Eat too many sugary foods and you run the risk of weight gain and a trip to the dentist to take care of cavities. Some people say that we should use a more natural sweetener than table sugar, such as honey, maple syrup, or agave nectar. And what about sugar substitutes – are they safe to use on a regular basis?
Nutritive vs. Non-Nutritive Sweeteners
Nutritive sweeteners such as table sugar, molasses, and polyols provide energy and contain 2-4 calories per gram of weight. Non-nutritive sweeteners contain no calories, because they are far sweeter than sugar and only tiny amounts are necessary.
Sucrose and fructose make up sugar and other sweeteners that occur naturally in foods. Our body doesn’t differentiate between the sugar in an apple, the sugar we stir into our coffee, or the sugar that sweetens muffins and cookies. Molasses, honey, fruit juice concentrate, corn syrup, raw sugar, and brown sugar are examples of sugars routinely added to commercially prepared foods or used at home.
Polyols are sweeteners that aren’t well digested and therefore provide about half the calories of sugar. Commonly referred to as ‘sugar alcohols’, the preferred name is polyol, because they’re neither sugar nor alcohol. Polyols sweeten lower-calorie foods such as ice cream, candy, and baked goods that are often labeled “sugar free”, “no sugar added”, or “no added sugars”. Foods that contain polyols are also allowed to use the health claim “Does not promote tooth decay”. Caution: some people experience gas, bloating, or even diarrhea if they consume too many polyols. Just because a food is sugar-free doesn’t mean we should eat a lot of it!
One of the most popular polyols is xylitol, which found naturally in many fruits and vegetables. Xylitol has the same bulk and sweetness as sugar, but one-third fewer calories because it is not completely digested. According to the National Institute of Dental and Craniofacial Research, chewing sugar-free gum sweetened with xylitol between meals can significantly decrease risk of dental caries.
There are five different sugar substitutes currently approved for use in the United States by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA). Saccharin, aspartame, acesulfame potassium, sucralose, and neotame have undergone rigorous testing and are safe for normal use.
1. Saccharin (Sweet ‘N Low, Sugar Twin, Sweet Magic) is the oldest sugar substitute, widely used for over 100 years. It’s 300-400 times sweeter than sugar. In 1977 saccharin was banned due to research showing it caused cancerous tumors in rats. After thorough scientific review, in 1985 the American Medical Association determined that saccharin is safe for human consumption. Because other sugar substitutes with better taste and little or no aftertaste are now available, saccharin is used less often. Children should not use saccharin due to limited research on its safety in this age group. Pregnant women are cautioned to avoid saccharin because it crosses the placenta.
2. Aspartame (Equal, Nutrasweet, SweetMate, NatraTaste), 180 times sweeter than sugar, was approved for general use in 1976. The widespread allegation that the breakdown products of aspartame – methanol and formate – cause lupus, multiple sclerosis, or brain tumors is untrue, with additional research proving the safety of aspartame.
3. Acesulfame potassium (Sunett, SweetOne, Swiss Sweet) was approved for use in 1988. It’s most often used in combination with other sweeteners or in soft drinks, and is 200 times sweeter than sugar. One of the byproducts of acesulfame potassium is phenylalanine, a naturally occurring amino acid. Phenylalanine is safe for everyone except for the small percentage of people with phenylketonuria who cannot metabolize it. That’s why you see the statement “Phenylketonurics: contains phenylalanine” on any food or beverage that contains acesulfame potassium.
4. Sucralose (Splenda) is actually made from sucrose, or table sugar. That’s why the advertising for sucralose says it tastes like sugar. Sucralose is 600 times sweeter than sugar and is used in hundreds of foods and beverages. Sucralose is made by substituting three chlorine atoms for three hydrogen-oxygen groups on the sugar molecule. Chlorine is actually a natural part of many types of foods we eat every day, including lettuce, tomatoes, and melons, and the small amounts present in sucralose are safe for human consumption.
5. Neotame is a sweetening powerhouse: it’s 7000 to 13,000 times sweeter than sugar! It was approved for general use in 2002, and is typically found blended with other sugar substitutes in foods and beverages.
Stevia is a sweetener made from a South American shrub. It cannot be marketed or sold as a sweetener within the United States because the FDA has not yet established its safety. You’ll find stevia marketed as a dietary supplement in many health stores.
There are two sugar substitutes currently undergoing review by the FDA:
1. Alitame (Aclame) is 2000 times sweeter than sugar, and enhances the flavor of other sugar substitutes. It’s currently approved for use in Australia, New Zealand, Mexico, and the People’s Republic of China.
2. Cycalmate was discovered in 1937 and was approved for use in the US until 1970, when it was banned due to concerns it led to cancer in animals. In 1985 the National Academy of Sciences concluded that cyclamates are not carcinogenic on their own, and there is currently a petition to reapprove its use. It’s only 30 times sweeter than sugar, but when combined with other sugar substitutes can enhance the overall sweet flavor.
Three other non-caloric sweeteners are currently approved for use in the US as flavor enhancers, not sweeteners. They are 50-3000 times sweeter than sugar, but require additional research before they can be utilized as sugar substitutes. Dihydrochalcones (DHCs), glycyrrhizin and thaumatin (Thalin) are found in beverages, chewing gum, and some baked goods.
Because sugar substitutes are so much sweeter than sugar, a little goes a very long way. Other ingredients, such as maltodextrin or polydextrose, are added to sugar substitute packets to provide bulk. The current trend is to blend two or more different sugar substitutes together for the best-tasting product.
How Much Is Too Much?
The National Academy of Sciences’ Food Nutrition Board recommends no more than 25% of total calories should come from added sugars, including sugar, high fructose corn syrup, honey, and maple syrup. For a woman eating 1400 calories per day, 350 calories could potentially come from added sugars. Adding some sweetness to foods increases our enjoyment of eating, and keeping sugar consumption to a moderate level is definitely part of a balanced, healthy diet.
Up to 90% of consumers routinely use sugar substitutes, or foods that already contain sugar substitutes. The FDA determines an acceptable amount of each sugar substitute that can be safely used over a person’s lifetime, and includes a 100-fold safety factor. That means you could eat 100 times the recommended amount of a sugar substitute and not worry about health problems. Research studies show that the vast majority of people use healthy amounts of sugar substitutes.
Our Sweet Recommendations
Recent research published in the Journal of Food Science shows that the more artificial sweeteners we use, the more we crave sweet foods and beverages, which may increase our overall calorie intake and make it more difficult to lose weight. And the research we discuss in this newsletter brings up a disturbing possibility that using sugar substitute may actually cause our body to crave more calories, so that we gain body fat. It makes sense to use the least amount of sugars and sugar substitutes possible, especially if they’re used in foods that don’t contain many healthy nutrients such as vitamins, minerals, and fiber. Water or skim milk are healthier beverages than diet soda; a fresh apple packs a larger nutrient punch than canned applesauce sweetened with Splenda, and candy is still candy – even if it’s sugar free!
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