Exploring Natural and Artificial Sugar Substitutes

Exploring Natural and Artificial Sugar Substitutes

Dr. Nancy Wright is Co-Director of the Tallahassee Memorial Diabetes Center and board certified in pediatric endocrinology.

Dr. Nancy Wright is Co-Director of the Tallahassee Memorial Diabetes Center and board certified in pediatric endocrinology.

By: Roberta Stevens, RD CDE, Diabetes Nutrition Educator & Nancy Wright, MD

What do we know about alternatives to sugar as a sweetener?  Many are concerned about the safety of sugar substitutes, and it is important to separate fact from fiction. The position of the American Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics is that both artificial and natural sweeteners are safe to use in moderation as part of a healthy diet.

Low calorie and zero calorie sweeteners include both artificial sweeteners like saccharin, aspartame (Equal), and sucralose (Splenda), as well as natural sweeteners like stevia (Truvia) and the newest sweetener “monk fruit extract” (Nectresse). The Food and Drug Administration requires extensive testing on artificial sweeteners and has carefully evaluated products like stevia and monk fruit extract before allowing them into the United States food supply. These products can give foods a sweet taste without adding calories or raising blood sugar, so they are ideal for people who have diabetes or want to reduce their calorie intake.

Most naturally derived sugar alternatives like honey, agave nectar, sugar alcohols, and high fructose corn syrup are caloric or “nutritive” sweeteners, meaning they supply the body with energy. Honey has the same number of calories as refined sugar and an equivalent effect on blood sugar. Agave nectar, made from the heart of the agave plant, is sweeter than sugar, so less is needed to flavor foods, allowing a possibility to shave calories.  Agave nectar has been marketed as having less of an effect on blood glucose levels, but it still contains calories and carbohydrates. Meanwhile, sugar alcohols are often used in foods like “sugar free” candies cakes and pies. Sugar alcohols vary in the amount which is digested and absorbed, so some of them may have less of an effect on blood sugar and may provide fewer calories.  However, most products that contain sugar alcohols also contain a considerable amount of fat and therefore many calories.  Lastly, high fructose corn syrup is a sweetener often used by food manufacturers. It too has calories and carbohydrates just like sugar.

Although, some nutritive sweeteners may have benefits over sugar, they still have calories and an effect on blood sugar. Choosing low calorie or zero calorie alternative is one way to reduce calorie intake and help manage weight. As an example, a single 16-ounce bottle of soda has about 200 calories, so a small change like drinking a diet soda each day instead could save 73,000 calories in a year. This equates to roughly 20 pounds of body weight!

While the possible advantages of low calorie and zero calorie sweeteners is impressive, sweets are only supposed to be a very small part of a healthy diet.  No matter what sweetener they contain, cookies and candy will never be better choices than fresh fruits and vegetables. Regardless of your preference of sweetener, focusing on eating more whole grains, fruits and vegetables and drinking fewer sugary beverages is the best step for good health and well being.

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