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Sugar substitutes: a comprehensive guide

Learn the pros and cons of the most widely used sweeteners
Sugar substitutes
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As more people start to take care of their body and paying attention to food and its ingredients, questions and doubts about the sugar substitutes were bound to come to light. Every sweetener presents itself as the healthiest option, but the reality can be very different.

This is particularly true for natural sweeteners, which use the term “natural” to their advantage but that in reality can hide more dangers than artificial ones. Below you can learn a bit more about the most used sugar substitutes as well as their pros and cons.

Natural Sweeteners

Sugar substitutes Natural Sweeteners
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Sugar is naturally present in many foods and plants. Natural sweeteners are the result of the extraction of these sugars or their condensation so they can later be used to balance the taste of other foods.

Agave nectar

Agave nectar is mostly used by vegans as a substitute of honey.

The syrup is extracted from the agave plant, filtered, heated and then hydrolyzed. Its fructose content varies between 85% and 90%, a value much higher than sugar. It is also much sweeter than the latter and thus used in smaller quantities.

It is considered one of the least healthy sugar substitutes due to its high level of fructose, which is associated with obesity.

Dates

Dates come from the date palm tree and can normally be bought dried. They have a taste similar to caramel and are mostly used in smoothies, salads and salad dressings, sauces, and baked goods.

They are considered as one of the healthiest sugar substitutes since they are fruits and thus present nutrients of their own to the body.

A research from 2011 also points out that their influence over the glycemic indices is very low and they could potentially be a good option for people suffering from Type 2 diabetes.

Fruit juice concentrate

Fruit juice is sweet because it contains fructose. However, regardless of the dangers of this type of sweetener, this juice is still considered as a good option when compared to others as it comes from the fruits themselves.

Since the juiced doesn’t need to be processed, it still brings antioxidants, vitamins and minerals as well as other nutrients to the body.

This is only valid for 100% fruit juice without any added sugars or ingredients.

Honey

Honey has more calories than sugar and a distinctive taste that prevents it from being a direct substitute of the latter.

It contains less fructose (40%) than table sugar (50%), however, even if the difference is not substantial, honey has several other properties that promote the body’s well-being.

Its richness in antioxidants, amino acids, vitamins and mineral are directly related to the prevention and risk decrease of several diseases.

Maple syrup

Maple syrup is produced by boiling the sap of maple trees.

It is rich in antioxidants and it contains more minerals than honey, particularly calcium, potassium, manganese, and iron. However, it also has more calories. Since it is 60 to 70% less sweet than sugar, bigger quantities are needed to achieve the same level of sweetness.

As it’s quite expensive to produce, it is often mixed with sugar water, corn syrup or cane sugar syrup, which reduces its benefits. Diabetics should be especially careful when using this sugar substitute.

Molasses

Molasses is produced by boiling down sugar cane or sugar beets. The latter has a foul smell and taste and is mostly used for animal food.

It has a syrup-like consistency and it contains more antioxidants and other nutrients than honey or maple syrup.

It is mostly used in smoothies, gravies and in baked goods. Despite its properties and nutritional value it still derives from sugar, so its use is more a matter of preference rather than a substitute for the latter.

Artificial sweeteners

Artificial sweeteners Sugar substitutes
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Artificial sweeteners are sugar substitutes produced synthetically. So far, the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has only approved 5: acesulfame potassium, aspartame, neotame, sucralose and saccharin.

Acesulfame potassium

Approved in 1988, this artificial sweetener is used in several sectors, from food and drinks to toothpaste. It normally appears in the ingredients list of products under the name acesulfame potassium, acesulfame K, Ace-K, Sunnett or E950 (Europe).

It is not metabolized by the body, which means its calories are not turned into fat. It has a glycemic index of zero and it’s 200 times sweeter than sugar.

Due to its slightly bitter taste, it’s frequently mixed with other artificial sweeteners.

It is considered safe for consumption by both the FDA and the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA), despite claims that it has a carcinogenic effect. 

Aspartame

Aspartame is one of the most widely used artificial sweeteners yet it is also the one under greater controversy.

There are several contradicting research and studies regarding its safety, but it is approved by the FDA for intakes that don’t surpass the daily limit of 50mg per body kilogram. For the EFSA this limit is of 40mg/kg body weight.

It is 180 times sweeter than sucrose and has a glycemic index of 0. This sweetener is frequently used in diet foods as it only presents 4 calories per gram.

Regardless of the debate about its side-effects, it was already proved that it can be life-threatening for individuals with phenylketonuria.

Neotame

Neotame is an upgraded version of aspartame and it was approved as a general sweetener in 2002. It is the most intense out of the artificial varieties, being 13 000 times sweeter than sucrose.

Although it derives from aspartame, it already takes into consideration the main complaints regarding the latter. It can be consumed by individuals with phenylketonuria since it contains a very small amount of phenylalanine.

It is also stable when exposed to heat, which means it can be used for baking and cooking without the risk of mutating into dangerous components.

Saccharin

Saccharin is on average 500 times sweeter than sucrose, but its intensity may vary depending on the food it is used in.

It has a bitter metallic aftertaste and is normally blended with other artificial sweeteners to disguise it.

Saccharin is also under controversy, and already in 1977, the FDA proposed its ban after some lab experiments with rats indicated its possible carcinogenic effect. However, since the human experiments did not provide the same results and it was deemed to exist a very minimal possibility of saccharine interacting with DNA, it continues to be widely used.

