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Sugar alternatives

There are many reasons why more of us are looking to cut down on sugar in our diet, and why there’s an increasing number of sugar substitutes available to help us make that change.

Sweeteners are commonly used as a low calorie alternative to sugar - useful if trying to lose weight along with a calorie-controlled diet. Cutting down sugar intake helps manage the blood sugar level in people with diabetes.

Unlike sugars, non-sugar sweeteners don't cause tooth decay.

Sugar alternatives aren't limited to intense sweeteners though. Also rising in popularity as other options to sugar are naturally sweet foods, such as honey and agave syrup. How much more beneficial than sugar are the alternatives?

Sweeteners

Commercially produced sweeteners are split into two types: nutritive and non-nutritive.

All low-calorie sweeteners used in food and drinks sold in the EU must undergo rigorous safety testing before they get the European Commission's stamp of approval, indicated by an ‘E’ number designation.

Non-nutritive sweeteners

Non-nutritive sweeteners provide virtually no calories at all in normal daily use. Non-nutritive sweeteners include the following:

  • Aspartame (Canderel) E951
  • Acesulfame-K (silver spoon sweetener) E950
  • Aspartame-acesulfame K E962
  • Saccharine (Hermesetas) E954
  • Sucralose (Splenda) E955
  • Stevia (PureVia, Truvia) E960

Sweeteners are available in tablet, powdered or liquid form.

Some sweeteners can’t be used in cooking as they break down and lose their sweetness. Check the label for suitability of use.

What are the benefits?

The benefits of non-nutritive, high-intensity sweeteners are that they are usually calorie-free, so can help you control your weight alongside a low calorie diet. They usually come as small tablets, which are easy to carry round for daily use.

And the downsides?

There is no proven downside to using non-nutritive sweeteners when following the directions for each product, although some people find a specific sweetener may not be to their taste.

People with the rare genetic condition phenylketonuria, or PKU, should avoid foods containing aspartame.

People with PKU cannot break down phenylalanine, and this can build-up damaging the brain. Aspartame sweeteners are converted into phenylalanine by the body.

Nutritive sweeteners

  • Isomalt E953
  • Xylitol E967
  • Sorbitol E420
  • Fructose
  • Honey
  • Agave nectar

Nutritive sweeteners include fruit sugar (fructose) and sugar-alcohols (also known as polyols) such as sorbitol, maltitol, xylitol, isomalt and mannitol.

Sugar-alcohols are non-cariogenic, so help protect against tooth decay. Xylitol is often found in sugar free gum, and sorbitol in mouthwash as a sweetener. They are poorly absorbed and so provide negligible calories to the diet.

Fructose (‘fruit sugar’), honey and fructose-rich syrups such as agave nectar are all forms of dietary fructose. Fructose sugar has the same calorie content as ordinary sugar and so there’s little point in using these if you’re trying to lose weight. Fructose also contributes to tooth decay, just like ordinary sugar. A high fructose diet also worsens the symptoms of gout.

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