They’re everywhere. In low-calorie ice creams, yogurts, breakfast bars, diet sodas and more. Stevia, tagatose, erythitol — and blends of all of the above — these are just a few examples of the sugar substitutes you might find on an ingredient list. But what are they, why are they everywhere, and are they safe?
Sweeteners can be divided into two categories: nutritive and nonnutritive. Nutritive sweeteners are any caloric sweeteners or sugars that provide carbohydrates (think table sugar, honey or agave). Nonnutritive sweeteners are calorie-free or low-calorie alternatives, such as stevia, aspartame and sucralose. And then there’s sugar alcohols, which are technically considered nutritive sweeteners; they contain about half the amount of carbohydrates as table sugar. Examples include erythritol, maltitol and xylitol. (The “ol” means alcohol, but not the intoxicating kind.)
Why are these sweeteners used in so many foods and drinks? Well, the average American consumes about 22 teaspoons of added sugar every day. Now compare that to the American Heart Association’s recommendation of no more than 6 teaspoons of added sugar for women; and 9 for men.
In other words, most people are consuming too much added sugar, which can quickly lead to a host of complications, from obesity to heart disease.
Enter sugar substitutes. These low- and zero-calorie sweeteners may help with weight and diabetes control by adding sweetness without extra calories and by not causing spikes in blood sugar. (Just remember to always read the nutrition facts label, as some products that claim to be low in sugar may still be high in fat and calories.) Also, be mindful that some sugar substitutes and sugar alcohols can cause gastrointestinal discomfort or even have laxative effects.
As for safety, the FDA must approve sweeteners or declare them “generally regarded as safe” before they can be used in food and drinks in the U.S. And according to the National Cancer Institute, there’s not significant evidence to support a claim that sugar substitutes cause cancer.
However, it’s important to note that there’s still ongoing research regarding artificial sweeteners, including how artificial sweeteners may affect gut bacteria. Bottom line: Moderation is key.
Monk Fruit Extract
This nonnutritive sweetener is extracted from a small Asian fruit and is 150 to 300 times sweeter than table sugar.
Stevia Leaf Extract
Stevia is a nonnutritive sweetener extracted from the stevia plant, a native of South America. Stevia can be 200 to 300 times sweeter than sugar.
Tagatose is a low-carbohydrate sweetener that is less sweet than sugar. It occurs naturally in some fruits and is also derived from lactose in cow’s milk.
Maltitol, Erythitol, Mannitol, Sorbitol, and Xylitol are all sugar alcohols that can be found in candies, ice cream, chewing gums, and more. Gram for gram they are lower in calories than sugar and about half to 70 percent as sweet. Often, you’ll find sugar alcohols mixed with other sweeteners to achieve an ideal amount of sweetness.
Because sugar substitutes behave differently depending on how they’re used — stirred into coffee vs. baked into a cake, for example — manufacturers are developing blended formulas to achieve the best results for different uses. Some, like Whole Earth, use a blend of stevia leaf extract, monk fruit extract, erythitol, fructose and chicory root fiber for sweetener packets; while others, such as Sola, use erythritol, tagatose, maltitol, stevia leaf extract and monk fruit extract. The idea is to blend the really, really sweet extracts with the less sweet sugar alcohols in a way that reduces a metallic after-taste and yields quality results.