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The Skinny on Sugar Substitutes

Author: Marlene Koch
Source: Carblite, June 2005

The Skinny on Sugar Substitutes

“Sugar in the morning, sugar in the evening, sugar at suppertime…”

If you are like most Americans, you love the sweet taste of sugar.  With an average consumption of over 20 teaspoons per person per day, we are a nation with an enormous sweet tooth. And chances are, even though you are working at slashing the sugar, you haven’t lost your sweet tooth. Luckily, there are more choices than ever when it comes to sugar-free foods and sugar substitutes. The truth is that there is probably nowhere the low-carb lifestyle has made a greater  impact than in the proliferation of (sugar free) and reduced sugar foods. No longer relegated to just the (diet isle), sugar-free foods are everywhere-from cookies, candies, and ice cream to salad dressings, marinades, and baking mixes. Everyone is making them. In fact, there are now thousands of products that are made with sugar substitutes. But exactly what makes these products sweet and what should you know about them?

The Real Scoop

According to the International Food Information Council, most sugar-free or reduced sugar foods use one of the four non-caloric sugar substitutes currently approved by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA)-sucralose, aspartame, saccharin or acesulfame potassium. These sugar substitutes do not add appreciable calories or carbohydrate, nor do they affect insulin levels-which makes them appropriate for all low-carb lifestyles. Also commonly used are sugar alcohols, which have fewer carbohydrates, fewer calories and much less of an effect on insulin than sugar. Lastly, a small number of products, found mostly in natural food stores, are sweetened with stevia, a plant-based natural sweetener. (Unlike the others, however, stevia has not been approved by the FDA as a sweetener). The type and combination of sugar substitutes used in products is based on many criteria, including taste, stability, shelf life and cost. A careful look at the ingredients on the label will tell you which of the sugar substitutes is in foods you chose. Here’s the latest scoop on each of these substitutes:

Sucralose, sold as Splenda, is the newest entry in the sugar substitute market and has taken the country by storm as the preferred sweetener of both the Atkins and South Beach diets. Considered safe for everyone, including children and pregnant women, it is made from sugar (sucrose) through a patented, multi-step process. Pure sucralose is used by manufacturers in products or it is bulked with maltodextrin (an extremely low density carbohydrate) for the table-top sweetener Splenda. You will find it in yellow packets or as Splenda Granular sold in boxes or baker’s bags. Be aware, however, that Splenda Sugar for Baking is half granulated sugar and half sucralose, thereby containing 96 grams of carbohydrate per one-half cup. I use and recommend Splenda Granular, even for baking, with recipes that are designed specifically for its use.

Aspartame, or “the blue one”, is sold under the brand name Equal and NutraSweet. Recognized by the FDA as safe for the general population, aspartame is made from two amino acids. (Because it contains pheylelenine, it is not advised for phenylketonurics and some pregnant women.) Equal Spoonful measures 1:1 like sugar for recipes, but it is not recommended for items requiring lengthy baking or heating times as it can lose its sweetness. Use it in uncooked foods or add it near the end of the cooking process to help it retain its sweetness. Of note, the new product Equal Sugar Lite is also a one-half granulated sugar blend.

Saccharin, the oldest of all sugar substitutes, has also been the most debated due to concerns about bladder cancer. Recently, after additional testing, the federal government removed all warnings from saccharin, which is sold primarily as Sweet ‘N Low in the pink packets. Saccharin, made by combining two different chemical groups, is widely used for its heat stability and cost effectiveness. Because it is only made in concentrated form, conversion charts from the company must be used when substituting it for sugar in recipes.

Acesulfame Potassium, or acesulfame K as you will find on labels, is sold under the brand name Sunett or Sweet One. More popular worldwide than in the U.S., you will find it most commonly paired with other non-nutritive sweeteners, as it is considered a perfect “blender” to bring the sweetness profile of other sugar substitutes close to real sugar.

Sugar Alcohols, or polyols, are chemically alcohols but are made from sugar molecules. Mannitol, maltitol, sorbitor, xylitol, lactitol and erythrital are all sugar alchohols. Sugar alcohols, although sweet, only provide about half the calories because the body absorbs only part of the sugar alcohol. Additionally, because sugar alcohols are digested and metabolized much more slowly than sugar, they have far less effect on insulin and blood sugar. Sugar alcohols are not commonly available for purchase but are widely used by food companies. You should know that, with the exception of erythritol, sugar alcohols “sit” in the digestive tract and can cause gas, cramping and diarrhea-especially if you consume too much. Be especially cautious in giving food with sugar alcohols to children. Most experts agree that one-half of the carbohydrates from sugar alcohols should be included in your carbohydrate count. Many low-carb products subtract all grams of sugar alcohol to get “net” or “effective” carbs. To make this conversion, simply add back one-half of the grams of sugar alcohol to the net carbs per serving.