BY DR. STEVEN WITHERLY
There are myriad sweeteners available to consumers, but almost no cohesive summary about what they are and which ones make metabolic sense. This article aims to shed a little light on what’s out there and how sugar alternatives stack up against each other.
Sugar is a carbohydrate and carbohydrates are broken down into four distinct groups – complex sugars (starch), simple sugars (glucose), indigestible carbohydrates (fiber), and sugar alcohols (sweeteners). That final one, sugar alcohols, are not sugars or alcohols, but their own group of nutritional compounds that happen to taste sweet. Contrary to popular belief, many of these are found naturally in smaller quantities, but because they’re mass manufactured they get a bad reputation as being created by science, and therefore, seen as artificial. Pretty soon the FDA may require food manufacturers to state whether or not their foods have “added sugar.” So what does this mean for sweeteners? Take a look below:
HIGH INTENSITY SWEETENERS
Of special note in this category is allulose. It’s a low-calorie sugar (only 0.2 cal/g) that occurs naturally in foods like figs and raisins and has a strikingly similar taste and composition to table sugar, but with a low glycemic index. Certain studies have shown that allulose can actually lower blood glucose levels. Although it occurs naturally, allulose has only recently been made available for commercial use by new manufacturing processes. It’s the only one of the simple sugars that has less than a calorie per gram, but because it technically has caloric value, the FDA requires it to be labeled as added sugar.
FINAL ANALYSIS AND RANKINGS
There are some clear winners here and, although digestive discomfort sometimes means you just need to build up your gut biome, be sure to pay attention to which sweeteners cause discomfort. There is no cure-all for the metabolic disease epidemic across the globe, but with a more informed consumer culture, fans of food can make smarter decisions about what they put in their bodies.
The standout in this category is Erythritol because it doesn’t have the same digestive problems as other sugar alcohols. It’s a popular, low-calorie polyol found naturally in foods that have been consumed by humans for thousands of years. This familiarity with our digestive system contributes to its high digestive tolerance since it’s found in grapes, pears, melons and mushrooms to name a few. It also has the added benefit of a 0 glycemic index – meaning it doesn’t raise blood sugar levels. Another bonus is that it’s an antioxidant polyol so it helps reduce oxidative stress in the body by scavenging free radicals.
Allulose – found in nature, low glycemic index, remarkable sugar-like taste
Erythritol – high digestive tolerance, low calories, found in fruits
Stevia – Plant-derived, pleasant taste (in proper amounts)
Sorbitol -- Low digestive tolerance and lacks sweetness, occurs naturally in many fruits and berries.
Isomalt – Minimal effects on blood sugar and diabetic friendly, but lacks sweetness and has low digestive tolerance.
Honey – Completely natural and rich with vitamins, minerals and phytochemicals, but has high fructose content.
Sucrose – Since it’s table sugar it tastes great, but greatly contributes to obesity and diabetes.
Glucose – sweet taste, but directly effects glucose levels in the body.
Fruit Juices – Sweet taste and found naturally, but depending on type, can increase glycemic index.
High Fructose Corn Syrup – Directly linked to raising obesity across the world, prevalent in almost all sweet drinks.
Maltose – Higher glycemic index than table sugar, bad for diabetics and aids in tooth decay.
Maltodextrin – Can damage gut bacteria and has a high glycemic index.
Agave – Very high levels of fructose contributes to diabetes and obesity.
Acesulfame K – Synthetic, has been linked to cancer in rodent studies.
Aspartame – Contains known cancer causing agent phenylalanine.
Saccharine – Must be labeled as cancer causing in lab animals, should be avoided at all costs.
Dr. Steven A. Witherly is a leading expert in the field of food science, nutrition, and product formulations. His extensive career includes high-level product development positions at many of the world’s most recognized food and health companies and he is an esteemed member of the American Association for the Advancement of Science.