They go by several names, including sugar substitute, non-nutritive sweetener, very low calorie sweetener, or alternative sweetener. But one thing is common. They all taste similar to sugar with little to no calories or glycemic response. Each substitute is also sweeter than sugar, meaning that a little goes a long way.
Currently the FDA has approved five types of sugar substitutes for use in the United States:
Saccharin is the oldest artificial sweetener, developed in 1879. It is 200 to 700 times sweeter than sugar. After being suspected of causing bladder cancer in rats in 1972, many studies were done which ultimately disproved any link to cancer. According to the National Cancer Institute, "Human epidemiology studies (studies of patterns, causes, and control of diseases in groups of people) have shown no consistent evidence that saccharin is associated with bladder cancer incidence." Saccharin has been considered safe for human consumption since 2002 and is marketed under the brand names SweetN' Low, Sweet Twin and Necta Sweet.
Aspartame was approved by the FDA in 1981. It is 200 times sweeter than sugar. Its chemical compound breaks down into a substance known as phenylalanine. This can pose a danger for people who have Phenylketonuria, (PKU) but overall, aspartame is considered safe for the general public. Equal and Nutrasweet are the brand names for aspartame.
Acesulfame-K was approved in 1988 as a "tabletop sweetener" and in 2003 as a general purpose sweetener. It is not metabolized by the body, which means that no calories are absorbed when eaten. It is 200 times sweeter than sugar. It is marketed under the brand names, Sweet One and Sunett. It is frequently blended with other artificial sweeteners.
Sucralose comes from sugar, but it is 600 times sweeter. It isn't absorbed by the body, so it does not add calories to foods. In 1999, it was approved as a general purpose sweetener. It can also be used in home baking to reduce calories in homemade foods. The brand name for sucralose is Splenda.
Neotame is a cousin to aspartame, and is 7,000 to 13,000 times sweeter than sugar. It was approved in 2002 as a general purpose sweetener. Although it is related to aspartame, it doesn't carry the same warning about phenylalanine, because a minimal amount of phenylalanine is produced during digestion. Neotame is not marketed under any brand names yet.
There are a few reasons why someone would consider using a sugar substitute:
- Dental Hygiene — sugar substitutes are tooth friendly, as they are not fermented by the microflora of the dental plaque.
- Diabetes mellitus — people with diabetes have difficulty regulating their blood sugar levels. By limiting their sugar intake with artificial sweeteners, they can enjoy a varied diet while closely controlling their sugar intake. Also, some sugar substitutes do release energy, but are metabolized more slowly, allowing blood sugar levels to remain more stable over time.
- Reactive hypoglycemia — individuals with reactive hypoglycemia will produce an excess of insulin after quickly absorbing glucose into the bloodstream. This causes their blood glucose levels to fall below the amount needed for proper body and brain function. As a result, like diabetics, they must avoid intake of high glycemic foods like white bread, and often choose artificial sweeteners as an alternative.
While artificial sweeteners may reduce the calories in our favorite foods, they do not make them calorie-free. Many people consider artificial sweeteners an essential component to a weight loss program. These sugary treats may be a bit lite with sugar substitutes, but it's portion control that will keep you in your skinny jeans this holiday season.