Sweeteners are food additives used to add a sweet flavor to foods and beverages. In general, there are two categories of sweeteners: nutritive and nonnutritive.
Nutritive sweeteners are those that contain calories, such as sucrose (refined sugar). Other nutritive sweeteners include: mannitol (extracted from seaweed), sorbitol (extracted from corn syrup) and xylitol (extracted from birch wood or fruits), which are sugar alcohols. Sugar alcohols occur naturally and are used in some foods as additives. While sugar alcohols do contain calories, they do not raise blood sugar levels significantly.
Nonnutritive sweeteners provide very little or no calories. Commonly used nonnutritive sweeteners include: saccharin (Sweet N Low brand), aspartame (Equal and NutraSweet brands), sucralose (Splenda brand), and stevia, which is only approved by the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) as a dietary supplement.
Pros and Cons
- Sucrose: (refined sugar) Pros: Sugar is naturally occurring in various forms, and in moderate consumption in healthy individuals is not associated with serious health risks. Sugar provides a pleasant flavoring in various foods. Cons: Sugar is high in calories, and consuming large amounts may lead to serious health problems such as diabetes and obesity. It is not safe for individuals with diabetes to consume large amounts of sugar.
- Sugar alcohols: (mannitol, sorbitol, xylitol Pros: these sweeteners are naturally occurring and are not associated with health risks. They do not raise blood sugar significantly, and may also decrease the incidence of tooth decay. Cons: May cause unpleasant gastrointestinal discomfort such as diarrhea, bloating, and gas.
- Saccharin: (Sweet N Low brand) Pros: Saccharin provides a calorie free sweet taste to foods, and may help decrease incidence of tooth decay. Although studies have linked consumption of large amounts of saccharin to cancer in rats, it has not been proven to have to same effect in humans. In 2000, the US government removed saccharin from its list of cancer-causing agents. Cons: The possible cancer connection in humans is still not completely clear.
- Aspartame: (NutraSweet and Equal brands) Aspartame is made up of amino acids and methyl alcohol. Pros: Aspartame provides a calorie free sweet taste to foods, and may help decrease incidence of tooth decay. Cons: Aspartame has been associated with a variety of unpleasant side effects such as gastrointestinal discomfort, headaches, and mood swings. It is thought that aspartame may reduce the availability of the amino acid tryptophan, thereby reducing levels of the neurotransmitter serotonin in the brain. Individuals with phenylketonuria should avoid aspartame. More research is needed on the health impacts of aspartame.
- Sucralose: (Splenda brand) Sucralose is the result of the replacement of the hydroxyl molecule groups with chlorine in sucrose (refined sugar). Pros: Sucralose provides a calorie free sweet taste to foods, and may help decrease the incidence of tooth decay. Studies so far show no health risks associated with sucralose. Cons: The FDA only approved sucralose for use as a food additive in 1998. Long term health effects of consumption of sucralose are not currently known.
- Stevia: Stevia, or stevioside, is derived from the leaves of a South American shrub, a member of the daisy family. Pros: Stevia provides a calorie free sweet taste to foods, and may help decrease the incidence of tooth decay. Many who hesitate to consume artificial food additives may prefer stevia because it is all natural. Cons: Stevia may interact with diabetes and high blood pressure medications, and is not determined safe for use by pregnant/nursing women or children. Stevia is not approved in the US, Canada, or the European Union as a food additive because not enough is known about its safety. In the US, stevia may only be sold as a dietary supplement. Stevia may also have unpleasant side effects including dizziness, headache, muscle tenderness and gastrointestinal discomfort. More research may need to be conducted to determine the safety of stevia.
Use as directed. Consult your physician about sweeteners, especially if you have health problems.
All Star Health currently carries stevia and xylitol.