What’s the Skinny on Sweeteners?

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June 22, 2012 by Suzanne

There are so many options for sweeteners these days that it can be overwhelming to know which one to use. There are so many to choose from, and even the helpful folks at the health food store couldn’t answer all of my questions. So, I did some research on my own, and here’s what I found out.

Table sugar is the standard by which all other sweeteners are compared. It comes from sugar cane or sugar beets, and it’s mighty tasty. However, it will also spike your blood sugar levels and trigger an insulin response, as well as being high in calories, so it’s not something you want to have a lot of.

Other sucrose, glucose, and fructose natural sweeteners come in several shapes and sizes. There is honey, agave nectar, molasses, raw sugar, brown rice syrup, and corn syrup, to name a few.  They contain the same molecules or the same types of molecules as table sugar, but they are derived from other sources. Even though you may feel like you’re being healthier by choosing honey or fructose over table sugar, sugar is sugar, and it will all affect your blood sugar and insulin production in the same way. While some of them are lower on the glycemic index, like agave nectar, and thus will be absorbed and processed at a slower rate, they still have carbohydrates and calories (in the case of agave nectar, even more than table sugar, and it has more fructose than high fructose corn syrup!) and will raise your blood sugar. Some of these options have more nutritional value than regular sugar, like brown rice syrup and blackstrap molasses, and thus may be preferable for that reason, but all of them should be used sparingly.

Dextrose and Maltodextrin can be found in everything from pudding to sausage, but who knows what they really are? They are both made from processed starches, but maltodextrin is further processed by adding enzymes to the starches after they’ve been cooked. Dextrose has a sweet taste, while maltodextrin has either very little sweetness or none at all. But here’s the thing. They have just as many calories as sugar, and they are significantly higher on the glycemic index than table sugar, meaning that they are digested and absorbed even more rapidly than pure glucose or sucrose.

What does this mean for your blood sugar? You guessed it, they will raise your blood sugar and affect insulin levels. This news is especially sad when you learn that maltodextrin is a filler for several artificial sweeteners. However, and this is the confusing bit, there is another type of maltodextrin called maltodextrin-soluble fiber, which is not digested and thus has minimal calories and a negligible effect on blood sugar, but for the most part, the regular maltodextrin is what you should assume is being used unless it specifically states otherwise.

Stevia is the new big trend (even though it’s been used for hundreds of years) in sugar alternatives to hit the market. It is derived from the leaves of the stevia plant, and is several hundred times sweeter than table sugar. There are several different varieties to choose from. You can get a type which measures the same as sugar that uses maltodexrin as a filler, packets equal 2 tsp of sugar that use maltodexrin and/or dextrose as a filler, or packets which use inulin fiber as a filler, which has minimal effect on blood sugar or insulin. You can buy it in a liquid or powder concentrate with no maltodextrin or dextrose fillers, but the powder is very hard to use for small things like a cup of tea or to sprinkle on fruit because it can be so concentrated that 1/4 tsp is the equivalent of a cup of sugar.

The downside to stevia is that many people find that it has a bitter aftertaste, especially if too much is used. The bitterness seems to vary based on the brand, so some experimentation may be in order if you want to try it out.

Sugar alcohols are something that I usually encountered in pre-packaged food targeted at diabetics, but they are now available in bulk from the health food store, so they are something to consider. There are several kinds, but the kinds I see most often are sorbitol, mannitol, and xylitol. It’s a good bet that things ending in “itol” are a sugar alcohol. They are not quite sugar, and not quite an alcohol, but are a molecule somewhere in between that has fewer calories than sugar and less of an effect on blood sugar and insulin production. However, they are still a carbohydrate, and will still raise your blood sugar even when they’re used in “sugar-free” packaged foods. So, they’re better for you than regular sugar in terms of calories and blood sugar, but still not a free pass to eat as much as you want.

Xylitol is now being used as a supplement for dental health because it may remineralize your enamel, which is pretty neat. However, all sugar alcohols, if consumed in excess, can have an unfortunate laxative quality and cause abdominal cramping. I can’t give you a figure about how much is too much, because it really depends on the person eating it.

D-mannose is a natural sugar that we should discuss before moving on to artificial sweeteners. It is naturally occurring and found in several fruits, notably cranberries. It is sweet, though a bit less sweet than table sugar going by my own taste buds, and has a very pleasant taste.

In addition, very little of it is absorbed by the body, which means most of it will just pass through your system be flushed out when you pee. So that’s great news, but it gets better. Most urinary tract infections are caused by the bacteria Escherichia coli, which are covered in little finger-like projections that make them stick to the walls of the bladder, which results in a UTI. However, the bacteria sticks even better to d-mannose than it does to the bladder, which means the bacteria ends up bonding to the sugar and just get flushed down the toilet instead of having to be killed with antibiotics. In this case, the spoonful of sugar IS the medicine, which to me, is pretty awesome.

On a sad note, d-mannose is super expensive when compared by weight to regular sugar, or pretty much, any other sweetener. Hopefully it will catch on and the price will drop enough to make it a budget-friendly sugar alternative.

Artificial sweeteners give us several options to choose from, and there are positives and negatives to each one. They are several times sweeter than sugar, so take that as a given for all of them. They are all marketed as “no calorie” sweeteners, but it’s not really true. You see, if one serving has fewer than 5 calories, it is legal in the US to mark it as being 0 calories. One typical packet/serving has almost 3.5 calories. If you have one packet/one serving of artificial sweetener in your tea, no big deal. If you make a cake, much bigger deal! I have a cake recipe which calls for the equivalent of 64 packets, and that’s over 200 calories of carbohydrates. It’s criminal how they are allowed to dupe the public into thinking that their product is a “free” food when it is clearly not.

Saccharin has got a bad rap from the USDA, which recently recanted and said that they were wrong and that saccharin doesn’t cause cancer after all. It used to be thought that saccharin, generally marketed as Sweet & Low, caused bladder cancer, but this was because it was tested on rats who react differently to it than do humans.

Saccharin is the oldest of the man-made sweeteners, and can be used in baking. Sweet & Low does use maltodextrin as a filler, so be aware.

Aspartame is marketed under the brand name Equal. It can not be used in baking as the chemical breaks down with heat. It also contains maltodextrin as a filler. In fact, you can go to Equal’s ingredients webpage where you can see for yourself that  every one of their products contains processed carbohydrates as a filler.

There is still a lot of controversy over the safety of this product, but it is still considered to be safe for human consumption. Personally, I avoid it.

Sucralose is more commonly known as splenda, and it adapts itself well to baking with no strange “off” flavors. It is available in packets, equal measure with sugar, as well as a half sugar/half sucralose blend. Like the other two, it uses maltodextrin as a filler. The equal measure obviously contains more filler than the packets, but as long as they keep one serving below 5 calories, they can call it a zero calorie product.

There is great alarm that the sucralose molecule contains a few atoms of chlorine. To this I say, settle down! There is also chlorine in a molecule of table salt, and yet we’ve all survived. Chemistry isn’t a matter of looking at individual elements in a compound and approving them one by one.

Acesulfame potassium is also known as Acesulfame K or Ace K and is marketed as Sweet One or Sunett, neither of which I can recall seeing in a store. You can bake with it, but it uses Dextrose as a filler and continues the zero calorie technically-legal untruth.

Like the others, there are some doubts about its safety, but it’s classified as safe for human consumption.

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