediately traded out the sugar bowl for the blue stuff.

I quickly got used to sweetening my coffee and tea with chemicals. It seemed like the ultimate freebie: sweet beverages without bothersome calories.

I can’t tell you if the blue stuff had any ill effects on my grandfather or not. He died from advanced heart disease before the diabetes could get him outright, although I’m sure the two conditions didn’t co-exist peacefully.

Long story short, the increasing amounts of chatter about artificial sweeteners not being free of consequence have finally sunk in. It just makes sense that tricking your taste buds into thinking that they’re enjoying sugar might just be tricking your body that it’s about to have to process some sugar, too. Given my family history of adult-onset diabetes (my uncle developed it in his late 40s), I don’t need to play fast and loose with my pancreas.

Also, the husband, who has been trying to get me to give up artificial sweetener for years, finally emailed me a story on its possible ill effects with the subject line, “Please stop using artificial sweeteners.”

Nothing like a “please” instead of a “you should” to change a girl’s mind.

So, a couple of months ago I promised to taper off as I made my way through my final Costco-sized box of yellow packets. I began by cutting down on the number of packets I was using, adding only one instead of two to a cup of coffee or tea, and sprinkling only half a packet instead of a whole one over my oatmeal.

I soon came to a somewhat surprising conclusion: Artificial sweetener had enabled me to become accustomed to foods that were way sweeter than they should have been. The husband had suggested that I replace the sweetener in my coffee with (gasp) actual sugar, but the amount of sugar required to make it as sweet as I had gotten used to would be obscene. Same with oatmeal: I had been turning a healthy breakfast food into a bowl of candy (albeit candy with few extra sugar calories).

I haven’t used sweetener at work in weeks, which has caused me to cut down on my coffee consumption overall. I can drink unsweetened coffee, but I don’t exactly look forward to it. And I’ve cut sweetener out of my oatmeal completely, meaning I now enjoy the flavors of the cinnamon, walnuts and raisins that are stirred into it.

And now, answers to the top questions that I get regarding this effort:

  • Do I feel better? Meh. I don’t think artificial sweetener was making me feel that bad to begin with. I worried about the long-term effects above everything else.
  • Have I lost any weight? No. I wasn’t trying to lose any weight. I’m reasonably happy where I am. What I am trying to do, however, is avoid the seemingly inevitable post-40 weight gain that accompanies an unexamined diet and slack exercise habits.
  • Have I upped the sugar intake in my diet? Nope. I added maybe a teaspoon of sugar to a cup of tea one evening to accentuate its cinnamon and apple flavors, but overall I’m adapting to eating a diet that just doesn’t feature that many sweet items.
  • Am I turning into some kind of sugar-hating weirdo? Double nope. I love cookies, cake and candy, but I also recognize them as a sometimes food, not a daily treat.

This effort is almost over. There are only a few yellow packets left in the cabinet (I hesitate to take the container down and count). I have to admit, what I’m going to miss most is not the super-sweet coffee and tea (although, man, there’s nothing like a cup of syrupy sweet hot tea on a cold, rainy winter afternoon), but the ritual. You pour your coffee, add a packet or two of sweetener, stir in some milk or half-and-half, and sit down to enjoy the morning paper and/or a nice leisurely chat with your housemates or co-workers.

Only I can’t even get a daily newspaper anymore, at least in Huntsville, Alabama. The husband doesn’t even DRINK coffee, and I haven’t worked anywhere in years where folks truly spent the first 10 minutes of work catching up over a fresh cup of java.

I can’t hold on to the ritual, so I might as well let go of the yellow stuff, too. Adios, sweet chemicals. It hasn’t been real.

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During the last few years of her life, my grandmother would open the china cabinet each time I visited and make me choose something to bring home with me. She always seemed amused when I chose small, weathered items over intricate crystal and silver.

This glass measuring cup made it home with me a few years ago. It’s got clear engraved markings and three pouring spouts.

I certainly did not need another measuring cup, but it’s got character. And judging by my husband, friends and decor, I LOVE character.

It’s been holding my inexplicable collection of dried cherry pits for the past four years. (Hint: Don’t ask.)

