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.
With recent news that the federal government is urging Americans to limit their sugar intake to only 10% of calories consumed there are a lot of people left scratching their heads. New labelling mandates could require food manufacturers to denote whether or not their products contain added sugar in an effort to raise awareness. With over 300 million cases of diabetes worldwide and no sign of slowing, it’s time to take a look at what we can do to steer the nutrition ship back on course.
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:
Added sweeteners fall into three groups:
- High Intensity Sweeteners – sucralose, aspartame, stevia, etc.
- Simple Sugars – sucrose (table sugar), glucose, fructose, etc.
- Polyol or “Sugar Alcohols” – erythritol, sorbitol, xylitol etc.
High Intensity Sweeteners (HIS) are called such because they taste several hundred times sweeter than sugar (sucrose). See the section below for an in-depth look at this category. The HIS are broken down by type, sweetness, caloric value, glycemic index and digestive tolerance.
High Intensity Sweeteners
|Sweetener || |
|Additional Label Requirements |
|Sucralose ||400-600x sweeter ||0 ||None |
|Acesulfame K ||200x sweeter ||0 ||None |
|Aspertame ||200x sweeter ||4 ||Contains phenylalanine (serious health concern for people with Phenylketonuria (PKU) |
|Saccharine ||300x sweeter ||0 ||Can cause cancer in lab animals - possibly carcinogenic in humans |
|Stevia ||200-350x sweeter ||0 ||None |
The sterling example from this list is sucralose. It has a very close sugar-like taste and is approved for use in over 100 countries. Stevia also is making headway as a leading sweetener. It’s plant-derived but has a slightly bitter taste if overused.
There are three things to examine when categorizing simple sugars: Sweetness compared to sucrose, Energy (calories) and Glycemic index. Since sucrose is a 1 on the sweetness scale, each corresponding number under sweetness illustrates its taste compared to sugar. The calories category, denoted as “kcal/g,” stacks up pretty evenly. The last category is the glycemic index. This is based on the ability of the sweetener to raise blood glucose levels. Glucose is the standard form of simple sugar so it has a glycemic index of 100 and each of the other sweeteners are in comparison to glucose.
|Sweetener ||Sweetness || |
|Glycemic Index |
|Sucrose ||1.0 ||4 ||65 |
|Glucose ||0.7 ||4 ||100 |
|Fructose ||1.3 ||4 ||19 |
|Lactose ||0.2 ||4 ||46 |
|Maltose ||0.3 ||4 ||105 |
|Allulose ||0.7 ||<1 ||<1 |
|Maltodextrin ||0.1-0.7 ||4 ||80-120 (!) |
|Honey ||0.97 ||4 ||35-64 |
|High Fructose Corn Syrup ||1.1 ||4 ||58 |
|Agave Syrup ||0.8-1.1 ||4 ||30 |
|Fruit Juices ||0.8-1.2 ||4 ||5-80 |
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.
The final category in the sweetener game is the polyol or sugar alcohol group. They’re a versatile group of sugar supplements and bulking agents with a taste similar to sugar with little caloric value. Many are non -cariogenic, meaning they won’t aid tooth decay. Sugar alcohols are only partially digested in the small intestine and move to the large intestine. This means some sugar alcohols can cause bloating and gas if they are consumed in large amounts. That’s why so many foods contain a combination of high intensity sweeteners, simple sugars and sugar alcohols. It makes it easier on your gut biome to break down without causing discomfort.
Sugar Alcohol Comparison Chart
|Sweetener || |
(glucose is 100)
|Digestive Tolerance |
|Erythritol ||0.6 ||0.2 ||0 ||very high |
|Isomalt ||0.7 ||2.0 ||9 ||medium |
|Maltitol ||0.9 ||2.1 ||34 ||medium |
|Sorbitol ||0.6 ||2.6 ||5 ||low-medium |
|Xylitol ||0.95 ||2.4 ||8 ||low |
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.
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.
Sucralose – Widely used and approved by over 100 countries, sugar-like taste
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)
Xylitol – Sugar-like taste, but has low digestive tolerance.
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.
Maltitol – Can cause severe intestinal upset, but still widely used in chocolates.
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.
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