Sugar substitutes are everywhere, helping us keep the sweet and ditch the calories in hopes of a healthier lifestyle.
But who are these fakers, and what are they really all about?
The brand names are Equal and NutraSweet and usually found in a blue packet. Made from the amino acids, aspartic acid, and phenylalanine, it is 200 times sweeter than sucrose. You can find aspartame in diet soda, gum, and drink mixes. Aspartame is broken down in the small intestines, and the amino acids are absorbed into the bloodstream.
This no-calorie sweetener is derived from a plant just like regular sugar, but it’s 200 times sweeter. Stevia doesn’t get digested like sugar. It goes into the large intestine intact where the bacteria metabolize it and send it through the bloodstream to the liver and then it is excreted in the urine. Truvia, a sweetener made with stevia and erythritol (another undigested sugar substitute), is also available but it does have minimal calories.
Known as Splenda or the yellow packet, sucralose is made from sugar through a chemical process that adds chlorine atoms to the sugar molecule. Sucralose itself is calorie free, but dextrose and maltodextrin are added to it which gives it some calorie content. Sucralose is 700 to 800 times sweeter than sugar. Sucralose is not digested in the small intestine, but passes through to the colon. The bacteria will chew on this, and there is some controversy that it may cause some changes in good bacteria.
This sweetener is straight-up chemicals, and it was our first sugar substitute. Also known as Sweet ‘N Low or the pink packet, saccharin is about 200 to 700 times sweeter than sugar, but the aftertaste is a problem. Saccharin has a bad rap about being a carcinogen, but the research was found to be flawed. Saccharin is not metabolized and exits the body unchanged.
This nectar has about 20 calories per teaspoon, more than sugar, but it is one and a half times sweeter so you use less. Agave is all fructose, which is a natural fruit sugar that is processed by the liver. Excess fructose in the diet can lead to fatty liver. Because fructose is best absorbed with an equal amount of glucose, agave may end up unabsorbed and in the large intestine where bacteria can ferment it and cause unpleasant GI symptoms.
Sorbitol, Xylitol, and Maltitol all have 10 calories per teaspoon and are mostly undigested. They all vary in sweetness, and none exceed that of real sugar. However, in excess they cause some issues in the large intestine where the bacteria ferment them, bring in water, and cause diarrhea. These sweeteners have been used for quite some time for sugar-free candies and gum. Erythritol fits into this category, but has not been found to affect GI issues. It’s great for baking so it is an exception to the rule. It is mainly absorbed and eventually excreted in the urine.
All of these sweeteners have one thing in common; they want to be sugar without the negativity. As with anything we eat, moderation and common sense seem to be the best guide to using these products. Sugar or sugar substitutes are rarely consumed by themselves, so if looking to use as part of a weight-loss plan or to control blood sugar, you must consider the rest of the meal or snack.