I recently had overnight guests, and both adults were coffee drinkers who took real sugar AND cream, thus giving me the opportunity to set out the sugar dish that totally matches my plates. I did not, alas, have a creamer container. (For that matter, I did not have any creamer, but there’s no reason I can’t serve my 2-percent milk all fancy.)

I did, however, have a charming little glass measuring cup. Voila. It was finally pressed into service for something besides pit storage.

Best of all, I now know why I brought it home.

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An interesting side effect of cutting back on my sugar intake and cooking most meals from scratch: I’ve started to really taste the sugar in manufactured foods. Store-bought spaghetti sauce tastes like it’s made of tomatoes and corn syrup. A brand of hummus that I used to buy frequently is now inedible; it’s bland, and what little garlic flavor I can sense is overwhelmed by a sugary chemical aftertaste.

Luckily, my husband’s Uncle Vinnie sent me his family pasta sauce recipe when we got married, and I’ve got a working and flexible hummus recipe that I can throw together pretty easily.

I was going to say that it’s a double-edged sword, when eating healthier and thriftier forces you to forgo shortcut products when you really could do with a few extra minutes out of the kitchen. My taste buds and common sense have convinced me, however, that things that taste this revolting aren’t useful shortcuts at all.

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Update (2-9-11): You may want to hesitate to buy a Publix king cake this year. The king cakes I saw there today were absurdly flat, like somebody forgot to add yeast.

My blog stats indicate that people are eager to know whether the king cakes sold at Publix are worth buying.

Answer: They are, indeed. Publix king cakes aren’t going to compare to a masterpiece from Randazzo’s, but I assume if you’re close enough to New Orleans to get the real thing, you’re not looking for advice on grocery-store king cakes.

The first year we bought a Publix king cake in Huntsville, Alabama, the bakery folks told us they imported the unbaked cakes from someplace in Louisiana, then baked and decorated them at the store. Over the past couple of years, it seems like they may have discovered that a king cake is pretty much a giant French-bread cinnamon roll coated in colored icing and sugar, and they’re making their own version.

Publix may include mysteriously gigantic plastic babies in their king cakes, but they’re got the basics of the delicacy down: Publix king cakes aren’t overly sweet, they’re pretty and they’re big enough to serve a crowd at a fair price.

Buy one. You won’t be sorry.

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It’s good to have friends who help you maintain a positive attitude and healthy habits. It’s also good to have friends who urge you to make questionable choices every once in a while.

When I emailed a photo of a surprising food find — Little Debbie Banana Pudding Rolls — to a former colleague earlier this week, he responded immediately:  “My professional advice to you is to buy two boxes of them right now. Why two? Because you’ll eat one box on the way home from the store.”

How could a girl resist?

I grew up eating Little Debbie products at my grandparent’s house in South Mississippi — my brother and I could always find a box of the treats on top of the refrigerator. I am the Forrest Gump of Little Debbie products, with a readily accessible running list of the different varieties taking up valuable space inside my brain. Ask me about nearly any of the company’s products, and I can run down a quick review for you. Here are just a few that popped into my head this very minute:

Devil Squares: Their substantial filling and sort of weirdly textured chocolate coating combine for a unique and delicious culinary experience that made me, as a child, feel slightly more sophisticated than my tomboyish habits generally merited. (more…)

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I recently got a peek at the Mexican Coca-Cola trend during a visit to Atlanta. While standing in line for a sandwich at Star Provisions, I overheard the guy ahead of me convincing his dining partner to try a bottle. Never one to let a culinary opportunity pass me by, I grabbed my own Mexican Coke out of the refrigerator case. The cashier congratulated me on my choice.

Fans of Mexican Coke claim that its use of sugar makes it superior to the U.S. version, which is sweetened with high-fructose corn syrup. I admit it was a delicious soda, but it also came in a glass bottle, which always seems to make beverages taste better, at least to me. I also don’t drink a lot of soda, so my taste buds may not be equipped to allow me to accurately proclaim the supremacy of one formula of Coke over another.

What I found odd, however, was sitting in Atlanta, the home of Coca-Cola, listening to folks waxing poetic on the superiority of Coke made in Mexico, a product that was originally imported into the United States to appeal to immigrants. It just seems weird, in light of the anti-immigration mood that has swept the country, for Americans to appropriate a product that exists here only because Coke was trying to appeal to immigrants. No immigrants = no Mexican Coke.

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