The Truth about Sweeteners and Sugar Alternatives

A topic in health and nutrition that has been constantly debated for at least 100 years.  From regular table sugar, to sugar substitutes, and artificial sweeteners, there is the constant question of, “is it healthy or ok for us to consume? And if so, how much is too much?”

Through this article, I would like to help teach you a little more about some of the most common sweeteners and make some points that will undoubtedly stir up some debate.  The media makes numerous claims for either side of the fence with saying such as, “aspartame causes cancer”, all the way to, “honey is an excellent sugar alternative.”  I think it’s far more beneficial for you to know the FACTS about each of these sweeteners, and then, make the decision for yourself.

What are Sweeteners?

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Known to be hundreds of times sweeter than table sugar, sugar substitutes have taken the world by storm, with health conscious people increasingly choosing sweeteners as a substitute to cut their sugar intake while satiating their sweet tooth. Statistics reveal that Americans eat about 165 pounds of added sugar annually. Since time immemorial, sweetness has been the taste sensation for the prehistoric man, which he used to derive from honey and berries. Gradually, man’s quest for sweetness and sugar cravings led him to invent sucrose, sugars derived from starch, and synthetic sweeteners.

Also known as sugar substitutes, sweeteners are low-calorie and sometimes zero-calorie chemical substances used to sweeten foods and beverages, instead of table sugar (sucrose); Artificial sweeteners are increasingly becoming popular, especially as a large number of people are choosing them to reduce calorie consumption.  A tablespoon of table sugar will contain 12 grams of sugar with 48 calories, while a packet of sweetener way contain zero calories and zero net grams of sugar. With the rising demand for sugar-free products, a number of sweeteners have come up in the market these days, including

  • Sucrose (Table Sugar/Your most common sugar)
  • Acesulfame Potassium
  • Aspartame
  • Sucralose
  • Saccharin
  • Neotame
  • High Fructose Corn Syrup
  • Sugar Alcohols
  • Truvia and Stevia (rebina and erythritol)
  • Brown Sugar (turbinado)
  • Agave Necter/syrup
  • Honey

 

Sucrose (Table Sugar)

Also known as table sugar, sucrose is derived from sugarcane or sugar beet. This is the common sugar found in our households, which is rich in carbohydrates and gives energy, without having any other additional benefit. It is commonly used to add sweetness to foods and beverages.

One group argues that excessive consumption of sucrose is the main cause of the obesity epidemic, blaming sugar for various metabolic disorders.

Acceptable amount per day: Since consuming too much sucrose can be detrimental to health, the American Heart Association has recommended an intake of no more than 25 grams for women and 37.5 grams for men per day.

Acesulfame Potassium

Commonly used as a flavoring agent in chewing gum, soft drinks, and frozen desserts, acesulfame potassium is known to be 200 times sweeter than common household sugar. The sweetener has been in use for over 22 years, since its approval by the FDA in 1988, and has had a clean track record, without reporting any problems or side effects.

However, voices were raised against this sugar substitute, linking it to cancer. However, a number of studies conducted on rats have failed to establish any connection between acesulfame potassium and cancer. Research reveals that no proof of carcinogenic activity has been found in different tests conducted on animals to test acesulfame potassium’s link with cancer.[i]

Acceptable amount per day: The sweetener is safe for use in moderation.  The acceptable daily use for this sweetener is 15 mg per kg of body weight. Diet sodas usually contain 40 mg of acesulfame K. An individual weighing 160 pounds could drink 27 diet sodas each day and still be within the accepted daily intake for this ingredient.

Aspartame

Popularly sold as equal and NutraSweet, Aspartame is the most controversial of all sweeteners. Since its approval in 1981 by the FDA, Aspartame has been the most studied of all sweeteners after it was accused of having a connection with all sorts of health issues, from obesity to heart disease to cancer.

