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Sugar substitutes may shed calories but they add more to the mix

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We are all born with a sweet tooth. Or more specifically, receptors on our taste buds designed to make us like the taste of sugar. The problem is, we eat too much of it.

Americans consume nearly 68 pounds per person per year. The Swiss are worse at nearly 112 pounds per person annually, followed by New Zealanders, Maltese, Belgian and Mexicans, all over 90 pounds per capita.

This quantity translates to nearly four times the World Health Organization’s (WHO) recommended sugar intake of 5 percent of daily calorie needs (for example, 100 calories or 6 teaspoons daily for a 2,000 calorie diet. The WHO’s advised sugar intake not only includes added sugar (1 teaspoon white table sugar is 16 calories) but all the sugar you don’t see in beverages, cakes, cookies, pies, candy, bread, salad dressing and even canned soup.

How can you decrease your sugar intake? Using a substitute in place of regular sugar is one way. Sugar substitutes fall into four categories: artificial sweeteners, sugar alcohols, novel and natural sweeteners.

Examples of artificial sweeteners include acesulfame potassium (Sunett, Sweet One), aspartame (Equal, NutraSweet), neotame, saccharin (SugarTwin, Sweet’N Low) and sucralose (Splenda). The U.S. Food & Drug Administration has approved the use of these sweeteners, plus the National Cancer Institute has proclaimed there is no sound scientific evidence that these sweeteners can cause cancer or other serious health problems.

However, a study published in the Sept. 17 issue of the scientific journal “Nature” has linked the intake of saccharin, sucralose and aspartame in mice with a change in intestinal tract microbes that raises the likelihood of being diagnosed with diabetes.

Sugar alcohols are substances such as mannitol, sorbitol and xylitol. These are used to make sugar-free candies, chewing gum and jams.

There are two cautions on overusing products with these sweeteners. First, sugar alcohols are metabolized in the body like carbohydrates and can therefore raise blood sugar. But, because they are harder to digest than regular sugars, products with sugar alcohols can be labeled ‘sugar-free’.

Second, these sugar substitutes can give your digestive tract a rough time. A case report in the January 2008 issue of the “British Medical Journal” reported that a 21-year-old woman experienced stomach pains, constant diarrhea and unintended weight loss of 24 pounds. Sorbitol was to blame. She ate 18 to 20 grams a day or the amount found in 15 to 16 sticks of sugar-free gum. Her symptoms disappeared and weight rebounded to normal when she gave up the gum.

Novel sweeteners include stevia, marketed under names like Pure Via, Truvia and SweetLeaf. This sugar substitute, made from a South American plant, is used in sports drinks as well as packaged into packets, tablets and spoonable forms for baking. While certain types of stevia, like the whole leaf form, isn’t approved by the U.S. Food & Drug Administration, the highly purified products found on market shelves is generally recognized as safe. The downside is that some people find stevia leaves a metallic taste.

And finally, natural sweeteners are believed better than regular table sugar because they are made of fruit sugar (fructose), which is metabolized more slowly. Also, because these sugars taste sweeter than white sugar, the thought is that less can be used for the same sweetening power.

Natural sweeteners include honey, maple syrup, agave nectar and date sugar. These are indeed calorie-containing, blood sugar-raising sugars. One teaspoon of date sugar provides 11 calories, the same amount of maple syrup has 17 calories, honey and agave nectar have 21 calories per teaspoon each. All of these calories are from carbohydrates.

These natural sweeteners should be minimized as much as white table sugar, especially if you have diabetes or want to lose weight.

The best way to satisfy a sweet tooth is the use of sugar substitutes (if at all) in moderation. Plus, try other tricks such as getting used to beverages such as iced tea with just a squeeze of lemon, mix fresh fruit into plain yogurt, sweeten breakfast cereals with a sliced banana, and swap out a sugary dessert for a beautifully ripened piece of fruit.

 

Carol Bareuther is a registered dietitian and a regular contributor to The Triton. Comments on this column are welcome at editorial@the-triton.com.

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