As a Dietitian one of the most commonly asked questions I get is kind of funny. So many people want to know which color packet they should chose to sweeten their coffee with. Since I’ve got sugar on my mind while I participate in Sugar Free September, I thought I would answer some of those questions in today’s post. The first thing you need to know is there is two classes of sweeteners: nutritive and non-nutritive.
Nutritive sweeteners include sugar, coconut or palm sugar, honey, agave nectar, corn syrup and many more. They have varying affects on blood sugar depending on many factors including which types of sugar (glucose, fructose, and galactose) they contain. Some sweeteners such as honey, agave nectar and coconut sugar contain small amounts of vitamins and minerals. For this reason, they are sometimes preferred over the “empty calorie” sweeteners such as refined sugar. However, excessive intake is linked with weight gain and undesirable metabolic effects such as increased risk of insulin resistance and high triglyceride levels (a risk factor for heart disease) and therefore they should be enjoyed in moderation.
Sugar alcohols refer to a group of reduced calorie sweeteners often found in products labeled ‘sugar free’. Examples include xylitol, sorbitol, mannitol, hydrogenated starch and isomalt. Sugar alcohols are considered safe and can be enjoyed by anyone, however at very high amounts (above 20grams) they may cause some gastro-intestinal discomfort such as gas, diarrhea and bloating. Xylitol is naturally occurring in many fruits, vegetables, and birchwood bark. Xylitol is the only type of sugar alcohol that is as sweet as table sugar (1, 2). Often found in gum, it also has been shown to prevent the formation of cavities and guard against ear infections. Similar to other sugar alcohols it has a minimal impact on blood sugar and contains 30% fewer calories.
Non-Nutritive sweeteners are often calorie free because they are 200-800 times sweeter than sugar, requiring so little to be used they don’t add any calories.
Artificial Sweeteners. Some calorie free artificial sweeteners like Acesulfame Potassium and Sucralose (aka Splenda) are not broken down or metabolized by the body. This means they come out the same way they go in. Both Acesulfame Poatssium and Sucralose are Generally Recognized As Safe (GRAS) by the FDA during anytime in one’s life, including pregnancy. However, the Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI) advocates the safety of Sucralose and urges more independent studies regarding Acesulfame Potassium. Other calorie free artificial sweeteners such as Aspartame and Saccharin are broken down and metabolized in the body. These are both GRAS by the FDA but are subject to a great deal of controversy. Aspartame has been linked by smaller independent studies to neurological and psychiatric effects. In addition, it is not safe for those that have certain liver conditions, PKU, or high levels of phenylalanine in the blood. Concerns with Saccharin include the potential for it to cross the placenta, for that reason it is recommended for pregnant women toavoid it.
Natural Sweeteners. Stevia is a naturally occurring non-nutritive sweetener, considered GRAS by FDA, and actually considered an herbal extract. Before hitting US shelves, it was used for thousands of years in South America. Recent research has shown components in Stevia may help lower blood pressure (in those with high blood pressure) and improve blood sugar regulation (4, 5, 6). Although, keep in mind the research was conducted with very large doses consumed in a clinical setting. Personally, I’m excited to follow more studies as they are published on this relatively new product.
So, what should you chose? For the most part focus on whole foods in your diet. If you need a little sweetness in your morning cup of Jo, then keep in mind your health goals to help you choose. Each person’s preference will vary depending on how sweet they perceive something to be so don’t forget to follow your taste buds! I hope this is helpful, for a more in depth look at some of these mentioned sweeteners check out this post on my blog, Hungry Hobby.
Uhari, M., Tapiainen, T., & Kontiokari, T. (2000). Xylitol in preventing acute otitis media. Vaccine, 19, S144-S147. http://www.cda.org/Portals/0/pdfs/fact_sheets/xylitol_english.pdf Ulbricht, C., Isaac, R., Milkin, T., A Poole, E., Rusie, E., M Grimes Serrano, J., & Woods, J. (2010). An evidence-based systematic review of stevia by the Natural Standard Research Collaboration. Cardiovascular & Hematological Agents in Medicinal Chemistry (Formerly Current Medicinal Chemistry-Cardiovascular & Hematological Agents), 8(2), 113-127. http://globalsteviainstitute.com/learn-about-stevia/where-does-stevia-come-from/ http://globalsteviainstitute.com/wp-content/uploads/2013/07/Stevia-Safety-Review.pdf Ulbricht, C., Isaac, R., Milkin, T., A Poole, E., Rusie, E., M Grimes Serrano, J., … & Woods, J. (2010). An evidence-based systematic review of stevia by the Natural Standard Research Collaboration. Cardiovascular & Hematological Agents in Medicinal Chemistry (Formerly Current Medicinal Chemistry-Cardiovascular & Hematological Agents), 8(2), 113-127.