By Tanya Caylor
How to Figure Out Which Sugar Substitute is Best for You
The average American consumes the equivalent of 20 teaspoons of sugar per day – nearly three times the daily limit recently recommended by the World Health Organization.
That’s 84 carbs – with zero nutritional benefits.
It’s not like people with diabetes can’t make room for a certain amount of sugar in their diets.
Trouble is, there are so many different types of sweeteners available now it’s hard to figure out the best choice for your own use, much less decipher what may be lurking in processed foods.
Recognizing “added sugars” in foods
An increasing amount of Americans’ calorie intake (16 percent and growing). Consists of what the FDA terms “added sugars”. Up to 35 sweeteners and syrups added to processed foods that help manufacturers avoid the dreaded word “sugar” in the ingredients list. This doesn’t include naturally occurring sugars such as the fructose in fruit or lactose in milk, nor does it include an increasingly long list of non-nutritive sweeteners.
These sweetening agents, which range from honey, and maple syrup to various corn syrups, to less familiar sounding terms such as maltose. A sugar produced when enzymes break down a starch appear as ingredients on food labels and are factored into the carbohydrate total but are not currently included under sugar totals.
In 2014 the FDA proposed new food labels that would track added sugars in foods, as well as printing calories in much larger type. The new labels are expected to go into effect later this year.
Though the carbohydrate totals won’t change, the new labels will help show how nutritionally valuable those carbs really are.
Navigating the universe of “diet” sweeteners
How is it that something can taste sweet and yet not have any calories?
Whether or not an ingested substance triggers a sweet taste in our brains has to do with how well its molecules bind with a taste-receptor protein on our tongues called T1r3. Sucrose, also known as table sugar, binds with T1r3 as it passes over the tongue and then later is metabolized during digestion, providing energy measured in calories – about 16 per teaspoon.
Saccharine, the oldest of the artificial sweeteners, has a molecule that binds even more closely with T1r3 than sugar. The brain perceives this better fit as 300 times sweeter than sugar. But saccharine isn’t digested by the body, yields no energy, and, therefore, as far as human beings are concerned, contains no calories.
In the days since 1878, when saccharine was discovered accidentally in a Johns Hopkins University laboratory, many other substances have come along that are sweeter than sugar but with a lower or even imperceptible metabolic effect. There are now eight high-intensity sweeteners the FDA considers to be “Generally Recognized As Safe” (GRAS).
Sugar alcohols such as xylitol and sorbitol are also designated GRAS, but are not considered high-intensity sweeteners because they are less sweet than sugar.
Here is a brief synopsis of each:
Acesulfame potassium: Another accidental lab discovery — this time in Germany in 1967 — this artificial sweetener is found in sugar-free gum, juices, and light ice creams. Its trade names include Sunsett and Sweet One.
Advantame: This non-caloric sweetener from Japan’s Ajinomoto Co was approved by the FDA in 2014. It is derived from Aspartame and can be used as a substitute for sugar or high fructose corn syrup in foods and beverages.
Aspartame: Another accidental lab discovery, synthesized in 1965 and now found in thousands of sugar-free foods and drinks, though it’s not used in baked goods because it is unstable at high temperatures. On the store shelves, its trade names are Nutrasweet and Equal. Though this sweetener, like Saccharin, has long been rumored to cause cancer. Both the American Cancer Society and the FDA say that occasional red flags raised in various studies over the years have never held up under subsequent testing. In 2007, the FDA said that after reviewing two decades’ worth of research it found “no reason to alter its previous conclusion that aspartame is safe as a general purpose sweetener in food.”
Luo Han Guo: An extract of a fruit grown in China and Thailand that is nearly 300 times sweeter than sugar and was used in traditional Chinese medicine for the treatment of diabetes. Also known as monk fruit, it has no known side effects and may contain antioxidants. Brand names include Nectresse (which also contains erythritol, sugar and molasses) and Monk Fruit in The Raw.
Neotame: An artificial sweetener made by Nutrasweet. It is chemically similar to Aspartame but much sweeter, making it appealing to manufacturers because less product is needed.
Saccharin: The granddaddy of artificial sweetener, with a trade name of Sweet ‘N Low, once carried a label warning of a possible link to bladder cancer. But after additional FDA studies the warning was removed.
Sucralose: Also known as Splenda, this product is made from sugar but is chemically altered by replacing parts of the sugar molecule with chlorine atoms that pass through the body without being digested.
Stevia: This natural sweetener was used as an herb for centuries before it was first extracted from the leaves of a South American plant in the early 1900s. The purified extract is about 200 times sweeter than sugar but contains no calories, carbohydrates or known side effects. One of the brands now found on store shelves, A Sweet Leaf, was founded by James May, who was recognized in 2014 as the “Father of Stevia” for his efforts in researching and promoting the extract in the United States. Other brands now commonly available include Sun Crystals, Stevia, Truvia and PureVia.
Sugar alcohols: These non-alcoholic compounds are found naturally in fruits and plants and are used to sweeten many “sugar-free” foods and candies. Common types include xylitol, erythritol, sorbitol, isomalt and mannitol. They are low in calories (ranging from .2 to 3 calories per gram, as opposed to sugar, which has 4 calories per gram), but may have a bloating or laxative effect because they are hard for the body to digest. The American Diabetes Association recommends counting half a gram of carbohydrate for each sugar alcohol carb listed on the label.
Why it’s best to limit the use of even “diet” sweeteners
The wealth of sugar substitutes available today provide more options than ever. But replacing sugary treats with artificially sweetened ones isn’t as effective as simply cutting back, studies show.
Artificial sweeteners may send a “sweet” signal to the brain, but because they don’t deliver a metabolic payoff, there is no corresponding release of dopamine, the brain’s “feel good” chemical. Instead of feeling satisfied or rewarded, many people are left craving carbs more than ever.
“Humans frequently ingesting low-calorie sweet products in a state of hunger may be more likely to ‘relapse’ and choose high-calorie alternatives in the future,’’. Said Professor Ivan de Araujo, who led one such study at the Yale University’s School of Medicine.
Another problem is that foods marked “sugar-free” or “no sugar added” are not necessarily lower in carbs. “Always check the nutrition facts panel, even for foods that carry these claims,” warns the American Diabetes Association.
Finally, one of the best reasons to quit bombarding your taste buds with sweeteners is that it may dull your perception of the natural sweetness in fruits and vegetables.
When was the last time you noticed the sweet taste of a carrot, or peas? These foods may not push your pleasure buttons with the same intensity, but your body will appreciate what they have to deliver.