It’s no secret that a diet low in added sugar is a healthy one, but what about those popular sugar substitutes? Non-nutritive sweeteners have been around since the 1800’s, but only recently have consumers had so many choices available on the grocery store shelves. But how do we choose? Today we’re giving you the facts on some of the most popular sugar substitutes!
What are Nutritive and Non-nutritive sweeteners?
Simply put, nutritive sweeteners are those that add calories to the diet, while non-nutritive sweeteners and very little to no calories when consumed. Nutritive sweeteners are refined white sugar (glucose, fructose, sucrose, etc.), honey, coconut sugar, and maple syrup to name a few. They contain calories from carbohydrate and are broken down and absorbed by the body. Non-nutritive sweeteners are compounds that are indigestible and therefore not absorbed. There are currently six non-nutritive sweeteners that are approved by the FDA, though you may find other sugar substitutes on your local grocery store shelf. Today we will be talking about just a few.
Why are they important?
Not only do sweetener substitutes help curb craving for sugary sweets, when used in products that traditionally call for sugar these compounds can help manage blood glucose. Low calorie sweeteners can also add sweetness to food and drinks without adding extra calories which may help some lose or maintain a healthy weight. Whatever the benefit, each sweetener is slightly different and proves useful in different recipes and lifestyles!
Popular Low Cal/No Cal Sweeteners
Erythritol – Though Erythritol has been a common food additive for many years, it has only recently been available for purchase on grocery store shelves. Erythritol is a sugar alcohol that can be found naturally in some fruits, as well as made by the fermentation of glucose by a natural microorganism. Erythritol is not calorie free but ranks at about 1/3 the calories of traditional sugar. Sugar alcohols are known for causing gas, bloating and other digestive discomforts, though Erythritol is the least likely to cause these side effects. You can find Erythritol in many no-calorie sweetener blends because of its ability to add bulk to recipes, just like granulated sugar. Erythritol is also safe for dogs, unlike it’s sweet relative, Xylitol.
Monkfruit- Newer to the non-nutritive sweetener world, Monkfruit sweeteners are derived from the Luohan Guo plant. Its sweet taste comes not from glucose or fructose, but from the naturally occurring chemical compound mogroside. In its pure form, some mogrosides are 300 times sweeter than sugar, which means much less is needed to achieve that sweet sensation we crave. Monkfruit extract is not a sugar alcohol and is highly unlikely to cause any digestive discomfort such as gas, bloating or diarrhea. You can find Monkfruit sweetener blends on grocery store shelves or online but most of them are paired with Erythritol or other low/no calorie additives.
Stevia- Stevia, also referred to as Reb-A, is a highly purified product that comes from the stevia plant. It is several hundred times sweeter than sugar and though it is not zero calorie, the carbohydrate level is so low it is classified as such. Stevia is generally recognized as safe by the FDA and widely available in grocery stores.
Xylitol – Another sugar alcohol similar to Erythritol, Xylitol is a low-calorie sweetener commonly found in chewing gums, mints, and some desserts or baked goods. Its inability to react with plaque bacteria found in the mouth means this sugar alcohol does not contribute to the formation of dental caries aka cavities. When used sparingly, Xylitol can be a safe sweetener substitute, though it is two time more likely to cause digestive disruption than Erythritol. Xylitol can also be dangerous to small animals due to the toxicity levels so it’s important to keep those products far away from dogs!
Oligosaccharides- Though you won’t find a bag labeled “oligosaccharides” at your local health food store, you may see this ingredient in some of your favorite sugar substitutes. Oligosaccharides are a complex carbohydrate that are indigestible by salivary and intestinal enzymes. Simply put, you do not absorb calories from these carbs. Instead, these naturally occurring compounds are fermented in the digestive tract and act as a prebiotic fiber. Their main function as a food additive is to sweeten, but their secondary function as a prebiotic fiber actually feed healthy gut bacteria and may reduce the number of pathogenic bacteria in the colon.
Other Sweet Options
Honey- Using raw honey as a substitute for sugar may not prevent weight gain or tooth decay, but it can add some important minerals and antioxidants to your diet that refined sugar can’t offer. Honey contains phenolic compounds which are powerful antioxidants that may decrease the risk of coronary heart disease. When used in moderation, honey can be a good substitute for refined sugars in cooking and baking.
Raw Sugars- Less processed sugars have gained popularity over the years and have been considered more natural than their highly processed counterparts. Raw sugar is extracted from the juices of sugarcane by boiling. The large, dark colored crystals are not refined any further, where table sugar would be processed and chemically whitened. Also known as Turbinado Sugar, raw sugar has a higher water content and brown coloring due to molasses. There are also trace minerals in raw sugar that are not present in refined white sugar, though the negative health effects of a diet high in sugar are still relevant so moderation is key. Raw sugars are also suitable for a vegan diet as no animal products are used in processing.
If you are looking to reduce sugar, cut calories, or just find a more natural sweetener, there are plenty of options available! Overall, a diet low in added sugars is known to reduce the risk of metabolic disorder, heart disease, and tooth decay. Enjoy your sweets in moderation and know your options!