Guilt Free Sweets

November 09, 2011

Looking to sweeten up your snacks? Here is a more in-depth look into sweeteners. Find out which if any are right for you

We all know that diets high in sugars can lead to obesity, diabetes, heart disease and other chronic diseases, but many of us still enjoy sweets in moderation. Recommendations urge Americans to lower and limit sugar intake (based on general caloric allowances) to no more than 5 teaspoons or 25 grams (about 100 calories) of added sugar a day for women, and no more than 9 teaspoons or 37.5 grams (about 150 calories) per day for men.

So what’s considered a sugar? According to the Food & Drug Administration (FDA), “sugars” refer to all caloric sweeteners containing the individual or a combination of– sucrose, fructose and glucose. This includes, sugar from sugar beets and sugar cane, corn sweeteners (high fructose corn syrup, glucose syrup and dextrose), honey, maple syrup, agave and other edible syrups. The artificial or non-caloric sweeteners do not fall into the “sugars” category listed on the Nutrition Facts Panel on foods.

For those who are watching their weight, monitoring glucose levels, trying to limit sugar consumption, or just looking to sweeten up some snacks with out adding extra calories, there are many low calorie, high intensity, sugar substitutes to choose from.

Saccharin (Sweet‘n Low and Necta Sweet): Saccharin was first discovered in 1879 and has been used commercially for about a century (it is the first artificial sweetener). Saccharin starts with methyl anthranilate, a synthesized organic molecule derived from petroleum. Methyl anthranilate is also found in many fruits, especially grapes. Saccharin has no calories and is 300-500 times sweeter than table sugar and is used in cosmetics, pharmaceuticals, as well as foods and beverages.

Aspartame (NutraSweet and Equal): Approved for use in 1981, aspartame is a combination of phenylalanine and aspartic acid, two amino acids, which are then combined with methanol. It is low in calories (4 calories per gram) and contains no carbohydrates so it will not promote tooth decay. It is approximately 200 times sweeter than sucrose (sugar). When aspartame is heated or stored for long periods, it can lose some of its sweet taste, so add it at the end of cooking; and always check expiration dates on products. Aspartame contains phenylalanine, an amino acid and as a result, people with PKU, a rare genetic disorder that keeps your body from metabolizing phenylalanine properly (every infant is now screened for PKU at birth) need to be careful about consuming aspartame.

Sucralose (Splenda): Approved for use in 1998, Sucralose is 600 times sweeter than sucrose and is not perceived by the body as a carbohydrate. This sweetener starts out as a cane sugar molecule then substitutes three hydrogen-oxygen groups with three tightly bound chlorine atoms, it has no calories and the body does not recognize it as a carbohydrate, thus producing no glycemic response. Sucralose retains its flavor when cooked, but like saccharin, does not add volume to baked goods.

Acesulfame potassium (Sunette): Abbreviated on food labels as acesulfame K, this sugar substitute was approved for use in the United States in 1988 and marketed under the name Sunette®. It is 200 times sweeter than sugar, has no calories, does not promote tooth decay, and does not affect the glycemic response. Acesulfame K can be used as a tabletop sweetener as well as in hot or cold foods and drinks. Like sucralose and saccharin, it does not provide volume and therefore may not work well in some baking recipes.

Stevia: Stevia rebaudiana, or commonly known as stevia, is an herb in the Chrysanthemum family; growing as a small shrub in parts of Paraguay and Brazil. Indigenous people of these countries were consuming parts of the stevia plants long before European explorers and settlers “discovered” them. The plant material between the veins of the leaf contains the sweet compounds, which are up to 250-300 times as sweet as sugar. Stevia’s safety has been debated for years and in December 2008, the United States Food and Drug Administration, permitted Rabiana (Reb A), a derivative of the stevia plant safe for use in foods. Truvia and PureVia contain this sweetener as do some diet beverages.

It is important to note a loophole in the FDA regulation: the amount of calories can be rounded down to the nearest 5-calorie value. In the case of the artificial sweeteners, which contain “no calories”, the bulking agents (such as dextrose and maltodextrin) are used to balance the amount of sweetness to create the appropriate quantity of granules, an average 4 calories per teaspoon is added that will not show up on the Nutrition Facts panel.

So which one is the right sweetener for you? believes that when it comes to a table-top sweeteners, the differences are more about personal taste preferences than anything else, although we do recommend you try Stevia if you haven’t yet (try to find a brand the doesn’t use a bulking agent). We also remind you to consume as many fresh foods and minimally processed foods as possible with little or no added sugars, and if there are added sugars, look for those foods that list sugar (rather than another type of sweetener) as the ingredient.