Sugar VS Sugar Substitutes a Practical Guide
Before jumping into sugar substitutes, it is important to first identify what sugar is, exactly. Getting a better understanding of sugar and sugar substitutes can improve nutrient quality and calorie control in the diet.
Added sugars, natural sugars, sugar alcohols, sugar substitutes, artificial sweeteners... So many types and forms of sugar and sweeteners are incorporated in common food choices. Getting a better understanding of sugar and sugar substitutes can improve nutrient quality and calorie control in the diet.
Before jumping into sugar substitutes, it is important to first identify what sugar is, exactly. Sugars oftentimes have a poor connotation with cakes, candy, and soda. Although sugar can be found in those sweet-tasting items, sugar is also found naturally in whole grains, milks, fruits, and vegetables in the forms of simple and complex sugars, too.
Sucrose, which is most commonly extracted from cane or beets, is often known by its more informal name - white table sugar. Other sugar examples include fructose (found in fruits) and galactose (found in milk).
Often, people who are trying to lose weight look at sugar as one of their principle enemies. Stripping foods containing naturally occurring sugar from your diet has negative effects, however, and results in also eliminating vitamins, minerals, and fiber found in a balanced diet. In fact, the body needs sugar.
Sugar helps fuel the cells and keeps the body moving and going. However, the body does not need excess or added sugar. Added sugars can often be found in processed and prepared products that have more sugar than they would naturally. Added sugars can also be found on the ingredient label as names ending in "-ose" (maltose and sucrose) or raw sugar, cane sugar, molasses, high fructose corn syrup, molasses, and fruit juice concentrates.
As a general guideline, the American Heart Association (AHA) recommends limiting added sugars to about six teaspoons per day for women, and nine teaspoons for men.
Understanding Sugar Substitutes
In reality, sugar substitutes are any sweetener used in place of regular sugars. It is an umbrella term that encompasses artificial sweeteners, sugar alcohols, novel sweeteners, and natural sweeteners. Unlike sugar, though, some substitutes can provide the food with a sweet taste for significantly less food energy or calories.
Artificial sweeteners are synthetic but can be derived from naturally occurring substances. They are known for intense sweetness and include aspartame (Equal), saccharin (Sweet'N Low), and sucralose (Splenda).
Unlike artificial sweeteners, sugar alcohols and novel sweeteners do contain calories and can be found in gums, too. Sweeteners such as malitol, mannitol, sorbitol, xylitol are sugar alcohols while stevia extracts and tagatose are novel sweeteners.
Natural sweeteners are commonly thought to be healthy, natural alternatives. Although produced from natural sources, sources like agave do provide calories. Understanding the caloric density of natural sweeteners is imperative to keep the balance their consumption.
So, which is healthier?
Artificial sweeteners do have the ability to reduce a total caloric intake, which can ultimately result in weight loss and maintenance. This, however is most often a case of theory vs practical reality as most people don't consume enough to make much of a difference.
It is also important to note the concept of "sugar free" does not result in being "calorie free." Sugar free items can still be loaded with fat and calories and its consumption can be overestimated, ultimately resulting in overeating.
Individuals with diabetes can utilize some sugar substitutes to not raise or spike glucose levels. However, those individuals do need sugar from healthful sugars sources so the body with sugar will not initiate hypoglycemia, or low blood sugar, and its undesirable and potentially fatal health risks.
Sugar alcohols can also have a laxative effect if usually 50 grams or more are consumed. However, product labels may warn about the potential laxative effect. Sugar is in fact needed by the body, but the use of artificial sweeteners is generally recognized as safe (GRAS) and has established acceptable daily intakes.
It is also important to understand the concept of natural sugars between sweeteners. Natural sweeteners are oftentimes promoted as a healthy alternative but still might have undergone processing. Limiting the intake of agave, syrup, and sugary toppings can help to avoid health risks of weight gain and tooth decay.
Sugar can and should be implemented in a healthy, balanced way. What is important is straying away from all the added sugars and sweets, filling the diet with nutrient-dense foods, and keeping the intake of artificial sweeteners in check.
Artificial Sweeteners and Other Sugar Substitutes. Mayo Clinic. Available at: http://www.mayoclinic.org/healthy-lifestyle/nutrition-and-healthy-eating/in-depth/artificial-sweeteners/art-20046936
Added Sugars. American Heart Association. Available here.