The Skinny on Sugar Substitutes

Perhaps one of the most commonly asked questions I receive as a dietitian is regarding sugar substitutes (any sweetener that you use instead of regular table sugar a.k.a sucrose), their safety and ways they can be used. Today’s post focuses on 4 different sugar substitutes and how sweet they are…or aren’t? 

Artificial sweeteners: Synthetic sugar substitutes that may be derived from naturally occurring substances.

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  •  Sucralose (Splenda)
  • Aspartame (Equal, NutraSweet)
  • Saccharin (SugarTwin, Sweet’N Low)
  • Acesulfame potassium (Sunett, Sweet One)
  • Neotame

Possible Food Sources: Baked goods, diet soft drinks and powdered drink mixes, candy, puddings, jams and jellies, and various other foods and beverages.

Nutrition: Artificial sweeteners have virtually no calories and may aid in weight control when replacing sugar rich foods. Although, some research has shown that artificial sweeteners have been linked to increased weight possibly due to an increased affinity for sweet following consumption; the official cause of possible weight gain is not yet known. For diabetics, alternative sweeteners may a better alternative to sugar, as they do not raise blood sugar levels. Artificial sweeteners may have intense sweetness as they are many times sweeter than regular sugar; remember when using these sweeteners instead of table sugar modify recipes accordingly.

Safety: According to the National Cancer Institute (NCI) and other health agencies, there’s no sound scientific evidence that any of the artificial sweeteners approved for use in the U.S. cause cancer. According to the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), artificial sweeteners are classified as “food additives” and have established acceptable daily intakes (ADI), the maximum amount considered safe to consume each day over the course of your lifetime, for each artificial sweetener.

sugar-freeSugar Alcohols: Carbohydrates that occur naturally in certain fruits and vegetables, but they also can be manufactured. They’re not considered intense sweeteners, because they aren’t sweeter than sugar and some are less sweet than sugar.

  • Isomalt
  • Maltitol
  • Mannitol
  • Hydrogenated starch hydrolysate
  • Erythritol

Possible Food Sources: Ice creams, cookies, puddings, candies and chewing gum that is labeled as “sugar-free” or “no sugar added.”

Nutrition: Sugar alcohols aren’t considered non-caloric or non-nutritive sweeteners because they contain calories. But they’re lower in calories than regular sugar, making them an attractive alternative. Sugar alcohols can be helpful for those trying to lose weight and in managing blood glucose levels.

Safety: FDA regulates the use of sugar alcohols and those used in U.S. manufactured food generally have GRAS (generally recognized as safe) status. Always check the Nutrition Facts label; many of the food products containing sugar alcohols still have a significant amount of carbohydrate, calories and fat. REMEMBER: Sugar alcohols in larger quantities can have a laxative effect or other gastric symptoms in some, especially children.

Novel Sweeteners: Novel sweeteners are combinations of various types of sweeteners, and difficult to put into a particular category.

  • Stevia
  • Tagatose
  • Trehalose

Nutrition: “Stevia” is the common name for extracts from the plant Stevia rebaudiana. Tagatose is a low-carbohydrate sweetener similar to fructose that occurs naturally but is also manufactured from lactose in dairy products. Foods containing tagatose can’t be labeled as “sugar-free.” Trehalose is found naturally in mushrooms.

Safety: Novel sweeteners are categorized by the FDA as GRAS substances. Note that although the FDA has approved highly refined stevia preparations as a novel sweetener, it has not approved whole-leaf stevia or crude stevia extracts for this use.

honeyNatural Sweeteners: Promoted as the “healthier and more natural alternative” these sugar substitutes can still undergo a large amount of processing.

  • Agave nectar
  • Honey
  • Maple sugar
  • Molasses
  • Fruits juice concentrate
  • Date sugar

Possible Food Sources: Natural sweeteners have a variety of uses both at home and in processed foods. You may use natural sweeteners to sweeten drinks such as tea, in desserts, on cereals, and for baking.

Nutrition: Natural sugar substitute’s vitamin and mineral content isn’t significantly different from that of regular table sugar. For example, honey and sugar, are nutritionally similar, and both break down in your body as glucose and fructose.

Safety: FDA recognizes fruit juices and nectars, honey, molasses, and maple syrup as generally safe for consumption. Although, consuming too much added sugar, even natural sweeteners, can lead to health problems such as tooth decay, poor nutrition, weight gain and increased triglycerides. REMEMBER: Honey can contain small amounts of bacterial spores that can produce botulism toxin. Honey should NOT be given to children less than 1 year old.

Skylar’s Bottom Line: Moderation. Moderation. Moderation. As with many things in life, alternative sweeteners should be used in moderation. Be aware of current research regarding your favorite sweeteners and look beyond the hype and pretty packaging. Choose a natural sweetener based on how it tastes rather than on its health claims.

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