Artificial sweeteners: the best sugar alternatives?
Much has been written in the press recently about the perils of eating sugar, now linked to just about everything from diabetes and obesity, to less obvious heart disease and skin ageing. So are synthetic chemical sweeteners the answer? In her best-selling Quick Guide to Detox, available as a revised and updated e-book, Liz explains how to choose the best alternatives to sugar.
What are the best alternatives to sugar?
Artificial sweeteners have been sold to us for decades in an attempt to feed our naturally sweet tooth with a low-calorie alternative. Unfortunately, almost all have been found to have significant (and potentially serious) side-effects. Here’s the low-down on getting a sugary high:
Aspartame – 4 calories per gram (but 200 times sweeter than sugar, so only tiny traces are used). Technically a methyl ester of the aspartic acid/phenylalanine dipeptide – a synthetic chemical used as a sugar substitute even in non-diet processed foods as it is cheaper than real sugar. It is easy to find on labels as it must be avoided by those with the genetic condition phenylketonuria (PKU) and so is always clearly labelled. Of all the artificial sweeteners, Aspartame (and its brand names NutraSweet, Equal, Canderel, Spoonful and the more recently introduced AminoSweet) is probably the most widely written about and has attracted the most controversy. Made by the GM-giant Monsanto, who aggressively rebut the many claims of insufficient safety testing and independent clinical data, much has been written about its possible link with brain disorders, mood swings, aggression (especially in children and young people who drink ‘diet’ drinks), headaches and – worryingly for those using it to lose weight – actually causing increased appetite.
Mannitol – At 2.6 calories per gram, Mannitol is made from sugar alcohol, usually derived from GM-corn syrup. Considered to be one of the safer synthetic options (alongside Sorbitol), it is absorbed relatively slowly by the body and has few adverse side effects aside from a laxative action when consumed in great quantity. Can be used for baking.
Saccharin – With zero calories, this synthetic chemical is made from a petro-chemical molecule. One of the most controversial chemical sweeteners, the FDA proposed a ban back in 1977 when laboratory rats were found to develop bladder cancer when fed large amounts of saccharin. The ban was never enacted. In 1981, it was further listed as an ‘anticipated human carcinogen’, but again, not banned. Not advised for use during pregnancy as it has been shown to cross the placenta. Trade names include Sweet’N Low. Can be used for baking.
Sorbitol – 2.6 calories per gram, and produced in the same way and very similar to Mannitol. Can also be used for baking.
Sucralose – Zero calories and three times sweeter than Aspartame, (600 times sweeter than sugar), and with twice the shelf-life and the ability to retain its sweetness after heating, Sucralose is replacing Aspartame in many processed foods. It is made by chlorinating sugar in a chemical process that also uses maltodextrin or dextrose (from GM-corn) as bulking agents. Although Sucralose itself has no calories, the bulking agents that accompany it in packs add around 2-4 calories per gram (the FDA allows any product containing fewer than five calories per serving to be labelled as zero calories). Few adverse side effects reported, although Sucralose has been shown to affect the way sugars are metabolised in the body, affecting glycemic and insulin responses. Trade name Splenda. Also listed as E955 on food labels. Can be used for baking.
Stevia – With zero calories, this comes from the leaves of the Stevia bush, native to South America. It has been used as a natural sweetener by the South Americans for hundreds of years and more recently in Japan since the 1970s. Although it is a naturally derived plant, some argue that stevia is not a natural sweetener as it has to be processed and refined to make it available commercially. However, it is the most natural of all the ‘synthesised’ sugar substitutes. No known side effects, although those taking prescription medication such as lithium and diabetes drugs are advised to consult their doctor before using. Research shows that stevia may help lower blood pressure and blood sugar levels. It is generally considered safe for use in pregnancy but little specific data exists on this, so err on the side of caution and perhaps best avoided – along with all other artificial sweeteners. Can be used for baking.
Xylitol – 2.4 calories per gram, and developed in 1963 as an artificial sweetener. Xylitol can be made from various foodstuffs, including berries, oats and mushrooms but is invariably made from cheaper corn husks or xylan, a hardwood extract from trees. Xylitol actually has some interesting health benefits, including being beneficial to teeth and has been shown to reduce the incidence of inner ear infection. However, it can also have a laxative effect, is highly toxic for dogs and long-term consumption has been linked to tumours. Can be used for baking.
For more on artificial sweeteners and how to kick the sugar habit, read Liz Earle’s Quick Guide to Detox.
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