Sugar is sweet, but it’s got a bad rap sheet. There are plenty of reasons people choose to avoid fructose (sugar). High-calorie, zero-nutrition sweets can lead to obesity and a host of other related conditions…and cavities. As a result, alternative sweeteners are appealing to many. But there are scores of sugar substitutes, so which one should you choose?
As a category, natural sweeteners are a less processed, better-for-you-option than fructose. Like sugar, they produce energy when metabolized by the body. Unlike sugar, they have some nutritional value in the form of trace vitamins and minerals. While each have different tastes and textures, most are great stand-ins for sugar. But take note: this category of sweeteners is not low calorie.
Natural sweeteners include: agave, honey, and the syrup family (barley, malt, brown rice, cane, corn, golden, maple).
Artificial sweeteners are zero-calorie sweeteners that are synthetically produced food additives But having no calories means they give your body no energy. These sweeteners pass through the body undigested, and they’re so intensely sweet that they must be diluted with fillers like dextrose or maltodextrin to approximate the sweetness and bulk of sugar.
Almost all artificial sweeteners have a distinct aftertaste, but regular users find them to be good sugar substitutes in drinks and tend to be passionate about their favorite.
Aspartame is about 200 times sweeter than sugar and contains 4 calories per gram, but since so little is used there are only trace calories per serving. Aspartame is not safe for those with the rare but serious metabolic disorder phenylketonuria (PKU). Brand names: NutraSweet, Equal, Sugar Twin, and the lesser-known brands Spoonful and Equal-Measure
Saccharin (benzoic sulfimide) is the oldest of the artificial sweeteners. It was accidentally discovered by a chemist working on coal tar derivatives more than 100 years ago. Depending on its use, it can be 200 to 700 times sweeter than sugar. Brand names (pink packet): Sweet’N Low, Sugar Twin, and Necta Sweet
Sucralose (or chlorinated sugar) was accidentally discovered in 1976 by a researcher and was approved for use in the U.S. in 1998. It is 600 times sweeter than regular sugar and is marketed as a sugar substitute that can fill in for the real thing in any capacity, including cake baking. Brand name (yellow packet): Splenda, EZ-Sweetz, N’Joy, NuSweet
Stevia is derived from the leaves of the plant species Stevia rebaudiana (a member of the chrysanthemum family). This sweetener has no calories or carbs and is 100 to 300 times sweeter than sugar. It has been used for centuries as a sweetener in South America. Stevia is generally recognized as safe (“GRAS”) by the FDA, but stevia leaves and crude stevia extracts are NOT considered GRAS and do not have FDA approval for use in food. Even though it is derived from a plant, some consider it artificial because it is so highly refined. Brand names: Truvia, PureVia, SweetLeaf, Rebiana, Sun Crystals (a stevia-sugar blend)
Lo Han Kuo (monk fruit) is an ancient Chinese fruit about 200 times sweeter than sugar that received FDA GRAS status in 2009. Stirred into a drinks, the Nectresse brand blend most closely approximates sugar. Brand name: Nectresse (actually a blend of monk fruit, erythritol, sugar, and molasses)
Not all non-nutritive sweeteners are artificial. Sugar alcohols, or sugar/alcohol hybrids, are natural and not chemically derived. Since they are not completely absorbed by the body, these plant-based sweeteners have fewer calories than sugar does. It’s easy to identify sugar alcohols on packaging labels because most of them end in “ol” – glucitol, sorbitol, maltitol, mannitol, glycerol, lactitol. Many of them are used to sweeten mints, gum, and cough syrups.
Products containing sugar alcohols can be labeled “sugar free” or “reduced calorie”…be aware that sugar free does not necessarily mean calorie free.
Xylitol is 5% less sweet than sugar, but it contains 40% fewer calories (9 calories versus sugar’s 16). It can be made from many different things, but it’s primarily extracted from corncobs and hardwoods. It is sweet like sugar, but may not cause bacteria buildup in your mouth that can lead to tooth decay. Xylitol is common in sugar free chewing gums, candies, mints, and oral care products. Brand names: XyloSweet, XyloPure, Miracle Sweet, Nature’s Provision
The New Kid on the Block
Tagatose is a natural sugar that is obtained from lactose (milk sugar). It’s 92% as sweet as sugar with only a third of the calories. Like yogurt, it contains probiotics, which means it helps the good bacteria in the digestive system multiply. Tagatose is generally recognized as safe (GRAS) Tagatose has a clean neutral taste, and does not promote tooth decay. Brand name: PreSweet
It seems that the preference of one sweetener over the other boils down to taste. But whether you enjoy your sweets via sugar or substitute, enjoy them in moderation.