The Center for Science in Public Interest (CSPI) gives Aspartame the lowest ranking among other food additives. However, a number of studies have not found any convincing evidence of Aspartame’s connection with health disorders that would limit its production. The sugar substitute, which is 200 times sweeter than common sugar, should be avoided by individuals suffering from phenylketonuria, which is a genetic disorder that prevents those individuals from metabolizing the amino acid, phenylalanine.  These people may suffer headaches, dizziness, and nausea if using a sweetener with aspartame.  But keep in mind, this genetic disorder is only found in 1 out of every 10,000 people.

According to the World Health Organization, the FDA, and the American Dietetic Association, moderate use of the low-calorie sweetener should not pose any health risks, especially since there is no credible evidence that Aspartame causes cancer or other serious illnesses.

It is used in more than 6,000 products in the US, including diet soda, nutrition shakes, desserts, cereals, protein bars, and pharmaceuticals.

Acceptable amount per day: The FDA says that the Acceptable Daily Intake (ADI) is set at 50 mg of Aspartame per kg of body weight for safe for daily human use.[ii]  To put that into perspective for you, for a 165 pound adult, that is 19 cans of diet soda or about 107 packets of sweetener to just break past the acceptable level.

Sucralose

A number of myths about sucralose keep surfacing every now and then. Some myths connect the sweetener with allergies, headaches, and gastrointestinal disorders. However, more than 100 studies have not been able to find a correlation between sucralose and any other health problem, affirming its safety as a food additive.

Ironically, sucralose is 600 times sweeter than table sugar, which makes it a great sugar substitute for people wanting to cut down on their calorie intake while still maintaining sweetness. The additive surfaced in 1976 as a substitute for common household sugar. The FDA gave its approval in 1999 after which it became widely popular world over as a low-calorie sweetener. The molecule structure in sucralose prevents the body from absorbing the sweetener. As a result, the heat stable sweetener is excreted by the body through urine and feces.

It is increasingly being used as a flavoring agent in cooking and baking, including diet beverages, desserts, yogurt, syrups, and protein bars.

Acceptable Amount per day: About 5 mg per kg of body weight is regarded safe for human use. This equals to almost 31 packets of Splenda per day for a person weighing 165 pounds.

 

Saccharin

Saccharin, the first artificial sweetener, was invented in the 1879s by Chemist Constantin Fahlberg.  Gradually, it came to be seen as a substitute for sugar, which was cheaper than the latter, and a little amount truly served the purpose to tantalize your sweet tooth. In the 1950s and 1960s, there was a rise in the number of the saccharin sweetened foods, when diet fruit firms started to market this sweetener.

The Sugar Twin, as saccharin is known, is 300 times sweeter than table sugar. Being one of the oldest sweeteners known to man, saccharin is also the most widely studied food additive. Saccharin faced severe criticism, linking it to tumors. However, a number of studies could not establish any correlation between saccharin and tumors or cancer.

Despite heavy criticism, saccharin was approved by the FDA, as there was no convincing evidence that the sweetener caused tumors in humans. Moderate consumption of saccharin is regarded safe for human use.

The flavoring agent is commonly found in diet soda, chewing gum, candies, salad dressings, jams, baked goods, canned fruit, and pharmaceuticals.

Acceptable amount per day: Just like sucralose, consuming 5 milligrams of saccharin per kg of body weight every day is considered safe by the FDA and other health organizations from around the globe. This is equivalent to 30 packets per day.

 

Neotame

A product of the NutraSweet Company, Neotame got approval by the FDA in 2002. The sugar substitute is one of the sweetest artificial sweeteners, regarded as having 13,000 times sweetness than common sugar, without a metallic after taste. As a result, it finds a place in most foods and beverages as a flavor enhancer.

Concerns were raised that neotame, being 13,000 times sweeter than table sugar, could prove toxic for humans. However, research shows that moderate use of the flavoring agent doesn’t leave any toxic residues in human bodies.

A close cousin of aspartame, with 30 times more sweetness than the former, neotame enjoys a longer shelf life and can withstand higher temperatures than any other sugar cousin. It does not wear a phenylketonuria (PKU) warning like aspartame.

A number of clinical trials conducted on animals prove the sweetener safe for use. Neotame has got the seal of approval from the FDA; however, it is sparingly used in the US food industry in dairy and baked products, beverages, gums, and frozen desserts.

