Sugar is probably the most controversial ingredient since it is associated with many health risks, such as diabetes, obesity, cancer, and heart disease. People on modern diets consume too much sugar, and the latter is present in so many products that they are not even aware of it most of the time. Scientific evidence proves that consuming high amounts of added sugar can harm metabolism, interfere with hormone homeostasis, and it can cause severe cravings that get people addicted. However, there are other ways to make food sweet, which could be vital for multiple reasons. There are many food products that we would not consume if it is not sweet, hence the utility of sugar replacement. Some products and medicine are unpalatable without the sweet taste, so when producers try to lower calories but keep the product sweet, they usually use sweeteners. Sugar replacements are a sort of food additive. The primary purpose is to provide a sweet taste without the high amount of calories sugar has. There are two main categories: non-nutritive or zero-calorie sweeteners and low-calorie sweeteners. Sugar replacements either originate from a natural source or are artificially produced. Some sweeteners, such as erythritol and xylitol, are sugar alcohols derived from sugar.
Sugar replacements, substitutes
Important factors regarding sugar replacements are calories, its sweetness compared to sugar, a natural or artificial source, and its glycemic index. Based on their calorie levels, sugar substitutes can be either nutritive or non-nutritive sweeteners.
Sorbitol is approximately 60% as sweet as regular table sugar. It can cause diarrhea when consumed in high quantities, and for the same purpose, it is also the primary active ingredient of some laxatives.
Glucose is the most abundant monosaccharide, and it is half as sweet as regular sugar. Plants and most plants mainly produce glucose during photosynthesis. Glucose is the building block of cellulose in cell walls, which is the most abundant carbohydrate.
Fructose makes up 50 % of regular sugar (the rest is glucose), and it turns into glucose during metabolism. It is a common type of sweeteners, and many naturally occurring sweetener contains fructose, for example, agave syrup, maple syrup, and honey. It is 1.5-1-8 times sweeter than sucrose. Consuming high amounts of fructose is strongly associated with a higher risk of diabetes, heart failure, and obesity.
Mannitol is also sugar alcohol that is a sweetener and used as a medication to decrease pressure in the eyes and lower intracranial pressure. People with diabetes frequently use it because it is absorbed in low quantities by the gut. Its sweetness is 0.5-0.7 times of sugar.
Xylitol is a naturally occurring sugar that tastes like sugar, and its sweetness is equal to sugar. Its main advantage is that it is independent of insulin production in the body, and it is part of a different metabolic pathway than sugar. Therefore it produces a meager amount of energy, around 2.4 kcal/g, and its glycemic index is only 8. This substitute is non-fermentable, which is can also be an essential factor. It means it cannot be converted into acids by the oral bacteria, and it can be useful in reducing dental caries. The main advantage of xylitol is that, unlike sugar, xylitol does not raise blood sugar or insulin levels, and it is also associated with bone health.
Erythritol is a four-carbon sugar alcohol (or a polyol) that comes from glucose and sucrose’s fermentation. It has approximately 60-80% the sweetness of sugar, which places it into the nor so powerful category. It is important to pinpoint that polyols are digestible but non wholly absorbed by the human body. Excessive erythritol can have a laxative effect as it abstracts water from the body into the gut.
Non-nutritive Sweeteners (NNS)
Regarding the health effect of NNS, there is no evidence that non-sugar sweeteners are either unsafe or that consumption can result in decreased health outcomes. It is challenging to replace sugar because of the specific features, for instance, bulk, quality, physical characteristics, and most importantly, the intensity of sweetness is challenging to replicate. Some of the NNS have an extremely sweet taste, and you will need to use only small amounts of them. Some studies suggest that long-term NNS consumption can increase the risk of weight gain and cause general and abdominal adiposity, which results in obesity and worsened glucose homeostasis. The latter mechanisms are not entirely clear; however, there is convincing evidence that an imbalance in gut bacteria causes adverse health effects. Some NNS can aggressively reduce the number of bacteria in the human gut, which is essential for maintaining a healthy weight and balanced hormone and sugar homeostasis. However, the knowledge about this sensitive topic is relatively limited, and the evidence is inconsistent about the long-term metabolic effects of NNS exposure during gestation, infancy, and childhood. The effects depend on age, gender, and other underlying health issues. For example, immunosuppressed individuals, especially people with digestion problems, food sensitivities, and autoimmune diseases, are more prone to experience the harmful effects of NNS.
