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Artificial Sweeteners & Other Sugar Substitutes – Are They Safe?

Google “sugar substitutes,” and you will find countless different opinions about them. I wanted to shed a little light on some of the more popular sugar substitutes and help you to make a more informed decision on your quest for sweetness. The following is a list of some of the more popular sweeteners that we are seeing these days, and a brief breakdown of each. I have included three categories of sugar substitutes; Artificial Sweeteners (synthetic sweeteners that may be derived from a natural source, such as sugar itself), Sugar Alcohols (carbohydrates that occur naturally in certain fruits and vegetables, but they also can be manufactured – these are not calorie free, but they contain significantly fewer calories than sugar), and Novel Sweeteners (combinations of various types of sweeteners):

ARTIFICIAL SWEETENERS

  • Sucralose (Splenda): Sucralose is a disaccharide in which three chlorine molecules replace three hydroxyl groups on the sucrose molecule – to put it simply, chlorinated table sugar. This makes it so that 85% of the sucrose is not absorbed and is secreted by the body. Sucralose is FDA-approved and heat stable, so it can also be used in cooking and baking. No long-term studies of Sucralose currently exist, though there have been few human trials done on it. There also have been recent studies released that note that Splenda could in fact affect blood sugars, and even contribute to the development of diabetes.
  • Aspartame (Equal, NutraSweet): a methyl ester of aspartic acid and phenylalanine dipeptide. Aspartame was FDA approved for general use in 1996 but is not heat stable and cannot be used in cooking or baking. Aspartame has been a highly controversial sweetener since it first came on the scene in the 1970s, though no definitive studies have shown that Aspartame leads to cancer. No other health problems have been clearly linked to Aspartame.
  • Saccharin (Sweet’N Low, SugarTwin): The basic substance, benzoic sulfilimine, has effectively no food energy and is much sweeter than sucrose, but can have a bitter or metallic aftertaste. Discovered in 1879, it is the oldest sugar substitute that is currently on the market. It is currently FDA-approved, but was banned in 1977 after studies linked it to bladder cancer in laboratory rats – this clause was lifted and it is no longer banned or labeled as causing cancer in lab animals. Saccharin is also unstable when heated and not used for baking.

SUGAR ALCOHOLS

  • Xylitol, Sorbitol & Erythritol: All three are natural sugar alcohols found in fruits and vegetables. They can also be made commercially by catalytic hydrogenation from the corresponding sugars. Sugar alcohols are not well absorbed in the intestinal tract, and they are fermented by microflora – potentially resulting in bloating, gas, and diarrhea. Erythritol does not tend to cause gastric side effects, and is the lowest on the Glycemic Index of the three. Sugar alcohols are not quite non-caloric, but all contribute fewer calories than table sugar, and their studied effects on insulin and blood sugar (if any) are minimal.

NOVEL SWEETENER

  • Stevia: Stevia is the name of a bush native to South America (Stevia rebaudiana Bertoni) whose leaves are used to produce extracts having up to 300 times the sweetness of sugar. South America natives have used the leaf as a sweetener for hundreds of years, but it is also used to make medicines. In 2008 the FDA ruled Stevia as GRAS (Generally Recognized as Safe) – though the FDA has not yet approved whole-leaf stevia or crude stevia extracts for use as food additives due to concerns of possible health effects. Stevia is in wide use in other countries and has been approved as a sweetener in countries such as Japan, Brazil and China.

From all this, one clear conclusion is that more studies need to be performed on each and every one of these sweeteners. This is a case where moderation is truly the key. Though it may be better to lean towards the more natural sweeteners – such as the sugar alcohols and Stevia – when in doubt, practice moderation or avoid sweeteners entirely. Another concern with any sugar substitute is that they can lead us to crave sweetness even more strongly, so be honest with yourself about that. If they create cravings and the desire to eat more sweet items, they are probably best avoided.