Fact vs. Fiction: All sugar substitutes are the same
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The low-calorie sweeteners we have today all come from different sources and different techniques are used to make them.
It’s important to remember that when you hear news about low-calorie sweeteners, they are often discussed as if they’re all the same. They’re not, and the differences can be significant.
What’s in a Name?
Several different umbrella terms are used to describe the category I refer to as “low-calorie sweeteners.” They include non-nutritive sweeteners, zero-calorie sweeteners, artificial sweeteners, natural sweeteners, intense sweeteners and alternative sweeteners to name a few.
When I see or hear a news report that uses one of these terms, I always pay attention to find out which specific sweetener the story is about. Since they aren’t all the same, the results of a study using one of them won’t necessarily apply to all of them. I've learned that I have to read the entire study rather than rely on the news coverage about sweeteners to determine which one was used. That is especially true with some of the stories on diet sodas that don't make it clear what sweeteners are involved. And many studies involving low-calorie sweeteners aren’t designed to demonstrate cause and effect, but the headlines can make it seem like they are.
Here are the names of the most common low-calorie sweeteners sold as retail sweeteners or found in prepared foods and beverages:
- acesulfame potassium (ace-K)
- monk fruit extract (luo han guo)
Different Sources for Different Sweeteners
Taking a closer look at the source and/or makeup of each low-cal sweetener makes it easier to understand why each one should be treated individually. It also helps to explain why they perform differently in different food and beverage applications.
Aspartame is made from two amino acids, aspartic acid and phenylalanine, which are commonly found in foods with protein. When these two amino acids are put together in specific ways they are extremely sweet, yet readily released from the sweeteners during digestion and absorbed just like the amino acids found in meat, eggs and other foods.
Saccharin and acesulfame potassium (ace-K) are synthesized from carbon and minerals commonly found in other foods (hydrogen, oxygen, nitrogen, sulfur and potassium). They, too, are intensely sweet and are excreted soon after ingesting and not stored in the body.
Stevia and monk fruit extract are made by isolating and concentrating the sweet compounds found in certain plant leaves and fruit.
Sucralose, the sweetening ingredient in SPLENDA® Sweeteners, is a modified form of sucrose, or sugar. It is changed by removing hydrogen-oxygen groups from certain places on the sucrose molecule and putting chlorine in their place. It's important to remember that chlorine is also found in many safe components of food. This change makes the sucralose molecule much sweeter than sugar, but with none of the calories. Most of the sucralose we consume passes through our bodies unchanged, and it all leaves the body very quickly without being broken down for energy.
As you can see, some of the low-cal sweeteners you use at home have unique formulations. All taste sweet and have no calories per serving, but that’s where their similarities end. That’s worth remembering the next time you hear someone trying to lump them all together as if they were the same ingredient in different colored packets.
Robyn Flipse, MS, MA, RDN, “The Everyday RD,” is an author and nutrition consultant who has headed the nutrition services department in a large teaching hospital and maintained a private practice where she provided diet therapy to individuals and families. With more than 30 years of experience, Robyn is motivated by the opportunity to help people make the best eating decisions for their everyday diet. She believes that choosing what to eat should not be a daily battle and aims to separate the facts from the fiction so you can enjoy eating well.
For more information, please visit:
Calorie Control Council: “Sugar Substitutes”
International Food Information Council: “Facts About Low-Calorie Sweeteners”
Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics: "Use of Nutritive and Nonnutritive Sweeteners"