Aspartame is a relatively old alternative for sugar, and James M. Schlatter first discovered it. He was working on developing an anti-ulcer drug when he accidentally spilled it on his hand. He licked his fingers and noticed a sweet taste. After this incident, they recognized its potential as artificial and started to focus on manufacturing it. Aspartame is an odorless, white crystalline powder derived from two amino acids: aspartic acid and phenylalanine. It is much cheaper than sugar. Thus it can be an attractive option for food manufacturers.
It has around 180–200 times stronger sweet taste. It has a versatile use in the food industry and is a component of more than 6,000 products. It works as a tabletop sweetener in beverages, frozen desserts, frozen yogurt, chewable vitamins, gelatins, breakfast cereals, and also in chewing gum. However, it is not optimal for cooking or baking because aspartame breaks down into its constituent amino acids at high temperatures. Aspartame is more stable in soft drinks due to acidic conditions. However, in overly acidic or alkaline conditions, it may generate methanol by hydrolysis.
Although it does not have a bitter aftertaste, it may not taste precisely like sugar. Digestion converts aspartame into its building amino acids. That is the reason why it can be dangerous for people with phenylketonuria. Phenylketonuria is a genetic disease causing an inability to metabolize the amino acid phenylalanine. Notably, the latter is also a building block of aspartame. People with phenylketonuria miss an essential enzyme to break it down, which can damage the central nerve damage and seriously harm the brain. Due to its intense sweetness, a relatively small amount is enough to sweeten a food product. Moreover, it only contains four calories per gram.
Acesulfame K, also known as acesulfame potassium, has 200 times sweetening power than ordinary sugar and can be as sweet as aspartame. It has a slightly bitter aftertaste, mostly when consumed in high concentration. It is often mixed with other sweeteners, such as aspartame or sucralose, to balance the bitterness. These also have a synergistic effect; therefore, the blend will always be sweeter than its single components. The human body cannot metabolize it, which makes it a 0 calorie-sweetener.
The main advantage of acesulfame K is its stability under heat and moderately acidic or alkaline conditions. Acesulfame K is therefore suitable for both baked and cooked products and products that require a long shelf life. It is a standard carbonated drinks sweetener, and it is often present together with other sweeteners with which it has synergistic effects. It is common in protein shakes and pharmaceutical products. It proved to be effective in chewable and liquid medications to make the active ingredients easier to consume. In massive amounts, it can be toxic because it breaks down into a product called aceto-acetamide.
Saccharin is also a non-nutritive sweetener that has 300 times the power of sweetness than sugar. It also has an unpleasant bitter off-taste. Some studies showed carcinogenic effects in rats. However, there is no clear causal relationship between saccharin consumption and health risks in humans when consumed in low doses.
Cyclamate is an artificial sweetener that was first developed in the 1950s. It has a bitter off-taste, but it also has a synergistic effect with saccharin. This way, it can bring the same taste like table sugar, but with 30-50 times more sweetness. It is less expensive than other sweeteners, for example, sucralose. It is also a good food additive for baked and cooked products because it is stable under heating. There have been some safety concerns regarding cyclamate that eventually led to it being banned in a few countries, although the European Union considers it safe to use. Today it is approved in more than 130 countries.
Neotame is also a dipeptide compound of two amino acids: aspartic acid and phenylalanine. The FDA approved it in 2002 as a non-nutritive sweetener. The human body rapidly metabolizes and eliminates it without any signs of bioaccumulation. However, its advantage over aspartame is that it is chemically more stable, and it can be cost-effective compared to other sweeteners because a smaller amount of it might bring the desired sweetness. Unlike aspartame, neotame is safe to consume by people with diabetes and people with phenylketonuria.
