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Understanding sugar-free sweeteners

From saccharin to sucralose, what's the difference?

Author: Charlotte Kuchinsky August 3 2010

artificial sweetener packets

Anyone who is dieting, or at least trying to watch what they eat, is familiar with the wide variety of sugar substitutes available in the marketplace today. However, most people remain mystified regarding the origin and safety issues attached to all these sugar substitutes. Worse yet, they have no idea which one to choose or if one is even better than another. Let's try to take away some of that mystery and pull back the veil to uncover the many options available.

The purpose of a sugar substitute is to sweeten like a sugar without delivering too much food energy, which can result in mild to severe insulin spike. With diabetes at epidemic proportions, cutting sugar intake has become a necessity in today's world.

The sugar substitutes with which people are most familiar are synthetic or "artificial" in nature. However, there are some that are natural, coming from Mother Nature, very much like sugar itself. Many of these sweeteners are concentrated and require less of the product to achieve the desired sweetness level. A few can be used across the board either to sweeten food or drink as well as for cooking. Others are tricky and vary greatly according to the type of sweetener. Some lose their composition or sweetness when heated and are therefore not recommended for use in baking.

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There are roughly six sugar substitutes that have been widely accepted for use. They are acesulfame potassium, aspartame, neotame, saccharin, stevia and sucralose. There are several other sweeteners currently going through the approval process in some countries. These include, but are not necessarily limited to, alitame, cyclamate and glycyrrhizin.

Acesulfame potassium

Acesulfame potassium is an intense artificial sweetening agent that is usually marketed as Sunett or Sweet One. Acesulfame potassium is roughly 200 times sweeter than standard sugar. Sometimes called acesulfame K, it is roughly as sweet as aspartame. Unfortunately, like many artificial sweeteners, acesulfame potassium has an unpleasant aftertaste. It is that taste that makes it less mainstream than some of the other options available today.

On the flip side, since this sugar substitute holds up well under heat, it can be used for baking. That is particularly true when it is blended with other substitutes like aspartame or sucralose. For that reason, this option is rarely used alone for sweetening candies, gums, or sodas. It is used regularly in medications that require a sweetened taste in order to mask unpleasant chemicals and other ingredients.

Aspartame

Probably the most controversial of all artificial sweeteners, a great deal has been discovered and discussed about aspartame since it became a mainstream sugar substitute in the 80s. Actually discovered in the mid-60s, it took this artificial alternative about 15 years to receive approval for wide distribution. It has been marketed under the brand names of Equal, Equal Measure, NutraSweet and Spoonful. Nearly 200 times sweeter than regular sugar, aspartame gained fame quickly and became used for everything from diet drinks to yogurt.

However, almost from the outset, the sweetener came under fire. Many labeled it carcinogenic in nature. Additional studies suggested it could also have a significant negative impact on the brain, sometimes leading to brain tumors. Now, some believe they have traced the use of this sweetener to other serious neurological conditions including multiple sclerosis, lupus, epilepsy and migraine or cluster headaches. Research continues while more and more people attempt to steer clear of this notorious sugar substitute.

Neotame

Very little is really known about neotame, a cousin of aspartame other than the fact that it is perhaps the sweetest of the sugar substitutes available today. It is believed to be around 10,000 times sweeter than regular sugar. However, unlike aspartame, neotame seems to be reasonably heat stable. Because of that, more and more food manufacturers are beginning to look at this artificial sweetener as the wave of the future.

Another great factor of neotame is that it appears to metabolize well within the human body. So little of it is required for sweetening purposes that it is easily dispersed. It simply does not accumulate like many of the other sugar substitutes. But like many other artificial sweeteners it does suffer from that bitter aftertaste that turns off many consumers. Finally, its relationship - albeit distant - to aspartame may color, or at least slow, its worldwide acceptance.

