Written By Michal Yaron, Nutritionist & Health Educator
Research shows that humans have an inborn desire for sweetness. While historically essential for survival, being naturally drawn to sweetness isn’t helpful when people are trying to lose weight in this modern age. This is why more and more consumers and manufacturers seek no or low-calorie alternatives to white table sugar, without sacrificing sweetness. Yet this welcomed trend raises misconceptions and confusion over which sugar alternatives are the best.
Sweeteners can be divided into three basic categories:
- sugars that have 4 calories per gram (nutritive)
- sugar alcohols (lower calorie)
- those that are have no calories (nonnutritive).
Full calorie sweeteners
Many so-called natural sweeteners such as honey, maple syrup, molasses or agave nectar, are often promoted as healthier options than processed table sugar. Yet, nutritionally speaking, they aren’t significantly different. They contain the same amount of calories as regular table sugar (4 calories per gram), and can raise blood sugar just as table sugar can. Though some proponents of agave nectar say that it doesn’t cause blood sugar spikes, scientific evidence doesn’t support such claims. Simply put, sugar is sugar is sugar, and there’s no health advantage to consuming added sugar of any type.
Many products labeled “no sugar added” actually contain one or more of those nutritive sweeteners. Check labels carefully and watch out for products listing any of the followings: Fructose, brown rice syrup, honey, raw honey, agave nectar, coconut palm sugar (or coconut nectar sugar), date sugar, grape juice concentrate, apple juice concentrate, barley malt syrup, sugar cane juice, brown sugar, turbinado sugar, evaporated cane juice, maple syrup, maple sugar, corn syrup, high fructose corn syrup, glucose, sucrose, dextrose, maltodextrin.
Sugar alcohols are carbohydrates that occur naturally in certain fruits and vegetables, but can also be manufactured. Despite their name, they aren’t alcoholic (they don’t contain ethanol). Sugar alcohols are often combined with artificial sweeteners in products to enhance sweetness. The most common include: sorbitol, xylitol, maltitol, lactitol, mannitol, isomalt, and erythritol.
Sugar alcohols contain calories, but less than regular sugar. Much controversy has developed surrounding their bioavailable calories. To be on the safe side, consider them as about 2 to 3 calories per gram. Keep in mind that unlike artificial sweeteners, sugar alcohols are carbohydrates and can raise blood sugar levels. But because your body doesn’t completely absorb sugar alcohols, their effect on blood sugar is less than that of other sugars. This is especially true for xylitol and erythritol, but watch out for others like maltitol and sorbitol which behaves almost like sugar in the body.
Sugar alcohols are not without side effects, though. Because they are not completely digested and absorbed, eaten in large amounts (usually more than 50 grams but sometimes as little as 10 grams) they can have a laxative effect, causing bloating, gas and diarrhea. Lately erythritol is gaining momentum as a replacement for other sugar alcohols in food, as it is much less likely to produce gastrointestinal distress.
Non-calorie sweeteners provide a sweet taste without calories or carbohydrates. This category also includes low-calorie sweeteners which are much sweeter than table sugar (thus used in such small amounts that they are considered virtually non-caloric). Additionally, this category includes other non-nutritive sweeteners which are not metabolized for energy and pass through the body unchanged. These sweeteners include the artificial sweeteners acesulfame potassium/acesulfame K (Sunett, Sweet One), aspartame (Equal, NutraSweet), neotame (NutraSweet), saccharin (SugarTwin, Sweet’N Low) and sucralose (Splenda & altern).
Artificial sweeteners have been the subject of intense scrutiny for decades. Critics say that they cause a variety of health problems. However, there’s no sound scientific evidence that any of them cause cancer or other serious health problems. And numerous studies confirm that they are generally safe in limited quantities.
A new type of sugar substitute recently introduced to the market is rebaudioside A, which is derived from the stevia leaf. Stevia is not a sugar and is calorie free. Unlike artificial sweeteners, it’s from a natural (though still highly refined) plant source. Due to its unique characteristics, stevia is fast becoming popular in the US. It’s often blended with erythritol to improve palatability (Truvia and PureVia brands).
When looking for low-sugar and low-carb foods, keep in mind that while artificial sweeteners and sugar substitutes can 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 and carbs, manufacturers often increase fat content of sugar-free foods to make food more palatable. Always read the Nutrition Facts label, paying special attention to calorie and carbohydrate content. And remember that processed foods, which often contain sugar substitutes, generally don’t offer the same health benefits as whole foods, such as fruits and vegetables. While artificial, it is still possible for artificial sweetners to trigger sugar cravings and some people. The best solution to combat our body’s biological desire for sugar is to try and avoid sugar completely and satisfy our natural sweet tooth with fruits and vegetables. Furthermore, try to keep in mind that the less sugar you eat, the less sugar you crave.