Sucralose

With zero calories, no bitter aftertaste and the ability to stand the heat without mutating, sucralose is used in countless products, particularly baking goods. It is also 600 times sweeter than sugar, although its flavor is very similar to this.

As most sugar substitutes from an artificial source, sucralose is also under controversy.

Since it has a glycemic index of 0 and it’s not processed by the body as a carbohydrate, it has been deemed safe for individuals with diabetes. A study from 2013 concluded that it presents a certain risk for the good bacteria in the body, but only when ingested in very large quantities.

However, in the same year, a different research alerted to the need of a deeper study of the consequences of its intake, as there are some early signs that it can influence the insulin levels and there is no assessment of its long-term consumption.

Novel Sweeteners

Novel Sweeteners Sugar substitutes
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The term novel sweeteners refers to those sugar substitutes not used or known previously and that have only recently passed the approval of the FDA and EFSA. Stevia is the most widely known.

Stevia extracts

Stevia comes from the leaves of Stevia rebaudiana, a South African plant up to 300 times sweeter than sugar.

Although it is still considered as a novel sweetener and it was banned from the USA until 1995, stevia had already been widely used in several countries as a sugar substitute. However, its bitter aftertaste similar to licorice had prevented it from substituting it completely.

It is often marked as a natural sweetener since it comes from a plant, but it needs to be artificially treated in order to lose its bitterness.

Both its calories and glycemic index are 0. Stevia is not under any controversy and it’s considered safe for human consumption. A research from 2010 even hinted that this sweetener can possibly present benefits of its own that could improve the general well-being of individuals.

To date, it’s deemed as the healthiest out of the sugar substitutes.

Tagatose

Tagatose is a relatively unknown novel sweetener derived from the lactose in cow’s milk. It can be consumed by individuals with lactose intolerance as this protein is broken down during the enzymatic process that leads to its sugar-like consistency.

It has only 1.5 calories per gram and its glycemic index is of 3. It is not as sweet as sugar although the difference is not much consequential. It is between 75 and 92% as sweet as sucralose.

Sugar alcohols

Sugar alcohols sugar substitutes
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“Sugar alcohols” is the term used to refer to those sugar substitutes that are extracted from fruits and vegetables. They are also known as polyols and you might recognize them from some ingredients lists as their name tends to end in “-tol”.

They are either low in calories or have none, and have a minimal impact on blood glucose.

Sugar alcohols are mostly used in flavored water, chewing gum and nutrition bars.

Hydrogenated starch hydrolysate

This sweetener is, in reality, a combination of several other sugar alcohols, mainly sorbitol and maltitol.

According to an assessment in 1993, it is a safe substance as it has low cariogenic potential and no other side-effects have been uncovered.

Nevertheless, it still lacks the full approval of the FDA and EFSA that only legalized its use for certain sectors and under strict rules.

Erythritol

Erythritol tastes almost like sugar but contains solely 0.24 calories per gram. As xylitol, erythritol is a sugar alcohol, but it contains even fewer calories.

It is not metabolized by the body, which means that it enters the bloodstream and leaves it through the urine unchanged. Likewise, a study by Nikken Chemicals Co from 1993 concluded that erythritol does not interact with insulin, cholesterol and triglyceride levels.

High doses might trigger a laxative effect, nevertheless.

Isomalt

Isomalt might be more well-known among bakers and cooks.

It’s extracted from beets and its flavor is very similar to sugar, which means it doesn’t affect the taste of the recipes. It is also low in calories and doesn’t mutate under heat or in the presence of humidity.

Lactitol

Lactitol is the result of the hydrogenation of lactose and it’s composed of galactose and sorbitol.

Due to its low calories – only 2 per gram -, it’s often used in the preparation of sugar-free foods and beverages. Within the European Union, it is often labeled under the name E966.

It is also used to treat chronic constipation as it can have a laxative effect depending on the intake.

Maltitol

Maltitol is found in small quantities in chicory leaves and some fruits and vegetables. Its flavor is 90% as sweet as sugar and similar to this too, as it has no aftertaste.

It is mostly used in baked and cooked goods and sugar-free beverages and candies.

There isn’t any controversy around maltitol and its consider safe for consumption. Despite having a glycemic index, this is lower than sugar. Individuals with type 2 diabetes can thus use it as an alternative as long as they are careful with the amounts.

If eaten in excess it can have a laxative effect, triggering diarrhea and bloating.

Sorbitol

Sorbitol is derived from fruits and it’s mostly used in manufacturing. It can normally be found in hard and soft candies, chewing gum and toothpaste.

It is only 55% as sweet as sugar, has 2.6 calories per gram and a glycemic level of 4.

It can have a laxative effect if eaten in excess.

Within the European Union, it is often labeled under the code E420.

Xylitol

Xylitol is considered a natural sweetener as it can be found in small amounts in the human body, and many fruits and vegetables.

It can also be referred to as birch sugar as this is the primary source of extraction of this sweetener. Within the European Union is coded under the reference E 967.

Xylitol has only 2.4 calories per gram and a glycemic index of 7. Despite its “empty calories” – meaning, it has no nutrients – it is often associated with several benefits from weight loss to dental health.

It also doesn’t affect the blood sugar and insulin levels.

What are the best sugar substitutes, then?

If you’re still not sure which sugar substitutes are the best and healthiest, you’re not alone. As you can see, there are several contradicting studies at the moment and it’s up to you to evaluate the pros and cons of each sweetener and decide.

If you’re still not sure about the artificial sweeteners, perhaps because of their name, check out the video below to learn a bit more about their upsides and downsides.

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