Most people grow up enjoying sugar. Some kind of sugar, whether artificial or natural, can be found in almost every food. With sugar everywhere, it can be very difficult to avoid! Sugar substitutes have become popular, but there are so many different kinds with possible side effects that it’s important to know what you’re eating.
Due to the rising popularity of sugar-free diets, many people have altered their eating habits to include sugar substitutes instead of sucrose, the typical table sugar. These sugar substitutes come in many forms, but how much do you actually know about them? Listed here are the most common ones with pros and cons for each.
Sugar Alcohols (Xylitol, Sorbitol, Maltitol, and Mannitol)
Sugar alcohols are commonly found in fruits and vegetables and are often used as a sugar substitute. They are about 50-100% as sweet as sugar.
- Pros: They usually have 1/3 the calories of regular sugar. These sugar alcohols have been found to produce fewer cavities then regular sugar (in chewing gum for example) and also may help reduce plaque.
- Cons: They are only half as sweet as sugar, and the body may have issues absorbing them. It has been proven that these substitutes can produce laxative properties when ingested in large quantities.
Aspartame is also commonly known as the brands Equal and NutraSweet and is 200 times sweeter than regular sugar. It is a combination of 2 amino acids joined together, Aspartic acid and Phenylalanine.
- Pros: It is almost calorie free, because it is used in small amounts. It has no effect on glucose levels.
- Cons: Aspartame sweetener has been very controversial. The belief is split almost in half, with one side believing that it is safe and the other believing it is not. Some people cannot metabolize it very well, and it may cause headaches. However, scientists claim it is safe when used in moderation. It is actually a suggested sweetener for diabetics. One common negative aspect of Aspartame is that it may lose sweetness when stored in high temperatures. Another well-known aspect is that it is dangerous to people who suffer from a metabolism disorder called Phenylketonuria (PKU).
Saccharin, commonly known as the brand Sweet’N Low, is one of the oldest known sugar substitutes. It is a synthetic compound with the basic substance benzoic sulfilimine that is about 300-500 times sweeter than sugar.
- Pros: It has no calories. It is the artificial sweetener that has been tested the most to this date, and it does not affect blood glucose levels.
- Cons: Studies continually show links between Saccharin and bladder cancer. Some believe that pregnant women, infants and children are susceptible to more negative effects from this sugar substitute, but with no research to support their claims, the FDA has not applied any limitations.
Sucralose is more familiar as the brand Splenda, and it is the most recent addition to the list of sugar substitutes. It is created by selective chlorination of sucrose (table sugar).
- Pros: It is 600 times sweeter than sugar, and when used alone, has no calories. It can be used in cooking and baking, which has increased its popularity. Sucralose is also suggested for diabetics.
- Cons: Sucralose contains chlorine, which is commonly known as a component in disinfectants. The chlorine may cause many negative side effects, though research is inconclusive so far.
Acesulfame K is common in many foods and beverages. It also goes by the names Acesulfame potassium, Ace-K, and the brand names Sweet One and Sunett. It is about 200 times sweeter than sugar.
- Pros: It is commonly used to enhance flavor and helps to preserve the sweetness in sweet foods. It also does not affect blood glucose levels in the body.
- Cons: The most prominent negative aspect of Acesulfame K is that there have not been sufficient, long-term studies to determine if any major side effects occur. Due to the lack of research, Acesulfame K is not a popular sugar substitute. However, the FDA does not plan on taking it off of shelves or furthering its studies.
While a brand name, Stevia actually derives from a plant called Stevia. Popular because it does not add calories to your drinks and meals, like other sugar substitutes, this one is much sweeter than actual sugar.
- Pros: Does not add any calories and tastes like sugar (adding possibly more sweetness to your meals). Studies are still ongoing regarding added health benefits Stevia might offer. The findings are not yet conclusive.
- Cons: Stevia may interact with certain treatments (anti-fungals, anti-inflammatories, anti-microbials, anti-cancer pills, anti-virals, appetite suppressants, calcium channel blockers, cholesterol-lowering medicine, treatments that increase urination, fertility agents and other substances). Also, it does not help with weight loss if that is your end goal. Studies have shown mixed results but it is quite possible Stevia causes the user to eat more.
The Dangers of Sugar
Scientists have studied the dangers of excess sugar quite a bit in recent years, which has added to the scare of cavities, tooth decay and diabetes. One negative effect of a sugary diet can be what is known as dyslipidemia, where the body has too much low-density lipoprotein (LDL, “bad cholesterol”) and triglycerides and not enough high-density lipoprotein (HDL, “good cholesterol”). The Journal of the American Medical Association said that those who consume a lot of sugar have more than triple the odds of having low HDL cholesterol, which is a huge factor in heart disease. They also studied the opposite, showing that a low-sugar diet can increase HDL cholesterol levels and thus help reduce the risk of heart disease.
Another widely known result of sugar consumption is tooth decay. Sugar in your mouth helps bacteria adhere to the teeth. If sugar is allowed to stay on the teeth (through prolonged consumption of sweets, not brushing, etc.), decay begins to eat away at the tooth. A simple way to prevent cavities is to brush and floss often to prevent plaque from building up on and around the teeth. Other potential factors of excess sugar consumption include obesity and diabetes. A high-sugar diet can have some serious repercussions on your body, therefore it is important to monitor your sugar intake.
Regardless of whether you use a substitute or stick with plain sugar, the safest and healthiest option is always to moderate your intake. Sugar is not all bad, as it is a carbohydrate that is necessary to fueling and maintaining natural body function. However, when used in excess, both sugar and sugar substitutes have negative effects. It is important to always follow the suggested daily intake set for each sugar substitute. Abiding by that structure can help to decrease the risks of negative side effects and symptoms.
Neither sugar-free nor sugar-filled diets are healthy or beneficial. Scientists have continually studied the pros and cons of each sugar substitute and have concluded that moderation is the key. A moderate amount of sugars or sugar substitutes, balanced with a healthy diet and exercise, is the best way to stay healthy.