The use of sugar substitutes is becoming increasingly popular, and the options continue to grow. “Choosing to use a sugar substitute is a decision that has many variables,” explains Adina Fradkin, dietitian for GBMC’s food vendor, ARAMARK. “You should consider your own health history. For example, if you are an individual with diabetes, you’re going to want to avoid adding table sugar to your foods. After health comes personal preference – are you more concerned with consuming foods that are all natural or are you OK with something artificial?”
Table sugar (glucose) is natural, but it has about 45 calories per tablespoon in addition to carbohydrate content. It has a moderate effect on glycemic index, which measures how fast a food raises your blood sugar.
According to Ms. Fradkin, there is no legal definition set forth by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) for calling something “natural.” However, some natural – or not artificial – sugar substitutes to consider include agave nectar and stevia. Agave nectar (fructose) has 60 calories per tablespoon but has a lower glycemic index than sugar. It is also about one and a half times sweeter than sugar, so theoretically, less can be used for similar effect. “Because it has a slower impact on raising blood sugar, it may be an option for someone with diabetes to consider or someone who just wants to be healthier and would like to try a new ingredient,” says Ms. Fradkin. However, she cautions,
“Studies have shown that fructose can actually increase body fat and have a negative impact on insulin production, so that is something to keep in mind.”
Stevia (found in Truvia®) is a natural alternative that comes from the leaves of the stevia plant and has no effect on glycemic index. It is calorie free, sweeter than sugar and is regarded as safe by the FDA. However, there hasn’t been much research regarding the long-term effects of stevia on the body.
Sucralose, (Splenda®, as many would recognize it) is a chemically altered sweetener. Sucralose has zero calories and doesn’t impact the glycemic index. But, there aren’t long-term studies on sucralose. “As with most food options, anything in moderation is OK,” says Ms. Fradkin. “Just be aware that your sucralose intake might not stop with that packet of Splenda you put in your coffee. Because it’s gained so much acceptance in the food industry, it’s in a lot of foods – even outside of the ‘sugar-free’ and ‘low-sugar’ category. Just be sure to read your labels.”
Saccharine and aspartame are other artificial sweeteners. Saccharine has been shown more definitively than aspartame to be correlated with cancer, but aspartame, which is much more widely used than saccharine, continues to be studied.
“Education is key when it comes to sweetener options,” says Ms. Fradkin. “You can go with all natural, zero calorie, or artificial – or any combination of the three. In the end, what it really comes down to is which option is going to help you achieve your personal health and lifestyle goals.”