Sugar Substitutes and Artificial Sweeteners (Part 1)

When you’re making major lifestyle changes , you might justify eating more unhealthy calories...

Sugar alternatives

Key Takeaways

Two Considerations when Using Artificial Sweeteners and Sugar Substitutes

  • The bargaining effect: When you’re making major lifestyle changes , you might justify eating more unhealthy calories. Remember the overall goal here is to eliminate foods that cause your blood sugar to spike.
  • Treating the symptom not the root cause: With weight gain, one possible cause can be our addiction to sweets. So addressing that dependency with a substitute doesn’t solve the problem of our lingering desire to continue eating treats (usually processed foods with artificial sweeteners) instead of eating healthy whole foods such as vegetables, fruits, grains and lean meats. If your sweet tooth lingers after giving up on added sugar foods, consider reaching for a piece of fruit, or a bowl of raspberries or blueberries, they still contain sugar but are also nutritious, contain fiber and won’t spike your glucose to the degree that added sugar will.

The Basics About Sugar Substitutes

When you start to track your glucose, you might be tempted to keep eating the same foods including sweets but just exchange added sugar for artificial sweeteners and sugar substitutes. Before you go too far down that path there are a few considerations in making this exchange and to help you make informed choices, here’s a primer on the different kinds of common sugar substitutes and artificial sweeteners.

Artificial Sweetener #1 Sucralose: 

Sold under the brand name Splenda, sucralose is made from a multi-step process, so it should be considered an artificial sweetener. It is 400-700 times sweeter than table sugar and doesn’t have a chemical aftertaste like other artificial sweeteners and sugar alcohols. While considered a zero calories sweetener that won’t raise your blood sugar, there is a small study showing an increase in glucose and insulin after ingesting. Exercise caution if you plan on cooking with Splenda, as some research indicates that the compound breaks down under high heat. 

Artificial Sweetener #2 Saccharin: 

This artificial sweetener has been around for over 100 years. It doesn’t contain any calories or carbs and since we can’t digest it, it passes through the digestive track and leaves us unchanged. There have been some studies that showed a link between saccharin and bladder cancer in rats, but that link has not been established in humans. Saccharin can be found in diet soft drinks, packaged and processed foods and in individual packets under the brand name Sweet ‘N Low.

Sugar Substitute #1 Stevia: 

Stevia is a naturally occurring sweetener that tastes 200-300 times sweeter than sugar. Note that the starting material for stevia extracts may be natural so we're classifying it as a sugar substitute, but these ingredients are highly processed. It comes from a plant in the sunflower family and can be found in North and South America as well as in Asia.  It has been used to make tea since the 16th century. There are so few calories in stevia that it can be classified as no-calorie or zero-calorie sweetener. Stevia is considered safe to consume but you should be aware that many stevia products also contain sugar alcohols which can lead to stomach upset if consumed in larger quantities.

Sugar Substitute #2 Monk Fruit: 

Is a small fruit that is indigenous to Southeast Asia. The fruit itself contains natural sugars in the form of fructose and sucrose, but for sweeteners that are in foods and packaged as a sugar substitute, the monk fruit is dried and is processed to form mogrosides, which are 150 to 200 times sweeter than sugar. Many packaged versions of the sweetener also contain other fillers, including sugar alcohols, so if they don’t agree with you, make sure and read the label.

Sugar Substitute #3 Allulose: 

Allulose is the new kid on the block. It can be found naturally in dried fruits, brown sugar and maple syrup, it can also be manufactured in the laboratory. It’s structure is very similar to fructose. Allulose contains fewer calories than sugar and has no glycemic impact (your blood sugar won’t go up after you consume it). Many people are using allulose in cooking as a sugar substitute, the one caveat is that it does brown more than sugar so if you’re expecting to bake a white angel food’s cake with allulose, the result may be a little more on the browned side then you might be expecting. Like sugar alcohols, some people report stomach upset when allulose is consumed in large quantities. 

Sugar Alcohols:

Ingredients such as Xylitol, Erythritol and Sorbitol (think substitutes that end with "tol") are sugar alcohols which now show up on nutrition labels as a type of sugar. They are carbohydrates, but they’re somewhat resistant to digestion, so the body absorbs fewer calories. When eaten in excess, sugar alcohols can cause stomach upset so keep that in mind when choosing where and when to add them in. Also, since they are still a sugar, eaten in larger quantities, they can still cause an increase in blood sugar.

In our next installment on artificial sweeteners and sugar substitutes, we’ll have an in-depth look at the two newest additions to this category that are gaining popularity, monk fruit and allulose, as well as talking sugar substitution strategies for maximum weight loss.

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