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Stevia, monkfruit, agave, maltodextrin, brown rice syrup- what in the? It is so hard to keep up sometimes. There seems to be a new term for sugar popping up or a new product on our shelves. It is tough to distinguish the goods, from the bads, to the uglies. Let’s take a dive into the sweetener world.

Before a sweetener can be legally added to a food or beverage in the U.S., it must either achieve FDA approval or be accepted as GRAS (generally recognized as safe).1 The FDA lists food substances that are exempt from testing before putting them on the market. The list includes “any substance that is intentionally added to food… generally recognized, among qualified experts, as having been adequately shown to be safe under the conditions of its intended us.”2

An easy way to break down all things sweeteners is by splitting them into two categories- caloric vs. non-caloric.

Caloric means they have calories and they raise blood sugar. Some, of which, are found naturally in food. Non-caloric sweeteners do not have calories, do not raise blood sugar, and can come from natural and artificial sources.

sweeteners

What are the different types of sweeteners

Caloric Sweeteners

Examples of caloric sweeteners are: sucrose, fructose, lactose, glucose, honey, maple syrup, agave nectar, sugar alcohols, high fructose corn syrup to name a few. Believe it or not there are 61 alternate names for sugar listed on food labels, per University of California, San Francisco’s Sugar Science- The Unsweetened Truth. 61?! They go on to say “These include common names, such as sucrose and high-fructose corn syrup, as well as barley malt, dextrose, maltose and rice syrup, among others. While product labels list total sugar content, manufacturers are not required to say whether that total includes added sugar, which makes it difficult to know how much of the total comes from added sugar and how much is naturally occurring in ingredients such as fruit or milk. That makes it very difficult to account for how much added sugar we’re consuming.”

The sweeteners in the table3 below are among the most common caloric sweeteners.

SUGARHONEYAGAVE
Cals/serving16 calories per 1 teaspoon21 calories per 1 teaspoon20 calories per 1 teaspoon
Carbs /serving455
Sweeter than sugarn/a2 x sweeter1.5 x sweeter
SourceSugar Beets and Sugar CaneHoney BeesAgave plant
AttributesAdds sweetness with no aftertaste.  Browns well.Minimal processing. Unsafe for infants. Not veganDissolves well
Best UsesAllAllBeverages
Marketed AsWhite sugar, Turbinado Sugar, Sugar in the RawHoneyAgave Syrup

Sugar alcohols are carbohydrates but provide fewer calories than sugar and have less impact on blood sugar than other carbohydrates. Used to sweeten candies, chewing gum, pudding, ice cream, cookies and syrups, items made with sugar alcohol can be labeled “sugar-free” or “no sugar added. However, this can be very misleading because the sugar-free version may be similar to the regular product, despite the deceiving claim.

Some sugar alcohols may cause gas, cramping or diarrhea in some users. Products sweetened with mannitol or sorbitol must carry a label warning of risk for laxative effect.  Common sugar alcohols are: Mannitol, Sorbitol, Erythritol, Glycerol, Hydrogenated Starch Hydrolsates (HSH), Isomalt, Lactitol, Maltitol, Xylitol.

Sugar alcohols are not absorbed as much as regular sugar; therefore, it is best to estimate half of the sugar alcohol grams on a food label will be absorbed and ultimately affect blood glucose levels.

Non-caloric Sweeteners

Non-caloric sweetener examples are: Acesulfame-k (Sunett, Sweet one), Aspartame (Nutrasweet, Equal), Saccharin (Sugar Twin, Sweet n Low, Sucralose (Splenda), Stevia rebaudiana (Ideal, Truvia)*, Monkfruit extract* (*from a natural source). See chart4 below for comparisons.

