Artificial sweeteners: Understanding these and other sugar substitutes
Artificial sweeteners: Understanding these and other sugar substitutes
If you're trying to reduce the sugar and calories in your diet, you may be turning to artificial sweeteners or other sugar substitutes. You aren't alone. The popularity of artificial sweeteners and other sugar substitutes is on the rise as manufacturers and consumers seek lower calorie alternatives to regular white sugar without sacrificing sweetness.
Today, artificial sweeteners and other sugar substitutes are found in a variety of food and beverages marketed as "sugar-free" or "diet," including soft drinks, chewing gum, jellies, baked goods, candy, fruit juice and ice cream. In addition, other sugar substitutes are being touted as healthier sweeteners than regular sugar, even if they don't have fewer calories, such as honey and agave nectar.
Just what are all these artificial sweeteners and sugar substitutes? And what's their role in your diet?
Understanding artificial sweeteners and other sugar substitutes
Sugar substitutes are loosely considered any sweetener that you use instead of regular table sugar (sucrose). Artificial sweeteners are just one type of sugar substitute. Some sugar substitutes, such as aspartame, are promoted because they add virtually no calories to your diet. Newer sugar substitutes, including stevia and agave nectar, claim to be lower calorie, tastier and healthier options.
The topic of sugar substitutes can be complex and confusing. One problem is that the terminology regarding sugar substitutes is often open to interpretation. For instance, some manufacturers call their sweeteners "natural" even though they're processed or refined, as is the case with stevia preparations. And some artificial sweeteners are derived from naturally occurring substances — sucralose comes from sugar, for example. Sometimes sugar substitutes are categorized by whether or not they contain calories.
Regardless of what they're called or how they're classified, sugar substitutes aren't magic bullets for weight loss. Take a closer look.
Artificial sweeteners are synthetic sugar substitutes but may be derived from naturally occurring substances, including herbs or sugar itself. Artificial sweeteners are also known as intense sweeteners because they are many times sweeter than regular sugar.
Artificial sweeteners currently approved by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) are:
FDA approval is being sought for other artificial sweeteners. And some sweeteners, such as cyclamate, are not approved in the United States but are approved for use in other countries.
Uses for artificial sweeteners
Artificial sweeteners are also popular for home use. Some can even be used in baking or cooking. Certain recipes may need modification, though, because artificial sweeteners provide no bulk or volume, as does sugar. Check the labels on artificial sweeteners for appropriate home use.
Some artificial sweeteners may leave an aftertaste. You may need to experiment with artificial sweeteners to find one or a combination that you enjoy most.
Possible health benefits of artificial sweeteners
Possible health concerns with artificial sweeteners
But according to the National Cancer Institute and other health agencies, there's no sound scientific evidence that any of the artificial sweeteners approved for use in the United States cause cancer or other serious health problems. And numerous research studies confirm that artificial sweeteners are generally safe in limited quantities, even for pregnant women. As a result of the newer studies, the warning label for saccharin was dropped.
Artificial sweeteners are regulated by the FDA as food additives. They must be reviewed and approved by the FDA before being made available for sale. In some cases, the FDA declares a substance "generally recognized as safe" (GRAS). These GRAS substances, including highly refined stevia preparations, are deemed by qualified professionals based on scientific data as being safe for their intended use, or they have such a lengthy history of common use in food that they're considered generally safe and don't require FDA approval before sale.
The FDA has also established an acceptable daily intake (ADI) for each artificial sweetener. This is the maximum amount considered safe to consume each day over the course of your lifetime. ADIs are intended to be about 100 times less than the smallest amount that might cause health concerns.
Sugar alcohols and novel sweeteners
Sugar alcohols (polyols) are 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 — in fact, some are less sweet than sugar. Sugar alcohols aren't considered noncaloric or non-nutritive sweeteners because they contain calories. But they're lower in calories than is regular sugar, making them an attractive alternative. Despite their name, sugar alcohols aren't alcoholic. They don't contain ethanol, which is found in alcoholic beverages.
Novel sweeteners are combinations of various types of sweeteners. Novel sweeteners, such as stevia, are hard to fit into one particular category because of what they're made from and how they're made.
As with artificial sweeteners, the FDA regulates the use of sugar alcohols. Approved sugar alcohols and novel sweeteners include:
Note that the FDA has not approved the use of whole-leaf stevia or crude stevia extracts for use as a sweetener. Rather, only certain highly refined stevia preparations can be used in food products. Stevia also is available as a dietary supplement.
Tagatose and trehalose are considered novel sweeteners because of their chemical structure. They're categorized by the FDA as GRAS substances. 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.
Uses for sugar alcohols
Sugar alcohols are used in a broad range of products, including chocolate, candy, frozen desserts, chewing gum, toothpaste, mouthwash, baked goods and fruit spreads. Sugar alcohols are often combined with artificial sweeteners in products to enhance sweetness. Check the food label to help see if a product contains sugar alcohols. Food labels may list the specific name, such as xylitol, or simply use the general term "sugar alcohol."
Possible health benefits of sugar alcohols
Possible health concerns with sugar alcohols
There are few health concerns associated with sugar alcohols. When eaten in large amounts, usually more than 50 grams but sometimes as little as 10 grams, sugar alcohols can have a laxative effect, causing bloating, intestinal gas and diarrhea. Product labels may carry a warning about this potential laxative effect.
Natural sweeteners are sugar substitutes that are often promoted as healthier options than processed table sugar or other sugar substitutes. But even these so-called natural sweeteners often undergo processing and refining, including agave nectar.
Among the natural sweeteners that the FDA recognizes as being generally safe for consumption are:
Uses for natural sweeteners
Possible health benefits of natural sweeteners
Possible health concerns with natural sweeteners
Moderation is key with artificial sweeteners and sugar substitutes
When choosing sugar substitutes, it pays to be a savvy consumer. Get informed and look beyond the hype. While artificial sweeteners and sugar substitutes may help with weight management, they aren't a magic bullet and should be used only in moderation. Just because a food is marketed as sugar-free doesn't mean it's free of calories. If you eat too many sugar-free foods, you can still gain weight if they have other ingredients that contain calories. And remember that processed foods, which often contain sugar substitutes, generally don't offer the same health benefits as do whole foods, such as fruits and vegetables.
Last Updated: 2010-10-09
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