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What You Really Need To Know About Sweeteners

Posted on: by Women's Health
Woman with a sweetener in her mouth

By Dr Celeste Naudé

Are sweeteners really better than sugar?

So you use Stevia as an alternative to sugar, but do you have any idea what it’s made up of or how many kilojoules you’re consuming? Our dietician, Dr Celeste Naudé, has some insight into different types of sweeteners…

Some foods are naturally sweet, like fruit, while other foods are sweetened by adding ingredients that sweeten, such as sugar. These sweeteners are commonly grouped into two categories: nutritive and non-nutritive sweetners.

Nutritive Sweeteners 

Provide a sweet taste and also provide energy (kilojoules).

Sugar, as we know it, occurs in many different forms in food, including: sucrose, fructose, maltose, lactose, dextrose, honey, syrup, corn syrup, high-fructose corn syrup, molasses and fruit juice concentrate. These are nutritive sweeteners and provide 17kJ of energy per gram, which is the same amount of kilojoules provided by other carbohydrates, like rice or quinoa. The difference is that carbs, like rice or quinoa, also provide other nutrients (like vitamins, minerals and fibre) whereas these sugar-derived sweeteners don’t.

Read More: How Much Sweetener Is Too Much?

Sugar alcohols or polyols are a group of nutritive sweeteners with less energy per gram (averaging 8kJ per gram), and are not fully absorbed from the digestive system. As a result of the incomplete absorption, sugar alcohols or polyols, like xylitol, have less of an effect on blood glucose levels than the sugar sweeteners like fructose or sucrose. In large amounts, polyols may have a laxative effect and cause stomach cramps. Therefore quantities need to be limited, especially in children.

And the nutritive sweeteners not derived from sugar cane? Here are three:

Honey and Maple Syrup

Teaspoon for teaspoon, honey and maple syrup have roughly the same number of kilojoules per gram as sugar from sugar cane, so drizzle them sparingly! These sweeteners contain small amounts of antioxidants, but do not contain any nutrients.

Agave Syrup

Agave syryp is a nutritive sweetener – it contains fructans, monosccharides of fructose, glucose and oligosaccharides of fructose. Agave syrup has the same amount of kilojoules per gram as sugar (one teaspoon is equal to 84kJ), but it’s 25 percent sweeter than sugar. Three quarters of a teaspoon of Agave would give you the same amount of sweetness as one teaspoon of sugar. So by using Agave syrup you would only save about 20kJ, which is highly negligible.

Non-Nutritive Sweeteners

Sweet without providing energy.

Non-nutritive sweeteners (also called artificial sweeteners) provide no energy (or very insignificant energy in the case of aspartame). They are also called high-intensity sweeteners because only small amounts of these compounds are needed to sweeten.

Both polyols and non-nutritive sweeteners can replace sugar sweeteners and are often called sugar substitutes, sugar replacements or alternative sweeteners.

Different sweetener brands use different sweetener compounds in their products. Some products only contain non-nutritive sweeteners and others contain a combination of nutritive and non-nutritive sweeteners. All sweeteners are processed in some way – it’s just the extent that varies. They are processed so that they can be sold in a usable form. Some are sweeter, so you need less to get the level of sweetness needed.

A few artificial sweeteners (also called non-nutritive sweeteners) are approved by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) in the United States. These are aspartame, Stevia, saccharin, acesulfame K, neotame and sucralose. These sweeteners are regulated as food additives, and therefore, must be approved as safe before being used.

Read More: Is Stevia A Good Substitute For Sugar?

The FDA also sets a sweetener Acceptable Daily Intake (ADI), which is the level a person can safely consume, on average every day over a lifetime, without risk. This ADI level is a conservative level and usually reflects an amount 100 times less than the maximum level at which no effect can be observed in studies (in animals and humans).

Stevia is currently a popular artificial sweetener. Steviol glycosides is the form of stevia used as a sweetener (not to be confused with whole stevia leaves, which are not sweet at all). Steviol glycosides may be bitter at higher amounts.

It’s best to use a variety of different artificial sweeteners. Read the labels of products to identify the sweetener that has been used, and, remember, moderation is key!

Looking for more info on sugar? Here’s what sugar really does to your body and this is what it’s actually like to go sugar-free

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