There are few things as satisfying as a sweet treat. But with emerging concerns about Americans’ consumption of sugar – on average, we consume approximately 165 pounds of added sugar per person per year – and its impact on tooth decay, obesity, and diabetes, many are left with the question of what sugar alternative is the best balance between satisfaction and health.
When deciding between artificial sugar alternatives and natural sugar substitutes, there are many factors to consider.
The amount, frequency of consumption, and pre-existing conditions will play a role in initially narrowing down your choices. Beyond that, personal taste, and what type of food it's being used for can help you decide which choice is best. Below, I've created an exhaustive list of both artificial and natural sugar alternatives.
ARTIFICAL SUGAR ALTERNATIVES
Commonly known by its brand names Sunett and Sweet One, acefulsame potassium has some benefits over sugar. This zero-calorie sweetener can be used to sweeten drinks, some candies, gelatin and frozen desserts. It is often also found in chewing gum.
There were some initial concerns in the regarding early inconclusive studies linking acefulsame potassium to cancer. However, after 90 subsequent scientific studies showing no correlation between acefulsame potassium and cancer in animals, the FDA has determined that it is indeed also safe for human consumption.
Aspartame is marketed under the brand names Equal and NutraSweet, and is one of the most ubiquitous sugar alternatives. It is found in soft drinks, baked goods, light yogurts, and even some brands of cough drops.
Historically, there has been some concern in animal studies that aspartame may be linked to cancer, though these studies have never been replicated in humans. It is thought that aspartame, consumed in moderation, poses no real health threats.
High fructose corn syrup
High fructose corn syrup is a common alternative to table sugar because it contains glucose and fructose, making its flavor very similar to sugar. It is manufactured from corn oil, and since it lasts longer than regular sugars, many food manufacturers use it in cereals, processed foods, and juices to give them a longer shelf life.
Because it has nearly as many calories as sugar – 17 per teaspoon – it has been partially blamed for America’s obesity epidemic and is recommended to be used in moderation, much like sugar.
Neotame is the newest zero calorie sweetener to be approved by the FDA, having arrived on the scene in the early 2000s. Neotame is manufactured by the same company who produced aspartame, and is thought to be nearly 17,000 times sweeter than sugar, meaning that much less can be used to achieve the same level of sweetness in processed foods and drinks.
Even though it has earned the highest rating for safety from the food safety organization Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI), it is so new that it is rarely used in common products.
Sweet N Low, the brand name for the near zero-calorie sugar substitute saccharine, has a somewhat sordid history. Even though the FDA currently considers Sweet N Low safe for human consumption, the CSPI warns against this product. It has been linked to bladder cancer in lab studies with rats, and while this link has been found tenuous in humans, saccharine remained on the list of known potential carcinogens until the early 2000s.
Sucralose is a zero-calorie sweetener that works by fooling the taste buds. It is a chemical compound manufactured to be a near-mirror image of sucrose (table sugar). Its molecular proximity to sucrose causes taste buds to react, mimicking the flavor of sugar.
However, because it is not the same chemical shape as actual sugar, the body is unable to absorb most of it, and it passes through the human body and is largely eliminated as waste. Splenda also holds up well to heat, making it an ideal alternative when baking homemade low-calorie sweet treats.
Sugar alcohols (sorbitol, xylitol, mannitol)
While sugar alcohols do have some calories (approximately 10 calories per teaspoon), they are considered generally healthier than sugar because they do not contain as many carbohydrates, and they are not linked to tooth decay. Side effects of consuming too much sugar alcohol may include bloating and diarrhea, so they are best consumed in moderation.
Whey Low is a blend of three naturally occurring sugar compounds: fructose (fruit sugars), sucrose (traditional table sugar), and lactose (milk sugar). By blending these three sugars, consumers can taste their inherent sweetness, but because of the way the three sugars interact with one another, less is actually absorbed by the body.
Whey Low has approximately 25% of the calories of traditional table sugar (fewer than 5 calories per teaspoon), and it is less likely to make your blood sugar spike then crash after consumption. Another benefit is that it can be refined in the same ways as traditional sugar: as granular, brown, or confectioner’s sugar, making it another alternative for homemade baked goods.
NATURAL SUGAR SUBSTITUTES
While agave nectar is not calorie free (it comes with a price tag of about 20 calories per teaspoon), the good news is that it is so much sweeter than sugar that you can use far less of it to achieve the same taste. Its consistency and flavor is similar to honey, so it cannot be used to substitute for sugar in every situation, but advocates claim it is an excellent sweetener to use in making tea or baking.
Be warned, however, that agave bakes differently than sugar, and you may need to adjust both the recipe and the bake time to achieve the desired flavor in homemade baked goods.
While unsweetened applesauce cannot be used to substitute for sugar in things like processed food or drinks, it is an appealing alternative to sugar in home baking. Applesauce is commonly used to substitute for sugar in cakes and muffins, in which the other ingredients can mask the apple flavor while still taking advantage of its natural sweetness. When used in baking, applesauce can also make the resulting treats more naturally moist and succulent.
Honey can be used to sweeten tea and baked goods, though its distinct flavor does not make it an ideal sugar substitute in all products. Despite its high calorie count, honey is considered to be healthier than table sugar because of its antioxidants and its slower release into the bloodstream.
Sugar and some of its other alternatives often cause quick, dramatic rises in blood sugars, which can be very hard on the body. Honey, however, is more slowly released into the blood stream, meaning it raises blood sugar more safely.
Stevia, also known as Truvia or Pure Via, is a zero-calorie sweetener processed from the leaves of the stevia plant. Even though it is heavily processed and refined, it is often considered a “natural” zero-calorie sweetener because it is plant-based as opposed to chemically created.
It is also lauded for the fact that it does not cause any spike in blood sugar after consumption. While it is up to forty times sweeter than sugar, the flavor of stevia is less similar to real sugar, and many consumers dislike its licorice-like aftertaste.
The non-nutritive (zero-calorie) sweeteners are often considered healthier alternatives for the general population, and necessities for diabetics, because they do not raise blood sugar levels. Acefulsame potassium, aspartame, neotame, sucralose, saccharine, and stevia all give a sweet taste without affecting the sugar content of a person’s blood.
This is also means that they do not contribute to tooth decay or obesity, as they lack the natural sugar compounds responsible for these health risks. Most caloric sugar alternatives, including sugar alcohols, whey low, honey, agave, applesauce, and high fructose corn syrup may ultimately pose fewer health risks than traditional table sugar.
Keep in mind though, they can still cause a blood sugar spike and subsequent crash after consumption, making them choices that should only be used in moderation by people with some medical conditions, including diabetes. This is due largely in part to the fact that these alternatives do still contain some form of a naturally occurring sugar compound (sucrose, glucose, or fructose).
All sugar substitutes come with attendant benefits and concerns. It seems best in general to limit intake of sweets – whether natural or artificial – in order to maintain optimal health and reduce your risk of tooth decay, obesity, and diabetes.
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