Acesulfame-KAspartameSaccharinSucraloseStevia Monkfruit extract
Cals/serving04 cals per gram4 cals per packet5 cals per packet0 cals per ¼ teaspoon
Carbs /serving01 gram<1 gram1 gram1 gram0
Sweeter than sugar200 x sweeter200 x sweeter200-700 x sweeter600 x sweeter30 x sweeter200-400x sweeter
SourceLabLabLabSugar/

Lab

Stevia plantMonk fruit
AttributesVery stable at high temps, no effect on blood glucose, slightly bitter aftertasteMay trigger headaches; People with Phenylketonuria do not useNo Effect on blood glucose; aftertasteVery stable; no effect on BGNo effect on blood glucoseNO effect on blood glucose
Best UsesAll, except meat and poultryAllProcessed diet foods, drinksAllAll, except meat and poultryAll
Marketed AsSunette, Sweet OneEqual, Nutrasweet Sweet ’n LowSplenda, Candys, Sucraplus Stevia, Sweetleaf, Truvia, PureVia Nectresse, Monk Fruit in the Raw, Skinny Girl Monk Fruit 

There are pros and cons to non-caloric sweeteners.

The pros being that: they have little to no effect on blood sugar, they help to control calories (compared to sugar-sweetened products), and they reduce sugar effect on dental health.

The cons: non-caloric sweeteners taste sweet but provide no calories and do not satisfy hunger, they may increase sugar cravings and appetite, there are concerns regarding consumption of artificial sweeteners changes to the gut biome, to name a few.

The book “The Mind-Gut Connection” by Emeran Mayer, MD dives into the affects of artificial sweeteners on gut health. Mayer states, “Despite their ubiquity, evidence for their promised health benefits is mixed at best, and evidence for dangers of artificial sweeteners has emerged, including weight gain and increased risk of metabolic diseases such as type 2 diabetes.” There have been studies done at the Weizmann Institute of Science in Jerusalem that showed commercial sweeteners (saccharin, sucralose, and aspartame) can induce glucose intolerance and signs of metabolic syndrome in mice. They noticed that by analyzing the animals’ microbiota, the artificial sweeteners led Bacteroides bacteria to flourish in the animals’ gut, just as a high-fat diet does.

In addition, the researchers also showed additional calories were absorbed by the colon, when artificial sweeteners were consumed due to evidence showing the metabolic pathways were altered in gut microbes causing them to produce more short-chain fatty acids. Mayer goes on to say, “It suggests that trying to cut calories with artificial sweeteners won’t work because your gut with the help of its microbes, will just extract proportionally more calories from the food you eat.”

Contrastly, Stevia and monk fruit extract are newer to the category of non-caloric sweeteners. They are not considered artificial because they are from natural sources. However, watch out when buying them in bulk in supermarkets because a sugar alcohol, erythritol, is commonly added for bulking and anti-caking purposes.

It seems, like many things in the world of nutrition, it is best to limit the use of non-caloric sweeteners. You’re likely sick of hearing the word moderation, but it also applies to use to sweeteners. Consider limiting artificial sweeteners to a “treat”. 

Sources:

1. Barclay, Alan W. The Ultimate Guide to Sugar & Sweeteners. 2014

2. “Generally Recognized as Safe (GRAS)”. U.S. Food and Drug Administration, last modified July 14, 2014.

3. https://diabetes.org/healthy-living/recipes-nutrition/understanding-carbs/get-to-know-carbs

4. FDA Approved High-Intensity Sweeteners Approved for Use in Food in the United States, 2018

References:

Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics (2012) Position of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics: Use of Nutritive and Nonnutritive Sweeteners. Journal Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics (Volume 112) Number 5 p 739-758

Diabetes Education Online, University of California, San Francisco. Artificial Sweeteners (2021). Available at https://dtc.ucsf.edu/living-with-diabetes/diet-and-nutrition/understanding-carbohydrates/demystifying-sugar/artificial-sweeteners/

Get to Know Carbs (2021) American Diabetes Association. Available at https://diabetes.org/healthy-living/recipes-nutrition/understanding-carbs/get-to-know-carbs

U.S. Food and Drug Administration. Additional Information about High-Intensity Sweeteners Permitted for Use in Food in the United States (2018) Available at https://www.fda.gov/food/food-additives-petitions/additional-information-about-high-intensity-sweeteners-permitted-use-food-united-states

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