The BitterSWEET Truth

Maggie Lemaire, RDN

Nowadays, sugar is everywhere! Most everyday items contain some form of sugar. If you’ve ever check the food labels for sugar on items like yogurt, bread, or even pasta sauce, it can be hard to tell where it lives.

Sugar has so many identities.

Sugar substitutes, or sugar alternatives, are used in place of table sugar, also known as sucrose. They tend to have a much sweeter taste, meaning spoonful for spoonful, you  can use less of it. Since most sweeteners have little to no calories, they are favored in products that aim for overall, lower calorie counts. Some of these products include baked goods, carbonated beverages, regular and diet soft drinks, powdered drink mixes, jams and jellies, chocolate, and candy. Those examples probably aren’t surprising, but some sweeteners are added to things you’d never think of, like canned fruit, juices, butter, and even ketchup, which is why it’s important to read food labels to see where those additives are sneaking into.

Let’s investigate some of those labels and find out their purposes.

Aspartame

  • Also known as Nutrasweet and Equal
  • 200 times sweeter than table sugar and contains fewer calories
  • Usually found in chewing gum and diet soft drinks
  • Contains phenylalanine — persons with a rare disease called phenylketonuria (PJU) should monitor their intakes
  • No hard evidence, but linked to cancer in rodents

Stevia

  • Known as the “natural” sweeteners Truvia, PureVia, Enliten
  • Extracted from the Stevia rebaudiana Bertoni plant
  • 200-400 times sweeter than table sugar
  • Found mostly in carbonated beverages, but it’s popping up in products on the market more and more
  • Has little to no effect on blood glucose levels
  • Favored sweetener because it is “natural” (extracted from a plant) and has no calories
  • A lot of talk surrounding stevia and potential links to cancer, but definitely not enough evidence to prove it

Sucralose

  • Also known as Splenda
  • 600 times sweeter than table sugar
  • Calorie free
  • Found in baked goods carbonated beverages, chewing gum, frozen dairy desserts, etc
  • Sucralose, by itself, has no effect on glucose levels, making in safe for people with diabetes to consumer. However, the powdered form known as Splenda is combined with other sweeteners, dextrose, and maltodextrin, which may increase blood glucose and insulin levels.
  • Despite what some studies claim, it has not shown any signs of damaging DNA

Monk Fruit

  • Known as Nectresse, Monk Fruit in the Raw, and PureLo
  • Extracted from the Lou Han Guo fruit (monk fruit)
  • 100-250 times sweeter than table sugar
  • Calorie free
  • Found in baked goods, yogurt, sauces, and candies
  • No impact on blood sugar

Sugar Alcohols

  • Also known as erythritol, mannitol, sorbitol, or xylitol
  • Found naturally in small amounts in a variety of fruits and veggies, but also commercially produced from sugars and starch
  • Found in chewing gum, dairy desserts, frostings, and candy
  • No impact on blood glucose levels
  • Low calorie
  • In excess it can cause digestional distress (think: bloating, gas, and diarrhea)

When choosing the right sugar alternative for you, there’s a couple things to ask yourself:

  1. Does the sweetener or product have other ingredients added to it?
  2. What other nutrients are in the product product (fat, sodium, carbs)?
  3. And most importantly, do I enjoy the taste?

Next time you’re looking to sweeten things up, take a look at all the ingredients and nutrients found in the product, not just the sugar content. While some products are seen as “light” or “no calorie,” many items will have other unnecessary ingredients added to make up for the sugar taken out, meaning that “light” isn’t necessarily “healthy.” Also, if you do opt for these items, just because they have hardly any calories doesn’t mean they’re a free-for-all — anything in excess isn’t healthy. As always, it’s all about moderation and balance.