Fresh off our post on sugar, specifically added sugars, we thought we’d delve into the mire of sugar substitutes. For many people sugar substitutes are a lower calorie, more natural alternative to white table sugar. For other the terms “sugar substitute” or “sugar alternative” make them think of something unnatural, chemically made and possibly harmful. We want to look into this further – is white sugar really the big bad wolf here, or is it the sugar substitutes, or is it neither?
First, let’s break sugar substitutes into two groups: nutritive and non-nutritive sweeteners. Nutritive sweeteners provide calories and sometimes other nutrients (vitamins and minerals), non-nutritive sweeteners provide neither. Artificial sweeteners fall within the non-nutritive category; a well known example is Aspartame. Under the nutritive sweeteners we have a few subcategories including sugar alcohols, novel sweeteners and natural sweeteners, but more on those later.
The world of sugar substitutes is a big and complex one, and so we are going to spend the next while delving into this topic.
Today’s post focuses on the non-nutritive sweeteners, our next posts will focus on nutritive sweeteners, and then finally we’ll look at a summary of the sugar substitutes and talk about the great sugar substitute debate – do they cause weight loss, weight gain, or neither? So stick around, it’s going to be sweet!
Let’s start things off with the most contentious sugar substitute category, the non-nutritive sweeteners. There are many different sweeteners in this category including: Asparatame (Equal™ & NutraSweet™), Sucralose (Splenda™), Saccharin (Hermesetas™, Sweet N’ Low™), Cyclamate (Sugar Twin™) and Acesulfame Potassium (Ace-K). These are considered non-nutritive sweeteners because they don’t contribute calories to the diet, and contain little or no other nutrients. These sweeteners may also be called “artificial sweeteners”, “sugar alternatives” or “synthetic sugar substitutes”, and may be derived from natural sources as well as synthetic sources. These sweeteners are between 30 and 600 times sweeter than white table sugar so they are also aptly named “intense sweeteners”. (The different terms used can get a little confusing, for a great explanation check out this site by the Mayo Clinic)
These sweeteners have been scrutinized in the media, and many people have been concerned with their consumption. We have both come across clients who speak of non-nutritive sweeteners the same way someone might speak of asbestos. However, based on the evidence from many years of scientific study they are considered safe in moderate amounts and many have been approved for use in Canada.
Aspartame has probably been the most studied of the sugar substitutes, and is the name most people think of when talking about sugar substitutes. It is widely found in diet colas and juices, sugar-free gum and some breakfast cereals. It is marketed under the brand names of NutraSweet™ and Equal™. It is about 200 times sweeter than table sugar and some people find it has a bitter aftertaste. Aspartame has been found to be safe for human consumption, except for by people with a rare hereditary disease called phenylketonuria (PKU). People with PKU have to avoid aspartame because of the phenylalanine amino acid it contains.
Sucralose is possibly the most widely used non-nutritive sweetener, sold under the brand name of Splenda™. Sucralose is made by taking the sucrose molecule (regular white table sugar) and putting it through a process which (science jargon alert!) replaces three of the hydrogen-oxygen sugar molecules with three chlorine atoms, this changes sucrose to sucralose. The result is a calorie-free sweetener that is 600 times sweeter than table sugar. Sucralose is often used in cooking and baking and does not have the bitter after taste of Aspartame. Its intense sweetness also means you can use smaller amounts of it to sweeten compared with sugar.
Cyclamate, sold under the brand name Sugar Twin™, is 30 times sweeter than table sugar but has no aftertaste. Cyclamate is often used with Saccharin or Aspartame to mask their aftertaste.
Acesulfame Potassium, or Ace-K, sold under the brand name of Sunett™ and SweetOne™, is 200 times sweeter than table sugar with a slightly bitter aftertaste. This sweetener is typically combined with sucralose or aspartame, as this combination masks the aftertaste. Unlike aspartame, Ace-K is heat stable and can be used in baking. It is often used in combination with other sweeteners in carbonated beverages (diet pop), and is commonly found in pharmaceuticals such as chewable or liquid oral medications.
Saccharin, while under the non-nutritive sweetener category, is currently not used in food production in Canada. Saccharin came under a great deal of fire and gained infamy in the 1970’s for being carcinogenic (cancer causing). This was the result of a study which showed consumption of saccharin caused brain tumour growth in rats. Health Canada in response banned saccharin from sale or use in Canada. However, the results of this study have since come under scrutiny and its relevance has been questioned. Particularly the large amount of saccharin fed to the rats, the age of the rats, and, as with all animal studies, it is tremendously difficult to transfer data collected on animals to humans, all pulled the study results into question. Saccharin is now available for purchase in Canada but is not used in food production. The United States did not remove Saccharin from use following the results of the 1970’s study but the FDA did put in regulations for a warning label to be placed on all products containing Saccharin. As a result of further study into the safety of Saccharin the FDA has since removed this warning label. (source: Health Canada)
Let’s Talk Safety
While all of the non-nutritive sweeteners we discussed here have been deemed safe for human consumption, there’s always the risk of too much of a good thing. Here is a list of the levels considered safe for non-nutritive sweeteners (source: EatRight Ontario)
The world of sugar substitutes is a big one. Here we’ve done a quick review of the non-nutritive sweeteners used in Canada, but if you have questions about these sweeteners or others, post a comment and we’ll do some digging for you. In our next post we’ll delve into the nutritive sweeteners so check back in for more sweetness!
-Samantha and Sarah
Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. (2013). Use of Nutritive and Nonnutritive Sweeteners.
Dietitians of Canada. (2013). Sweet Advice on Sugar Substitutes.
Health Canada. (2010). Sugar Substitutes.
Health Canada. (2008). The Safety of Sugar Substitutes.
Health Canada. (2007). Saccharin – Artificial Sweeteners.
Tandel, K. (2011). Sugar Substitutes: Health Controversy over Perceived Benefits. J Pharmacol Pharmacother. 2(4): 236-243.