Even if we somehow managed to ignore our mothers? admonishments about eating that king-size pillowcase full of Halloween candy (it would cause all our teeth to fall out and force us to wear dentures to our high school prom), it?s almost impossible to avoid all the negatives associated with sugar. Far more pervasive sources than our mothers warn that too much sugar will make us fat, give us diabetes, screw up our glycemic levels and, yes, rot our teeth.
But despite the relentless outpouring of negative information about sugar—commonly defined as fructose (from fruit), sucrose (cane or beets), glucose (plants) and lactose (milk)—we do have more positive choices for sugar alternatives. These natural and artificially created sweeteners offer the taste of sugar but few or none of the calories or carbohydrates. Many are approved by the American Diabetic Association, and even the proverbial four out of five dentists are on board.
But when it comes to sugar alternatives, which have the fewest side effects and the most benefits? Here?s a look at some of the most popular naturally derived sweeteners.
These are defined as naturally occurring sugars that supply calories or nutrients to the body. They include:
- Stevia. Long used as a sweetener in South America and Japan, this native Paraguayan herb is up to 300 times sweeter than sugar.
Pros: Our bodies can?t metabolize stevia, so it has no calories and doesn?t raise blood sugar. Some studies show it has antiseptic and antimicrobial properties.
Cons: Stevia has been reviewed but not approved as a food additive by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, Health Canada, the European Union and the World Health Organization. The FDA has OK?d it as a dietary supplement but not as a sweetener. Stevia proponents say the lack of approval is because there have been few human studies conducted on the sweetener. Some studies show reduced fertility in rats fed stevia.
- Lo han guo. This fruit, grown mainly in China, yields a powder that is typically 200 to 300 times sweeter than sucrose.
Pros: Doesn?t raise the body?s glycemic index. Chinese traditional medicine texts tout lo han guo?s versatility: It can be used to treat coughs, sore throats, constipation, lung complaints and heat stroke.
Cons: The fruit can be bitter and is difficult to process, making lo han guo products hard to find. According to the Glycemic Research Institute, lo han guo?s sweetness deteriorates rapidly after two years, and much of the product currently on the market is already two years old.
- Agave nectar. This honey-like substance is most frequently harvested from agave plants in Mexico. It is 90 percent fructose and 10 percent glucose, and slightly sweeter than table sugar.
Pros: Is frequently certified organic. Less viscous than honey, with a lower glycemic index rating.
Cons: Has 60 calories and 16 grams of carbohydrates per tablespoon, according to Lyons, Colo.-based Madhava Honey, which sells organic agave nectar. Some products marketed as agave nectar are actually high-fructose corn syrup, says Russ Bianchi, chief executive of Adept Solutions, a global product-development company headquartered in Monterey, Calif.
- Sugar alcohols. Also known as xylitol, mannitol, maltitol, sorbitol and erythritol, these sweeteners frequently show up in low-carb products and so-called sugar-free candies, mints and gum. They are naturally occurring in many fruits and vegetables and can be commercially produced by adding hydrogen to glucose, fructose, sucrose or maltose.
Pros: Sugar alcohols are famous for not causing cavities, and xylitol has been shown in clinical and field studies to actually reduce plaque and cavities. The tooth decay prevention claim is FDA-approved. Sugar alcohols don?t raise blood sugar as rapidly as the ?-oses,? but have the same bulk, so they?re good sugar substitutes for baking and cooking.
Cons: They?re low-cal but not no-cal. Also, because sugar alcohols are only partially digested and metabolized, they can cause digestive problems such as flatulence, bloating and diarrhea, according to the American Dietetic Association.
These sweeteners may contain natural ingredients, but they?re synthetically produced. They are generally low-calorie or calorie-free.
- Tagatose. This sweetener is derived from lactose, the sugar found in milk. The resulting product is slightly less sweet than sucrose.
Pros: Tagatose is generally recognized as safe in the United States. Studies show it ferments in the colon, stimulating the growth of lactic acid bacteria, and the U.S. patent office has noted its prebiotic qualities. In 2003, the FDA approved the addition of tagatose to the dental caries health claim for sugar alcohols. Tagatose also has two-thirds fewer calories than table sugar.
Cons: Like sugar alcohols, it largely passes through the body unabsorbed, and thus has the potential of causing embarrassing noises and smells at dinner parties.
- Aspartame. Marketed under the brand names Equal and NutraSweet, aspartame is produced by combining two amino acids and methanol. The resulting powder is 180 times as sweet as sugar.
Pros: Low glycemic and low calorie. According to the University of Nebraska?s Institute of Agriculture and Natural Resources, because aspartame is made of amino acids, it provides the same energy as any protein—4 calories per gram. It?s also FDA-approved and used in more than 5,000 commercial products.
Cons: Aspartame is highly controversial in the natural foods community. The University of Nebraska reports there have been more than 6,000 unsolicited complaints to the FDA concerning aspartame, and the Centers for Disease Control notes that some people may have unusual sensitivity to the sweetener. Common complaints include headaches, seizures and brain tumors, although the FDA says it hasn?t found any connection between aspartame and brain tumors. However, National Cancer Institute data indicate a significant increase in the frequency and severity of brain tumors reported since aspartame was introduced in the early 1980s.
- Sucralose. Made by combining sucrose with chlorine, sucralose is 600 times sweeter than table sugar. It?s marketed under the brand name Splenda.
Pros: Sucralose is not absorbed into the body and thus has no calories and is low-glycemic. It was approved by the FDA in 1998, and is endorsed by the Atkins Institute. As of 1999, it?s on the Center for Science in the Public Interest?s ?safe? list of food additives. Because sucralose?s consistency is close to sugar, it?s good for baking or cooking.
Cons: Because sucralose is a relatively new product, some believe it hasn?t been adequately tested. There aren?t many human clinical trials proving or refuting claims sucralose can cause cancer, genetic mutations, birth defects and immune system complications.
Vicky Uhland is a free-lance writer in Denver. Contact her at [email protected]
Natural Foods Merchandiser volume XXV/number 7/p. 26-27