Saccharin

People have had a love/hate relationship with saccharin for decades. Primarily marketed under the names Sweet 'N Low and Sweet Twin, saccharin is the oldest of the recognizable artificial sweeteners marketed today. Dating back to the early 1900's studies of this sugar substitute have always been mixed. Many scientists early on proclaimed it safe for consumption. However, in the 1970's other studies caused concern that it could result in cancer. For nearly 30 years warnings were issued on each saccharin product proclaiming such dangers. However, by the turn of the century those warnings disappeared when earlier studies proved unfounded.

While saccharin can be used for sweetening some things, it has no heat tolerance and has proven a poor choice for cooking and baking. Additionally, its metallic taste, that lingers long after the sweetener is consumed, has caused this alternative to lose supporters in favor of some of the newer sugar substitutes.

Stevia

Stevia is a plant based sugar substitute sometimes referred to as sweet leaf. The plant's leaves provide a natural sweetener that is roughly 300 times sweeter than regular sugar. Stevia has, over the course of a decade, gained wide attention in the food industry. It is becoming widely used in low-carb and low-sugar foods.

That has proven helpful for patients with obesity and high blood pressure issues since research indicates that this sweet plant might actually have a positive effect in treating these issues. Unlike many other sugar substitutes, stevia does not spike blood sugar or cause a glucose increase.

Unfortunately, the availability of stevia is somewhat limited. While it has been widely accepted, grown and used in Japan for decades, other countries are only now accepting it. A few, like the United States, have banned its usage for a time because of the lack of research conducted concerning the plant's safety. However, each year more and more countries are jumping aboard the stevia wagon, finding it to be the greatest hope available today when it comes to an artificial sugar that operates like the real thing.

Sucralose

Sucralose is 600 times sweeter than regular table sugar and is more than three times sweeter than aspartame. Unlike many of the sugar substitutes on the market, Sucralose remains stable when heated. It also keeps it compositional structure intact under a lot of varying pH conditions. Because of that, it is widely accepted as one of the best sugar substitutes for cooking and baking.

Used with other bulk ingredients like dextrose and maltodextrin, it generally takes a very small amount of sucralose to sweeten food and drink. Additionally, because it looks a lot like sugar, it has a great deal of commercial appeal. Some of the brand names under which sucralose is packaged include Nevella, Splenda and SucraPlus.

Alitame

Alitame, marketed as Aclame, is one of the newer sugar substitutes available. It is an aspartic acid much like aspartame. However, it is more than 10 times sweeter than its cousin and more than 2000 times sweeter than standard sugar. Countries like Australia, New Zealand and China are using Alitame, but it is not approved for use in the USA or Great Britain at this time.

Cyclamate

Cyclamate is only 40 time more sweet than sucrose (standard sugar), giving it the least appeal as a stand-alone sugar substitute. It works better when mixed with other artificial sweeteners such as acesulfame potassium or saccharin. On the other hand, cyclamate is inexpensive and may eventually find it has a commercial appeal to those who cannot afford the more expensive brands.

Glycyrrhizin

Glycyrrhizin comes from liquorice root. It is roughly 40 times sweeter than standard sugar. The taste of glycyrrhizin is significantly different than sugar as well. The sweetness is not apparent at first bite but, once there, lingers longer on the palate than many of the other substitutes available today. It is also stable when heated, making it a good option for use in cooking and baking.

Glycyrrhizin is recognized in some countries, like the U.S. and Great Britain, as an acceptable agent for flavoring in candies and medicines. However, it is not well accepted at this time as a sweetener.

Sugar substitutes derived from alcohol, like mannitol and sorbitol, are often used to flavor foods and drinks because they convert well to fructose and do not cause an insulin spike. On the flip side, unfortunately, they linger in the intestines often causing gas or acting like a laxative if absorbed in large quantities.

While no one is 100 percent certain that artificial sweeteners are safe for consumption, most agree they must be measured against the negative effects of too much sugar intake. Used in small quantities, many believe these substitutes are acceptable. But as ever, too much of a good thing is rarely advisable.

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