Acceptable amount per day: Since neotame has excessively sweet properties, it should not be consumed more than 2 mg per kilogram of body weight per day. [iii]

High Fructose Corn Syrup

Commonly used as a food enhancer in the US, high fructose corn syrup comprises glucose and fructose, with 12 calories per teaspoon.  Unlike the other sweeteners so far on this list, this DOES contain sugar and extra calories. The artificial sweetener is sometimes linked to obesity and other health disorders. However, no study has thus far been able to come up with a convincing evidence linking HFCS alone with obesity.

In fact, HFCS is 55% fructose and 45% glucose in most cases and is virtually indistinguishable by the body being any different than table sugar (sucrose). So if it’s almost identical to regular sugar, why do so many companies opt for HFCS instead?

Commonly found in cereals, diet sodas, yogurt, and desserts, high fructose cane sugar has a longer shelf life than regular sucrose and is also cheap for companies to produce.  The advantages for the use of HFCS is nothing short of a business savvy choice.

Acceptable amount per day: It is suggested that consuming 25-45 grams of this sugar per day is safe.  It is almost identical to the amount of regular sugar you should consume per day.  Its consumption is limited because the more you consume, the more calories it adds.

Sugar Alcohols

Also known as Sorbitol, xylitol, mannitol, erythritol, isomalt, and a few others, sugar alcohols are reduced calorie sweetener with about 2.6 calories per gram. They are derived from plant products, including berries and fruits. Commonly found in desserts, gum, and sugar-free candies, sugar alcohols are less sweet and less caloric than table sugar and thus do not cause dental problems or tooth decay.  They don’t cause too much of an increase of calories because they don’t absorb into the body very well.  They are also used in sugar-free products for diabetics due to their fewer net carbohydrate content compared to table sugar.

The commonly found sugar alcohol in foods includes mannitol, sorbitol, xylitol, hydrogenated starch hydrolysates, and isomalt.

Acceptable amount per day: While the FDA doesn’t specify a specific ADI for the consumption of sugar alcohols, it does state the following, “Too much sugar alcohol traveling unabsorbed through the intestinal tract can cause bloating, gas, and diarrhea. FDA requires a “laxative effect” warning notice on labels if consumers could ingest 50g of sorbitol or 20g of mannitol from food in one day. But, just 10g of sorbitol can cause GI distress.”

Truvia and Stevia

A blend of Erythritol and Rebina, Truvia is a brand-named sweetener manufactured by Cargill.  Most people seem to be confused between the two and think that Truvia and Stevia are the same thing.  In fact, they are not.

Known as a zero calorie sweetener, Truvia’s claim to fame is that it uses extract from the stevia plant as a safer alternative to other sugar substitutes.  The truth is, Truvia’s main ingredient is Erythritol, which is a sugar alcohol which I described above.  The second ingredient, Rebina is a very small molecule extracted from the stevia plant, which is why it is allowed to be marketed as a stevia product.  However, the molecular weight of Rebina in a packet of Truvia is only about 1% of the packet.  So in truth, you are getting a packet of Erythritol, a sugar alcohol.

Since Truvia is a composition of mostly erythritol, which is a sugar alcohol, excessive consumption may cause bloating, diarrhea, cramping, vertigo and gas because it isn’t completely digested by the body.

On the other hand, Whole-leaf Stevia is a natural sweetener derived from stevia plant. Its sweetness is 300 times more than table sugar.  It has been used in Japan since the 1970s and has been considered by many a safe, zero-calorie sweetener. It is the stevia extract Rebina, that is commonly used in multiple food products.

However, the debate remains whether how much actual stevia extract is in each packet and the safety concerns. In the early 90s there were reports of stevia causing bladder cancer in very high doses.  Later in 2008 it was approved as a GRAS (generally regarded as safe) and was allowed for commercial use instead of just for purchase as a dietary supplement.

Acceptable amount per day: There is no specified amount by the FDA.  However, if we keep in mind that the main component seems to be erythritol, we know that sugar alcohols should be limited to avoid gastro intestinal discomfort.

