Sugar substitutes: An easy to understand summary of most important key facts

In general, people have addiction to the taste of sugar and most of them find it difficult to control their craving for sweets and baked foods. Lately, with the increase in health issues, many of us are understanding the dangers of sugar intake with rich calories and are looking for alternative choices of food sweeteners. Keeping an eye on the calorie intake is very important to stay fit, as these extra calories from sugars may enhance the risk of diabetes, obesity, cardiovascular disease etc. The first step towards controlling the calorie intake is, cutting down on the sugar sweetened foods or replacing table sugar with moderate amounts of sugar substitutes with zero calorie option.

Sugar substitutes are plant or chemical based low calorie substances, that are used to enhance the sweetness of foods or drinks instead of natural sugar (Sucrose). While some of the natural sugar substitutes approved by FDA are safe to ingest, other artificial sweeteners which are present in some ‘diet’ labeled drinks are not healthy if consumed in excess. Sugar substitutes are very beneficial for people with diabetes as there are no calorie content in them that can raise the blood sugar levels. Not all sugar substitutes are ideal for cooking and baking because very few of them contain bulking agents like dextrose which is needed to give color and texture for baking.

Some sugar substitutes are classified as ‘intense sweeteners’ because of their more intensity of sweetness which is many times higher than regular sugar. Sugar alcohols also called as polyols are another class of sweeteners with low calorie amounts that are manufactured artificially from the natural extracts of fruits and vegetables. As per the FDA approval, sugar alcohols such as sorbitol, xylitol and mannitol etc are much safer to use in food products, but affects blood sugar levels, although quite lesser than the natural sugar.

Sugar substitutes – good or bad?

  • Today almost all foods and drinks that we buy in supermarkets contain sugar substitutes because people are preferring low calorie diets to stay healthy. Individuals who are not diabetic and who are not used to these sugar substitute names may feel quite confusing in categorizing which one is better to consume. Generally, all sugar substitutes that are approved by FDA are safe to use in food except in one specific health condition called phenylketonuria (PKU). People having PKU are restricted from using aspartame because they cannot metabolize one of its internal component called phenylalanine.

  • There is also a misconception among people that some of the sugar substitutes like aspartame are chronically harmful to humans and gradually lead to health hazards like cancer or heart disease. So far there is no evidence to prove this fact in humans, but the idea arose when artificial sweetener named cyclamate, which is currently banned in US caused bladder cancer in laboratory animals when combined with saccharin.
  • Talking about the good part, sugar substitutes have several health benefits to consider – very few calories, no effect on blood sugar level in diabetic patients, do not contribute to weight gain, promote dental health without tooth decay and cavities, and cost effective than natural sugar. In fact, natural sugar alternatives like honey, maple syrup, cane juice, palm sugar etc are much better to consume than refined table sugar or artificial sweeteners because they are rich in antioxidants, vitamins, minerals and enzymes that support in improving overall well-being.

List of artificial sweeteners approved by FDA with their brand names:

Artificial sweeteners Available brands in India
Aspartame Equal, Sugar Free Gold
saccharin Sweet ‘N Low, Sugar Free
sucralose Splenda, Sugar Free Natura
Neotame NA
advantame NA
Acesulfame potassium
(Acesulfame K)

What is Stevia?

Stevia is another sugar substitute with special kind because it is extracted from a herb called stevia Rebaudiana which is 200 times sweeter than the natural sugar. One of the isolated chemical from Stevia, Rebaudioside A, has been recognized as safe product to use as food additive by FDA with zero calorie source of natural sweetness. The extracts of Stevia are marketed under different brand names but the most popular ones in India are BeStevia, Sunova, Steviocal and Gaia Stevia etc.

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