Sucralose derives from sucrose, and it is about 600 times sweeter. It is also prevalent due to its high quality and time-intensity profile which is very close to sucrose. The human body cannot metabolize it; thus, it contains 0 calories. Around 11-27% of it is absorbed and mostly filtered by kidneys and excreted into the urine. It has no toxicity because it does not break down or dechlorinate.
Natural sugar substitutes
There are natural ways to substitute sugar, and some of the alternatives may even have added nutritional value to the desired sweetness. It is important to pinpoint that the human body metabolizes these alternatives the same way as sugar, although it can result in a lower glycemic index, which is preferred. Some of these natural sweeteners are still some kind of sugar, which makes them less harmful, but they can always carry certain health risks.
Stevia is a natural herb that contains steviol glycoside, which is about 10-15 sweeter than sucrose, although it has a slightly different taste. They use the leaves of a South American shrub called Stevia rebaudiana. The compounds extracted from the plant contain 0 calories. Its potential lies in its stability, as it does not break down when exposed to heat; therefore, it is also suitable for cooking and baking. However, it can lower blood pressure; thus, people who take medication for their blood pressure must be careful and consume it moderately. The leaves of Stevia rebaudiana are also full of nutrients and phytochemicals, and its consumption can potentially bring some health benefits, such as lower insulin levels. Stevia is a safe sugar substitute, although more research is required to back up the speculated health benefits.
Honey is a traditional sugar substitute. It contains vitamins and minerals and beneficial antioxidants as well. Honey is full of phenolic acids and flavonoids, which have potent antioxidants activity claimed to prevent diabetes, reduce inflammation, reduce the risk of heart disease and cancer. While honey has promising health benefits, it also contains high fructose levels, which can contribute to health problems just like sugar. Since it is difficult to distinguish between honey and fructose syrup, a common adulteration consists of selling fructose syrup labeled as honey. Buy it only from a trusted seller!
Agave nectar derives from the agave plant, and many consider it a very healthy sugar substitute. However, nothing could be further from the truth. It is probably the worst option when it comes to choosing sweeteners. This type of natural sweetener contains 85% fructose which is ultimately higher than refined sugar.
Maple syrup derives from the sap of maple trees. It contains minerals such as calcium, iron, potassium, manganese, zinc, and many antioxidants. The oligosaccharides in maple syrup can level the blood glucose concentration, and it has a lower glycemic index than sugar. It is a healthier alternative to sugar, and it can even be beneficial for human health. However, it is still high in calories
Yacon syrup derives from a South American plant called yacón. It has a dark color a very thick consistency that is similar to molasses. Approximately 40 % of it is fructooligosaccharides that the human body cannot metabolize. Therefore, yacon syrup is not a recommended choice for people with digestion problems. However, this is also why it contains fewer calories, about 1.3 per gram. Fructooligosaccharides can have health benefits; it has a low glycemic index, so the consumption results in balanced blood sugar levels.
Yacon syrup can be part of particular diets, as it can produce a feeling of satiety to eat less. Yacon syrup can serve as food for healthy gut bacteria. Therefore it can cause many health benefits, such as hormone balance, improved mood, and according to some studies, even weight loss. Moreover, it can decrease the risk of diabetes, obesity and it can improve overall brain function. However, it can cause excessive gas and diarrhea when consumed in high quantities for the same reason.
Sugar substitutes can be essential to maintain the quality of a long list of food products. Due to the low calories it may contain, it can reduce sugar consumption in general. However, sugar alternatives can have underlying risks; therefore, use them in moderation. They are marketed as healthy alternatives, but many studies showed no improved health linked with sugar replacement. On the contrary, sugar substitutes may cause craving, and it can destroy gut bacteria that can result in eating more sweets and sugary foods, and it can also lead to obesity. On top of that, some studies concluded that it could have more harmful effects than sugar. Therefore, use it in moderation, no matter what kind it is.
Sugar replacements can lower calorie intakes, but they are not a one-size-fits-all solution. Stevia is probably the healthiest option, followed by xylitol, erythritol, and yacon syrup. Natural sugars like maple syrup and honey are less harmful than refined sugar, and they can be healthy due to their benefits. Yet, these should be consumed in moderation as well.