Pursuit of Sweetness - Non Nutritive Sweeteners
The quest to find the ideal alternative to sugar has long been studied. Primarily by folks in a white lab coat, mixing concoctions of various chemicals. Why? For a variety of reasons including finding a calorie reducing "sweet" solution, to help with weight management, and to lower blood glucose levels. Lest we not overlook the driving force for manufacturers to seek financial gains.
Over the years, these alternatives have been referred to as:
- Sugar substitutes
- Sugar free
- Non Nutritive Sweeteners
- High Intensity Sweeteners
- Low Calorie Sweeteners
Where It All Began
In the late 1800’s, the first sweetener was discovered by accident, as a byproduct of coal tar! Saccharin was born, Sweet n Low as we know it.
In the 1980’s and 90’s new players such as aspartame (Equal), acesulfame k (Sweet One) and sucralose (Splenda) were given a nod by the Food & Drug Administration (FDA). Since 1999 these sweeteners have made their way into almost all genres of foods.
The Seal of Approval - FDA
The FDA categorizes sugar substitutes in a class called Generally Recognized As Safe (GRAS). This means that only limited inspection is required to get approved by the FDA. The level of proof required for each sweetener can vary with each sweetener in order to be called “safe for human consumption."
FDA Approved List of Sweeteners
- Acesulfame K (Sweet One) - Often found in sugar-free beverages. It is 200 times sweeter than sugar.
- Advantame (New kid on the block - not yet branded) - Not commonly used, yet it is 20,000 times sweeter than sugar!
- Aspartame (Equal) - Commonly used in baked goods, diet drinks and other sugar free foods. It stands 200 times sweeter than sugar.
- Neotame (Nutrasweet) - Similar to Aspartame, with a slight change in chemistry. Not widely used or available.
- Saccharin (Sweet n Low) -Banned in 1981 due to ‘possible’ bladder cancer in rats. It was unbanned after researchers determined humans would need to drink the equivalent of 800 cans of diet soda to have the same carcinogen effect seen in rats.
- Sucralose (Splenda) - Overall considered a safe option. It's 600 times sweeter than sugar. Studies have reported common side effects of upset stomach, bloating and diarrhea.
Naturally Derived Sweeteners
- Stevia - Generally a safer bet than artificial sweetener, but not all stevia sweeteners sold are the same. Consider ones with fewer additional ingredients, usually added to increase shelf life, brighten the product and prevent it from caking up. Brand names such as Purevia and Stevia in the raw tend to have additional ingredients such as silica, dextrose and maltodextrin. Trader Joe's stevia extract has been successful in keeping the ingredient list simple.
- Monk Fruit extract - Newest naturally derived sweetener, commonly sold in stores, but with limited research. Is 150-200 times sweeter than sugar. Not yet known to have negative side effects.
- Allulose - Extracted from a limited list of foods - jackfruit, figs, raisins and wheat. It is technically a sugar, yet has only 1/10th the calories of table sugar. Further research needed to understand its potential to be a natural sweetener with no negative side effects.
Sugar Free does not mean Carbohydrate Free. Check the nutrition facts, stay informed and count the carbohydrates accordingly. It is important to note that the American Diabetes Association and the American Heart Association suggest ‘proceed with caution’ on ALL sweeteners. As with sugar, avoid excess use of sugar substitutes.
And the Controversy Continues...
Sugar substitutes have been a source of controversy for decades. Dr. Robert Lustig, a well known professor of Pediatrics, department of Endocrinology at the University of California, San Francisco, has compiled numerous studies showing why these sweeteners do not have a clear pass for human use. Here are some of his findings:
- May affect how the body uses insulin
- May increase craving for sweeter foods
- May increase hunger which results in increased food consumption and ultimately results in weight gain
- Increases headaches
- Increases likelihood of heart palpitations
So, What’s the Verdict?
Plant derived sweeteners seem to be less controversial. Sure, have a diet soda, make it an occasional choice. But how about sparkling lime infused water instead? Or for a quick grab, try Spindrift. And do enjoy a sugar free dessert occasionally, but avoid baking all your favorite treats with sugar substitutes. Instead try a small serving of a regular dessert. Better yet grab an apple to satisfy your sweet tooth!