What are sweeteners?
Sweeteners are sugar substitutes that are used to sweeten our foods and beverages without the use of actual sugar. Sweeteners can be artificial or natural. Most of the artificial sweeteners are low in calories or are chemical-free and are useful for people with diabetes or other health concerns like obesity.
Types of Sweeteners
Sweeteners can be broadly classified into two categories:
- Artificial sweeteners.
- Natural sweeteners.
Let us now have a look at some popular artificial and natural sweeteners that are available in the market.
Artificial sweeteners are processed sugar substitutes. They are also known as ‘intense sweeteners’ because their taste is much sweeter than sugar. Some artificial sweeteners are also produced from natural sugar substances like sucralose.
Artificial sweeteners are very low in calories and are good for our overall health especially for diabetic patients. Here are some common forms of artificial sweeteners:
This FDA-approved artificial sweetener is doing business in the market since 1981. Aspartame is used in foods, beverages, cough syrups, yogurt, baked products, and chewing gums. The popular brand names of the product sold in the market are NutraSweet and Equal.
Numerous researches have claimed that regular use of aspartame can be harmful to health and cause life-threatening diseases like cancer or induce weight gain. However, according to the World Health Organization or WHO and ADA (American Diabetic Association), moderate consumption of sweeteners can do no harm to our health.
The sugar content in Aspartame is much higher than normal sugar and so should be used in small amounts. Aspartame, however, tends to crystallize in high temperatures, so it is usually used as a substitute for table sugar.
People with rare genetic disorders like phenylketonuria should not consume aspartame.
2. Acesulfame potassium
Other Names: Ace-K, Acesulfame K, E950
Acesulfame potassium is a nonnutritive sweetener and does not have any nutritional value. FDA approved this artificial sweetener in 1988. Foods that contain Acesulfame are listed below:
- Baked products.
- Dairy products.
- Frozen sweet dishes.
- Chewing gums.
- Jam and jelly.
Animal studies have shown that overuse of Acesulfame potassium can cause cancer, but links to humans are yet to be confirmed. Acesulfame has very low calories and poses no risks for weight gain and is safe to consume.
Acesulfame has a bitter aftertaste and is usually mixed with other sweeteners like sucralose or aspartame to mellow down the taste.
Acesulfame is good for diabetic people as it reduces the consumption of sugar and is low in calories and thus does not increase weight. However, it does have certain risks.
- Some studies reveal that Acesulfame can increase the risks of cancer.
- Certain animal studies revealed that Acesulfame can resist insulin production and thus increase the consumption of blood sugar in the gut. However, no such evidence has been found in humans.
- Artificial sweeteners are known to be harmful during pregnancy. It can cause premature birth and cause declined brain function in newborns.
Saccharin is one of the most popular artificial sweeteners and is used in a number of food products such as:
- Jams and jellies.
- Baked products.
- Tinned foods.
- Fruit juices.
- Soft drinks.
Saccharin is about 200 to 700 times sweeter than normal sugar and has no calories. Saccharin has an unusual aftertaste that can be overpowering. So, it is blended with other sweeteners like sucrose or cyclamate.
Saccharin is calorie-free and is safe to use, but has certain side effects.
- It can cause cancer.
- Not safe for infants and children.
- Pregnant women should take limited amounts of saccharin due to its harsh effects on an unborn child.
- It can cause allergic reactions like headaches, skin rashes, diarrhea, and bloating.
- It may reduce appetite.
Neotame is another zero-calorie artificial sweetener that is about 7000 to 13000 times sweeter than normal table sugar. Neotame can be used in small portions and saves cost. It can also survive high temperatures. This is a reason why Neotame is used widely in baking.
The artificial sweetener is used in several products like:
- Fruit juices.
- Baked products.
- Soft drinks.
- Dairy products.
Neotame is considerably new in the market and was introduced in 2002. It has a lingering sweet taste and is very similar to sugar.
Honey is one of the most common forms of natural sweeteners and has nutritional benefits. It contains essential vitamins and minerals and does not dramatically raise your blood sugar levels.
Honey is loaded with antioxidants and contains cancer-preventive components and is good for your eye and heart health. As it lowers LDL or “bad” cholesterol and increases HDL or “good” cholesterol, it can be consumed even by diabetic people. However, it should be consumed in restricted amounts. Honey also improves your blood cholesterol levels and lowers triglycerides.
Honey is a natural remedy for coughs and runny noses especially, in young children. Honey is added in foods like:
- Tea and coffee.
- Baked foods.
Honey adds calories. So, precautions should be taken while consuming it especially if you have diabetes or want to control your weight.
Stevia is one of the common forms of natural sweeteners and is extracted from a plant called Stevia rebaudiana. The plant is grown in parts of South America and has medicinal benefits as well.
The leaves of the Stevia plant contain components called stevioside and rebaudioside that are 100 times sweeter than plain sugar. Though it is a natural sweetener, it contains almost zero calories and is beneficial for health. The health benefits of Stevia includes:
- Good for blood pressure and hypertension.
- It can lower blood sugar levels.
- Reduce the levels of LDL cholesterol.
- Remove plaque formation in the arteries.
Some common brand names of Stevia are SweetLeaf, Sun Crystals, and Truvia. Stevia has a bitter aftertaste, so it is added with other sweeteners.
- Stomach problems.
- Nausea and bloating.
