5.3 Sugar Substitutes

Sugar substitutes, also known as artificial sweeteners or sugar replacers are substances added to foods that sweeten it while providing few to no calories. Sugar substitutes are regulated by the FDA and must be safe for human consumption. There are two main types of sugar substitutes: high intensity sweeteners and sugar alcohols. We can further categorize sugar substitutes as either nutritive or non-nutritive sweeteners. These terms do not refer to the presence or absence of the six essential nutrients but to whether or not the sugar substitute provides energy in the form of calories. The term nutritive means that the sweetener contributes calories while non-nutritive means that it is calorie free.

Figure 5.6 Sweeteners

Decorative image showing stevia: a high intensity sweetener and fruit: a source of naturally occuring sugar

High Intensity Sweeteners

As the name implies, high intensity sweeteners are much sweeter than regular table sugar. In fact, high intensity sweeteners are approximately 200-700 times sweeter than regular sugar but some high intensity sweeteners can be as sweet as 20,000 times sweeter than sugar. Some high intensity sweeteners are chemicals that occur naturally in plants while others are created in a laboratory.

There are currently eight high intensity sweeteners that the FDA considers generally recognized as safe (GRAS) or are approved as a food additive in the US. Saccharin, aspartame, acesulfame potassium (Ace-K), sucralose,  neotame, and advantame are approved as food additives and stevia or monk fruit extracts have received GRAS status (4).

Saccharin, a non-nutritive sweetener, is sold under the brand name Sweet N Low. It was first discovered in 1879 and is the high intensity sweetener that has been available for the longest time. In the early 1970s, saccharin was linked with the development of bladder cancer in laboratory rats, which led Congress to mandate additional studies of saccharin and the presence of a warning label on saccharin-containing products until such warning could be shown to be unnecessary. Since then, more than 30 human studies demonstrated that the results found in rats were not relevant to humans, and that saccharin is safe for human consumption.

Aspartame, a nutritive sweetener, is sold under the brand names “Nutrasweet” or “Equal.” This is the only high intensity sweetener that is considered a nutritive sweetener because it does provide calories but aspartame is approximately 200 times sweeter than regular sugar so is used in very small amounts and therefore is virtually a calorie free sweetener. This is why you may see aspartame in “calorie free” beverages. Aspartame is often found in diet soft drinks and energy drinks but is not heat stable and loses its sweetness when heated so is not found in baked goods. Aspartame has been blamed for causing a variety of health problems such as cancer, immune system disease, and chronic headaches. Despite the claims, there have been no scientifically reliable studies linking aspartame to any health disorders when consumed in amounts below the acceptable daily intake (ADI). The human ADI for aspartame is approximately 18 cans of diet soda per day for a 150 pound person. Many claims linking aspartame and various health conditions come from animal studies where rats who were fed doses of aspartame that exceeded the human ADI on an ongoing basis developed health problems. However, people with a rare hereditary disease known as phenylketonuria (PKU) have a difficult time metabolizing phenylalanine, a component of aspartame, and should control their intake of phenylalanine from all sources, including aspartame. Labels of aspartame-containing foods and beverages must include a statement that informs individuals with PKU that the product contains phenylalanine.

Sucralose, a non-nutritive sweetener, is sold under the brand name Splenda. Sucralose is a general purpose sweetener that can be found in a variety of foods including baked goods, beverages, chewing gum, gelatins, and frozen dairy desserts. It is heat stable, meaning that it stays sweet even when used at high temperatures during baking, making it suitable as a sugar substitute in baked goods.

Acesulfame potassium or acesulfame K a non-nutritive sweetener is sold under the brand names Sunett and Sweet One. It is heat stable, meaning that it stays sweet even when used at high temperatures during baking, making it suitable as a sugar substitute in baked goods and is typically used in frozen desserts, candies, beverages, and baked goods.

Neotame, a non-nutritive sweetener, is sold under the brand name Newtame, and is approximately 7,000 to 13,000 times sweeter than table sugar. It was approved as a general purpose sweetener in 2002 and is heat stable so can be used in baked goods.

Advantame, a non-nutritive sweetener, is approximately 20,000 times sweeter than table sugar. This is another general purpose sweetener that is heat stable so can be used as a sugar substitute in baked goods.

Recently, natural plant chemicals have been popularized as non-nutritive high intensity sweeteners. Rebiana, a steviol glycoside, is a chemical found in the leaves of the South American shrub commonly known as Stevia. This chemical is approximately 200-400 times sweeter than sugar and is sold under the brand names Truvia and PureVia. However, the use of stevia leaf and crude stevia extracts is not considered GRAS and their import into the United States is not permitted for use as sweeteners. Also, the leaves of the monk fruit, a plant native to Southern China, contains varying levels of mogrosides, which are responsible for the characteristic sweetness of monk fruit extract. Monk fruit extract, depending on the mogroside content, is reported to be 100 to 250 times sweeter than sugar.

Sugar Alcohols

Lastly, there are the sugar alcohols, which are industrially synthesized derivatives of monosaccharides. Some examples of sugar alcohols are sorbitol, xylitol, and glycerol. (Xylitol is similar in sweetness as table sugar). Sugar alcohols are often used in place of table sugar to sweeten foods as they are incompletely digested and absorbed, and therefore less caloric. Sugar alcohols, nutritive sweeteners, provide between 1.5-3 kcals per gram but because they are not completely digested can cause a laxative effect in large quantities. The bacteria in your mouth do not digest sugar alcohols, hence they do not cause tooth decay. Interestingly, the sensation of “coolness” that occurs when chewing gum that contains sugar alcohols comes from them dissolving in the mouth, a chemical reaction that requires heat from the inside of the mouth.

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Nutrition and Physical Fitness Copyright © 2022 by Angela Harter Alger is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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