Reality check on Low / No Cal Sweeteners

Celebrations or festivities are just incomplete without sweets. Diabetics, obese or weight watchers are filled with guilt whenever they get a mouthful of sweets. A solution for this guilt: low-calorie and no-calorie sweeteners. But are they healthy???

A sweet preparation is a must at times of merry making. Sugar and its products are the most widely used sweeteners for these preparations but they are high in calories and have other side effects. To combat this negative effect low or no calorie sweeteners are gaining popularity as they can help us cut down on calories, control weight and help to manage chronic conditions like diabetes.  Till date six artificial sweeteners are approved by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) which include: aspartame, saccharin, acesulfame-K, neotame, tagatose and sucralose.

  • Aspartame (marketed as Sugar Free Gold®, Equal®): Aspartame is 200 times sweeter than sugar, with calories same as sugar i.e. 4 kcal/gram. However, since very small amounts are used in foods it is considered free of calories.  There are no side effects connected to aspartame; only exception is for people who have phenylketonuria (a rare genetic condition). These people should avoid aspartame completely.
  • Saccharin (Sweet‘N’Low®, SugarTwin®): It does not contain any calories, does not raise blood sugar levels and its sweetness is 200-700 times sweeter than sugar.
  • Acesulfame-K (Sunnet®, Sweet One®): Acesulfame-K is 200 times sweeter than sugar, with no calories.  It is not broken down by the body and is eliminated unchanged by the kidneys. Therefore diabetic patients may safely use the product without it affecting their blood glucose levels.
  • Neotame and Tagatose: The newest of the low-calorie sweeteners.  Neotame is approximately 7000 times sweeter than sugar.  Tagatose is derived from lactose, a carbohydrate found in dairy products.
  • Sucralose (Splenda®, Sugar Free Natura®):  Sucralose is the only non-calorie sweetener made from real sugar.  To produce sucralose, sugar molecule is altered, making it much sweeter than sugar.  Unlike sugar the body does not recognize it and thus is not digested, absorbed or metabolized for energy, nor affecting blood glucose levels, thus making it safe for diabetics.
  • Stevia (Sugar Free Herbvia®, Uber Natural sweetness®): A natural alternative sweetener, Stevia is a herb that is much sweeter than sugar and calorie-free.  Though it has received FDA approval it is sold as a dietary supplement.

 

Sugar Substitute Heat Stability Calories After Taste Usage for Cooking
Aspartame Unstable 4 kcal/g Sweet Can’t be used for high temperatures
Saccharin Stable Zero Bitter / Metallic Can’t be used for high temperatures
Acesulfame-K Stable Zero Bitter Can be used at high temperatures
Tagatose Stable 1.5kcal/g None Can’t be used for high temperatures
Neotame Stable Zero Bitter Can’t be used for high temperatures
Sucralose Stable Zero No Aftertaste Can be used at high temperatures
Stevia Stable Zero Slight Bitter Can be used at high temperatures

 

Some Facts about Sugar-Substitutes

• Low calorie sweeteners do not increase the risk of cancer.  Studies have shown that they do not initiate or promote cancers, even among high intake users.

• Sugar Substitutes do not increase the risk of other diseases. In contrast, they can be a potentially useful tool in the management of calorie and carbohydrate intake, promoting overall health management.

• All approved sweeteners are safe for pregnant and nursing mothers. However, the advice of a physician or dietitian is recommended.

Unapproved Sweeteners: Sugar substitutes not yet approved by the FDA include: Alitame (Aclamate), Cyclamate (currently banned by FDA).

Take on Sugar Substitutes: No artificial sweetener should play a major role in a healthy diet. Maximum admissible intake is 50 mg / kg body weight / day i.e. for a 50 kg person an intake of not more than 2.5 g of sweetener per day is considered safe.

 

All these above mentioned sweeteners are considered safe today; tomorrow some new researches might make them fall short of the safety norms.  Like sugar, sugar substitutes also contribute little or nothing in the form of nutrients, and also replace more nutritious foods in the diet. It is advisable that they should be used judiciously and not become the way of life.

Image Courtesy: Naito8

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