3. Sugar alcohols
Sugar alcohols are natural sweeteners and are found in some fruits, vegetables, and also in corn starch, and some other forms of glucose.
They are rich in carbohydrates and have lesser calories than sugar. Though, their name contains the word ‘alcohol’, they do not contain ethanol. This is why they are often prescribed to alcoholics to refrain from consuming alcohol.
Here are some common forms of sugar alcohols:
Erythritol tastes just like sugar but has no calories and is found naturally in sweets. You can also buy the powdered form of Erythritol available in the markets.
Erythritol is like a type of fiber and does not get easily digested. It is excreted from our body within 24 hours of consumption. Though erythritol does not have any side effects, too much consumption can be harmful to the body.
Other Names: Glucitol, Sorbit.
Sorbitol is naturally available in fruits like grapes, peaches, apples, pears, prunes, etc. it is also manufactured artificially from glucose syrup.
Sorbitol is considered to be safe for diabetic patients and does not affect insulin or blood glucose levels. However, overconsumption of sorbitol can cause stomach upset or diarrhea. In fact, sorbitol is used in laxatives to treat constipation in cancer patients.
Common side effects include:
- Weight loss due to excessive diarrhea.
- Abdominal cramps.
Xylitol tastes similar to sugar and is used in many dental care products like toothpaste, mints, chewing gums, etc.
Xylitol can prevent cavities and is good for your teeth. It has no effect on your blood sugar levels or insulin levels.
- Too much consumption of xylitol can cause stomach problems.
- It is harmful to pets, especially dogs.
It is a common form of sugar alcohol and is extracted from fruits and vegetables. They are not so sweet as sugar and are used in baked foods, sweet dishes, candies, etc.
Maltitol contains carbohydrates and should be taken in regulated amounts, especially for diabetics. It has less effect on blood glucose and insulin levels unlike sugar or sucrose and does not get digested easily in the body. Though Maltilol does not pose any major harm to the body, excessive intake has certain side effects such as:
- Stomach pain.
- Gas and bloating.
4. Agave nectar
Agave nectar is a vegan substitute for honey and is extracted from the agave cactus plant. It is natural and is sweeter than sugar. The GI or glycemic index in agave nectar is lower than sugar, so it is safe for diabetics.
Agave nectar is readily available in commercial shops and is sold in bottles. Agave nectar is used in:
- Energy bars.
- Baked products.
Potential side effects of Agave Nectar include:
- May induce premature labor.
5. Corn Syrup
High-fructose corn syrup is a natural sweetener and is extracted from corn. Corn syrup is mostly used in processed foods, baked dishes, and soft drinks. Though it is one of the most highly used natural sweeteners, consuming high amounts of corn syrups can have serious implications on health.
- About 50% of corn syrup is fructose which is not easily digestible. It is converted into glucose or fat and can lead to obesity.
- The high contents of fructose can lead to fatty liver.
- The excess amount of fructose can lead to insulin resistance and eventually diabetes.
- It can induce inflammation and is associated with other diseases like cancer and heart problems.
6. Maple syrup
Maple syrup is 100% pure and natural and is derived from the sap of maple trees. They come in different flavors and textures. The strong and intense maple syrups are used for baking purposes while the lighter hues are mostly used for drizzling or frosting pancakes and sweet dishes.
Maple syrups are nutritious and are rich in essential vitamins and minerals like magnesium, iron, manganese, potassium, etc. It is also rich in antioxidants and has a low GI or glycemic index compared to sugar.
How to choose the right sweetener?
Sweeteners have become the part and parcel of our regular diet. But, some of these sweeteners can have an adverse effect on our health especially if we are suffering from serious ailments like diabetes, heart problems, or obesity.
Here are a few factors to consider before you choose your sweetener:
- Many sweeteners break down in high temperatures. So, you should choose it wisely especially if you are baking cakes.
- Sweeteners can be costly, but if you are looking for regular use, you can go for one that matches your budget.
- Sweeteners especially the natural ones have a distinct flavor and can change the taste of your food. Again, there are many like Stevia which has a bitter aftertaste. Try to choose brands that do not use artificial chemicals or sweeteners. This can affect the nutritional value of the sweeteners.
- Availability in the market. Look for a brand that is readily available in the market.
- If you are a diabetic person or have other health issues, go for artificial sweeteners. They are not natural but are low in calories.
Health hazards of sweeteners
Research studies have revealed that sweeteners, both artificial and natural have potential side effects.
Here are a few side effects of sweeteners:
- Most of the artificial sweeteners are non-nutritional and do not have any nutritional value. They are low in calories and may make you feel hungry leading to weight gain.
- Processed foods and popular beverages are loaded with artificial sweeteners which can lead to obesity.
- They can cause diabetes.
- They may affect your blood sugar and cholesterol levels.
- Overconsumption of sweeteners can disrupt your gut health.
- Research studies have revealed that artificial sweeteners like saccharin can cause cancer.
- They are not good for dental health and may cause cavities and tooth decay.
- Some sweeteners like aspartame can cause headaches and mood swings.
- Take artificial sweeteners moderated during pregnancy.
- Use honey, maple syrup, or stevia if you are looking for natural sweeteners.
- Consume artificial sweeteners if you are trying to lose weight.
- Excessive consumption of sugary beverages like soft drinks, sodas, etc.
- Consume sugar if you are diabetic.
- Use too much sugar alcohol.
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