Sugar Substitute



A sugar substitute is a food additive that duplicates the effect of sugar in taste, usually with less food energy. Some sugar substitutes are natural and some are synthetic. Those that are not natural are, in general, called artificial sweeteners.

Animal studies have indicated that a sweet taste induces an insulin response in rats. The release of insulin causes blood sugar to be stored in tissues (including fat). In the case of a response to artificial sweeteners, because blood sugar does not increase there can be increased hypoglycemia (low blood sugar) and increased food intake the next time there is a meal. Rats given sweeteners have steadily increased calorie intake, increased body weight, and increased adiposity (fatness).

Humans do not have the same response to articial sweeteners, and the insulin release is less severe, which is why they are suitable for use in moderation by diabetics. But, there is lingering evidence that sugar substitutes stimulate the appetite and lead to weight gain.

In the current market, an important class of sugar substitutes are known as high-intensity sweeteners. These are compounds with many times the sweetness of sucrose, common table sugar. As a result, much less sweetener is required and energy contribution is often negligible. The sensation of sweetness caused by these compounds (the ‘sweetness profile’) is sometimes notably different from sucrose, so they are often used with bulking agents in complex mixtures that achieve the most natural sweet sensation.

In the United States, six intensely-sweet sugar substitutes have been approved for use. They are stevia, aspartame, sucralose, neotame, acesulfame potassium, and saccharin. There is some ongoing controversy over whether artificial sweetener usage poses health risks. The FDA regulates artificial sweeteners as food additives, and to date, has not been presented with scientific information that would support a change in conclusions about the safety of these approved high-intensity sweeteners (with the exception of Stevia, which is exempt due to its being a natural substance in wide use well before 1958). The safe conclusions are based on a detailed review of a large body of information, including hundreds of toxicological and clinical studies.

Used as a natural sweetener, the herbal supplement Stevia has been widely used for centuries in South America, as well as in Japan since 1970. In 1987, the FDA issued a ban on stevia, but after being repeatedly provided with a significant amount of scientific data proving that there was no side effect of using stevia as a sweetener from companies such as Cargill and Coca-Cola, the FDA gave a ‘no objection’ approval to Truvia in December 2008. Truvia, a blend of rebiana and erythritol (developed by Cargill and The Coca-Cola Company), and PureVia (developed by PepsiCo and the Whole Earth Sweetener Company, a subsidiary of Merisant), both use ‘rebaudioside A’ derived from the Stevia plant.

The majority of sugar substitutes approved for food use are artificially-synthesized compounds. However, some bulk natural sugar substitutes are known, including sorbitol and xylitol, which are found in berries, fruit, vegetables, and mushrooms. It is not commercially viable to extract these products from fruits and vegetables, but they can be produced by chemically modifying other sugars. For example, xylose is converted to xylitol, lactose to lactitol, and glucose to sorbitol. Other natural substitutes are known, but are yet to gain official approval for food use.

Some non-sugar sweeteners are polyols, also known as ‘sugar alcohols.’ These are, in general, less sweet than sucrose but have similar bulk properties and can be used in a wide range of food products. Sometimes the sweetness profile is ‘fine-tuned’ by mixing with high-intensity sweeteners.

The food and beverage industry is increasingly replacing sugar or corn syrup with artificial sweeteners in a range of products traditionally containing sugar. Aspartame is currently the most popular artificial sweetener in the U.S. food industry, as the price has dropped significantly since the Monsanto Company patent expired in 1992. However, sucralose (Splenda) may soon replace it.

Some commonly consumed foods with alternative sweeteners are diet sodas, cereals, and sugar-free desserts such as ice cream. Those with diabetes can greatly benefit from alternative sweeteners that do not affect their blood sugar levels drastically. This aids in maintaining low insulin use in the body and blood sugar levels. Alternative sweeteners such as xylitol and saccharin, which are often used in artificially sweetened chewing gum, have many positive research results that show qualities of dental decay prevention.

Lead acetate (sometimes called sugar of lead) is an artificial sugar substitute made from lead that is of historical interest because of its widespread use in the past, such as by ancient Romans. The use of lead acetate as a sweetener eventually produced lead poisoning in any individual ingesting it habitually. Lead acetate was abandoned as a food additive throughout most of the world after the high toxicity of lead compounds became apparent.

Aside from sugar of lead, saccharin was the first artificial sweetener and was originally synthesized in 1879. Its sweet taste was discovered by accident. It is 300 to 500 times as sweet as sugar (sucrose) and is often used to improve the taste of toothpastes, dietary foods, and dietary beverages. The bitter aftertaste of saccharin is often minimized by blending it with other sweeteners.

Fear about saccharin increased when a 1960 study showed that high levels of saccharin may cause bladder cancer in laboratory rats. In 1977, Canada banned saccharin due to the animal research. Subsequently, it was discovered that saccharin causes cancer in male rats by a mechanism not found in humans. In 2010, the EPA stated that saccharin is no longer considered a potential hazard to human health.

Aspartame was discovered in 1965 by James M. Schlatter at the G.D. Searle company (later purchased by Monsanto). He was working on an anti-ulcer drug and accidentally spilled some aspartame on his hand. When he licked his finger, he noticed that it had a sweet taste. It is an odorless, white crystalline powder that is derived from the two amino acids aspartic acid and phenylalanine. It is about 200 times as sweet as sugar and can be used as a tabletop sweetener or in frozen desserts, gelatins, beverages, and chewing gum. When cooked or stored at high temperatures, aspartame breaks down into its constituent amino acids. This makes aspartame undesirable as a baking sweetener. It is more stable in somewhat acidic conditions, such as in soft drinks. Though it does not have a bitter aftertaste like saccharin, it may not taste exactly like sugar. When eaten, aspartame is metabolized into its original amino acids. It has the same food energy as proteins, but because it is so intensely sweet, relatively little of it is needed to sweeten a food product, and is thus useful for reducing the number of calories in a product.

The safety of aspartame has been studied extensively since its discovery with research that includes animal studies, clinical and epidemiological research, and post-marketing surveillance, with aspartame being one of the most rigorously tested food ingredients to date. Aspartame has been subject to multiple claims against its safety, including supposed links to cancer as well as complaints of neurological or psychiatric side effects.

The FDA banned the sale of the sweetener, cyclamate, in 1970 after lab tests in rats involving a 10:1 mixture of cyclamate and saccharin indicated that large amounts of cyclamates causes bladder cancer, a disease to which rats are particularly susceptible. Cyclamates are still used as sweeteners in many parts of the world.

Sucralose is a chlorinated sugar that is about 600 times as sweet as sugar. It is produced from sucrose when three chlorine atoms replace three hydroxyl groups. Unlike other artificial sweeteners, it is stable when heated and can therefore be used in baked and fried goods. About 15% of sucralose is absorbed by the body and most of it passes out of the body unchanged. The FDA approved sucralose in 1998.

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