Honey

Honey comprises trace amounts of vitamins and minerals. It is commonly used in baked goods, cereals, and tea. Studies suggest that it may not increase blood glucose if used in moderation compared to other sweet substitutes. Research claims that honey may not raise blood glucose as quickly as other sweet products. However, since it contains calories, you should use it sparingly.

Raw honey does in fact have more sugar and calories than a serving of table sugar.  However, people seem to use less of this because its sweetness is much greater that table sugar.

Acceptable amount per day: While honey is touted safer and healthier than table sugar because it is more “natural” (an un-regulated term), it still increases sugar and calories to your body, as well as an insulin response.  Essentially the guidelines for usage would fall within the acceptable amount for total sugar for the day which is 25g-45g as we discussed earlier.

Brown Sugar

A blend of sugar with molasses, brown sugar is increasingly used in different culinary items to add taste, flavor, and color. Used as a sugar substitute in foods and beverages. It contains higher mineral content than table sugar, but this mineral content is minimal in the grand scheme of things.

Brown sugar has virtually no difference than table sugar per tsp. weighing in at about 4g of sugar and 16 calories.

You may have also heard of Turbinado recently as something similar to brown sugar and a bit “healthier” because it is less refined. Because it is less refined it contains more minerals, but again, these are considered trace minerals because they are found in tiny amounts that can’t directly affect ones health because of their content.  Brown sugar and Turbinado may be a choice amongst chefs or food manufacturing companies because it alters the taste of certain foods.  However, the nutritive values are all still the same across the board.  4g of sugar per tsp at 16 calories.

Acceptable amount per day: Brown sugar will fall under the same consumption as sucrose (table sugar).  25-45g per day in total combination with other sugars.

Agave Nectar/syrup

With taste and texture akin to honey, agave nectar adds 20 calories per teaspoon to your food. Often used in tea, cereals, and yogurts, the nectar is the product of agave cactus. It is composed of more fructose compared to regular table sugar, which makes it diabetes friendly, as this may not cause as high of a spike in blood sugar. Sweeter than sugar, agave syrup has a small amount of antioxidants compared to honey.

However, despite the benefits, agave syrup risks reducing metabolism and insulin sensitivity because the body’s inability to produce an insulin response over time due to over consumption of fructose.  In agave syrup, the main type of sugar is called fructose, and it is about 90% of fructose by volume.  You may have heard the fructose is also the sugar of fruits, however the concentration is only about 7% in medium apple for example.  Here, we have a product that is 90% fructose.  There are numerous studies and concerns of the body’s absorption of abnormally high levels of fructose leading to many risk factors.

Acceptable amount per day: Small amounts of agave nectar will not be excessively harmful.  But remember this, it still contains sugar, which still adds calories no matter the speed of the insulin response.  Consume in the same guidelines of regular sucrose, 25g-45g.

 

Bottom Line

With a topic that has such tremendous media and social attention, it is almost impossible for there not to be endless debated points and opinions. The bottom line is this… Sweeteners are not as bad as they are touted to be in the media circles, nor are these sugar alternatives (agave, brown sugar, Truvia, honey) any “healthier” than regular table sugar. All sweeteners have their pros and cons.  The important take away message from all this is to be conscious of what we are consuming and how much.  We too often put our trust in the wrong sources which potentially lead us to disaster.  We all have minds of our own and we need to use them to make educated decisions on what we consume for our health.

Besides, the adding and taking away, or using of sweeteners should pale in comparison to the grandiose picture of your total diet.  Do you truly not want to worry about sweeteners and all the exacerbated nonsense?  Then simply follow a healthy diet rich in whole foods (lean meats, vegetables, fruit, and non-processed grains).  This is a sure fire way to avoid any health concerns what so ever. In the end, it is your diet that decides what matters in the long run.  We are all in search of the quick fix because…well to be completely sincere… getting in better shape and losing fat is downright hard.  There is no quick fix.  But if you are focused and take a little time to educate yourself about the facts of food, in will pay of tenfold in the long run.

 

The Following is the FDA Acceptable Daily Intake for Sweeteners as well as other world health organizations protocols:

FDA APPROVAL CHART OF SWEETENERS

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