A Guide to Sweeteners

Remember the good old days when people who had a sweet tooth would just eat something containing sugar? Well, for better or worse, people now have a lot of sugar alternatives to choose from. Be prepared for you next craving and learn what sweeteners are available, which one taste good, and which ones are good for you.

No matter how many new sweeteners are introduced into the market, the natural staples will always be popular. There are several different types of naturally occurring sugar, and they can be divided into two groups based on their chemical properties: monosaccharides like glucose, galactose, and fructose; and disaccharides, like sucrose, lactose, and maltose. Out of these sugars, you are most likely to hear about glucose (blood sugar used in cellular respiration), fructose (sugar found in fruit and honey), lactose (sugar found in milk), and sucrose (sugar found in common table sugar).

Despite all this variety, when most people think of sugar, they think of crystallized sugarcane, also called table sugar. However, most commercially produced foods are made with other sweeteners. Some natural food products are advertised as being sweetened with fruit juice or honey; these alternatives are often considered healthier, but people who are trying to limit their intake of sugar need to know that fruit juice and honey do not contain fewer calories, and are not metabolized any differently from common table sugar. At the same time, honey and fruit juice do contain vitamins that can make them preferable over other forms of sugar. Additionally, eating local honey can prevent, or at least reduce, seasonal allergies; honey also has an anti-inflammatory effect that can help soothe sore throats.

Because it is relatively inexpensive, corn syrup is often used in mass produced food products. High fructose corn syrup, which is corn syrup that has been modified to have increased levels of fructose, is also very common. Critics have linked high fructose corn syrup to obesity and even cancer. Although no concrete evidence of the dangers of high fructose corn syrup has been found, the syrup is highly processed, so people who want a more natural sweetener should stick to table sugar, fruit juice, and honey.

Of course, not everybody wants a natural sweetener. Natural sweeteners are high in calories; table sugar contains about 15 calories per teaspoon. In recent years, highly processed, low calorie sugar alternatives have become increasingly popular as diabetics and people on diets try to placate their sweet tooth.

Saccharin was discovered in 1879 and was the world’s first low calorie sweetener. Saccharin is actually a coal tar derivative and is 300 times sweeter than sugar, although when used in large quantities, saccharin can have a slightly bitter aftertaste. Saccharin has also been linked to cancer; a study conduced by the National Cancer Institute during the 1970’s concluded that using saccharin could result in cancer of the bladder. Critics of the study claim that the doses used were ridiculously high, and that saccharin is safe in when consumed in normal quantities. In its 9th Report on Carcinogens, the National Toxicology Program removed saccharin from its list of possible carcinogens.

Saccharin is not the only artificial sweetener to be linked to cancer. Cyclamates, artificial sweeteners that are 30 times sweeter than sugar, have also been linked to cancer through studies on animals. In 1969, the U.S. Food and drug Administration banned the use of cyclamates.

Aspartame is another popular low calorie artificial sweetener. Aspartame was discovered in 1965 and is 160 times sweeter than sugar. Aspartame has two major drawbacks: it is destroyed at high heats and is therefore unsuitable for cooking, and it has been linked to health problems. Aspartame contains phenylalanine, an amino acid that is considered dangerous at high concentrations, at least for certain individuals. People who have phenylketonuria, or a sensitivity to phenylalanine, should avoid aspartame. However, aspartame has also been linked to negative side effects that can affect people without phenylketonuria, including migraines, memory loss, and ironically weight gain. It should be noted that the evidence for these side effects comes primarily from the reports of individuals, and not scientific studies.

Stevia and the extract stevioside are calorie free sweeteners that are 300 times sweeter than sugar. Like most artificial sweeteners, stevia and stevioside have been linked to health problems, including cancer and sterility. However, there is, once again, no concrete evidence to support these claims. In the United States, stevia and stevioside can only be sold as dietary supplements, and not as sweeteners. Stevia can also have a slightly bitter aftertaste.

Sucralose is a calorie free sweetener that was discovered in 1976. Unlike other artificial sweeteners, sucralose is actually made from a modified sugar molecule and does not have the bitter aftertaste associated with most artificial sweeteners. However, sucralose has raised health concerns, especially since it is a relatively new chemical. Once again, the evidence for any side effects comes primarily from the reports of individuals, and not scientific studies.

So which sweetener is best for you? It really depends on what your needs are. If you are simply want to buy something that’s inexpensive, then you’re probably going to buy a product made with corn syrup. If you want something that is natural, tastes great, and has no risks of side effects, then you should use table sugar, fruit juice, or honey. If you are looking for something that is low in calories, you will need to pick an artificial sweetener. Sucralose may be the best tasting and healthiest out of these, although more studies and taste tests need to be performed.

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