Sugar substitutes are everywhere, helping us to keep the sweet and ditch the calories in hopes of a healthier lifestyle. But who are these fakers, and what are they all about? Let’s take a look at some of the most popular.
This sweetener goes by the brand names “Equal” and “NutraSweet” and comes in a powdered form in individual blue packets. Made from the amino acids, aspartic acid, and phenylalanine, aspartame is 200 times sweeter than sucrose (table sugar). 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 is 200 times sweeter. Stevia doesn’t get digested like sugar. It goes into the large intestine intact. There the bacteria metabolize it and send it through the bloodstream to the liver. It is then excreted in the urine. “Truvia,” a sweetener made with stevia and erythritol – another undigested sugar substitute – is also available and has minimal calories.
Also known as “Splenda,” which comes in individual yellow packets, 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 give it some calorie content. It is 700 to 800 times sweeter than sugar. Sucralose is not digested in the small intestine, but passes through to the colon. The bacteria chew on it there. There is some controversy that sucralose may cause some changes in good bacteria.
Saccharin, better known as “Sweet-n-Low,” was the first sugar substitute and comes in individual pink packets. Saccharin is about 200 to 700 times sweeter than sugar, but the aftertaste is the problem. Saccharin has a bad rap about being a carcinogen, but the research suggesting that is was a carcinogen was found to be flawed. Saccharin is not metabolized and exits the body unchanged.
This nectar has about 20 calories per teaspoon, more that sugar, but it’s 1½ 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 gastrointestinal (GI) symptoms.
The sugar alcohols “Sorbitol,” “Xylitol,” and “Maltitol” all have 10 calories per teaspoon and are mostly undigested. They all vary in sweetness, but none exceed that of real sugar. However, in excess they can 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 cause GI issues. It’s also 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 you’re looking to use a sweetener as part of a weight loss plan or to control blood sugar, you must consider the rest of the meal or snack.