Making Sense of Sugar Substitutes
There are countless choices when it comes to sugar-free or low-sugar products, not to mention plenty of conflicting information as to which sweeteners have the best benefits for our health and weight-loss efforts. In any case, sugar is usually viewed as a high-calorie enemy in our plan to whittle away our waistlines.
There are two main categories of sugar alternatives: no-calorie artificial sweeteners (the best known examples are aspartame, sucralose and saccharin) and low-calorie natural sweeteners known as sugar alcohols (mannitol, sorbitol, xylitol, malitol, to name a few).
The artificial sweeteners are chemically processed to be hundreds of times sweeter than sugar, so we only need a little bit to add sweetness to coffee and tea, with only a few calories. Additionally, artificial sweeteners are minimally absorbed by the body, negating the few calories they contain.
Some common types:
• Aspartame (brand name NutraSweet, Equal): 160 to 220 times sweeter than sugar. It is derived from the combination of two amino acids. Aspartame has been associated with the most controversy. While studies have been inconclusive, there’s widespread discussion on the Internet about it causing memory loss and headaches. It cannot be safely heated as it may turn into a form of formaldehyde. Moderate amounts of this sweetener have been shown to be harmless.
• Sucralose (brand name Splenda): 500 times sweeter than sugar and safe for baking. It is the only sweetener chemically derived from sugar. Sucralose is the newest on the market, so long-term studies are not available. It currently appears to be the safest artificial sweetener available.
• Saccharin (brand name Sweet ’N Low, Sugar Twin) 200 to 700 times sweeter than sugar. The oldest of the artificial sweeteners, it was at one time linked to bladder cancer. Further studies have proved inconclusive.
Sugar Alcohols (mostly found in baked goods and nutrition bars): It can be extracted from plants or more commonly manufactured from carbohydrates and starches. Sugar alcohols contain fewer calories than sugar. They are not as sweet as sugar, so usually more needs to be added to a product. The result is a product not necessarily lower in calories, but the impact on blood-sugar levels is approximately half the impact of sugar. Sugar alcohols, like artificial sweeteners, are not completely absorbed and metabolized by the body, so some residue can ferment in the intestines, causing bloating, gas and intestinal discomfort.
Other natural sweeteners: Some brand names are Truvia, Stevia, Z-Sweet, Swerve. These tend to be the safest with little or no calories. The sweetness is usually derived from a plant, such as the stevia plant. The most common complaint is a bitter taste and high price.
Food for Thought
When consuming sugar alternatives, the “sweet” food does not register with your brain because it is minimally metabolized. This can leave you unsatisfied and craving more, which can lead to binging or overeating.
Natural sweeteners that are derived from plants are the best for our health and waistlines, but they are pricey and can be difficult to find at mainstream supermarkets. Artificial sweeteners appear to be safe in moderation, providing little or no calories. In order for any of these sweeteners to be harmful to your health in any way, a very large amount would need to be consumed (for example, 100 cans of diet soda in one day). Sugar alcohol products can be higher in calories than other sugar alternatives and may cause intestinal discomfort in larger doses. Sugar in small amounts will be the most satisfying to your sweet tooth, but too much of a good thing is not good for your health.