How Alternative Sweeteners Impact Your Diabetes

The term alternative sweetener refers to sweeteners that are alternative to sucrose, which is typical table sugar and primarily produced from sugarcane and beets. Sucrose in different forms is the sugar most people know — table sugar, brown sugar, confectioner’s sugar, and so on.

But there are many alternatives to sucrose, some confined primarily to commercial food production uses, that can generally be divided into alternatives with equal calories to sucrose or alternatives that are no-calorie (often called non-nutritive). Other common terms attached to some products are artificial sweetener and sugar substitute.

Alternative sweeteners are often shrouded in controversy, and this isn’t the place to sort those issues out. Alternative sweeteners that are in common use are presumed safe and without acute health effects when used in moderation. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration terminology is GRAS, meaning Generally Recognized as Safe, and that agency has banned or refused to approve many sweeteners.

No-calorie or zero-calorie sweeteners are manufactured compounds or natural extracts that taste many times sweeter than sucrose, so can be added to foods or drinks in extremely small amounts for equal sweetness. The big three in the United States are saccharin (in the pink packets), aspartame (in the blue packets), and more recently sucralose (in the yellow packets).

These sweeteners are everywhere, from diet soft drinks to no-sugar-added ice cream, to the table at restaurants and coffee shops, and into your home-baked desserts. No-calorie sweeteners allow people with diabetes to enjoy sweetened food without calories and without carbohydrates from sugar (calories and carbohydrates can come from other sources, like flour in baked goods).

Two newer products representing sweetener extracted from natural plants are stevia and mogroside (produced primarily from monk fruit). These substances have calories but are 200 times sweeter than sucrose, so the caloric amount is negligible.

Sugar alcohols — mannitol, sorbitol, xylitol, and others — have about half the calories of sugars but are listed under total carbohydrate on nutrition labels. Sugar alcohols enable you to reduce the total carbohydrate content of foods when carb counting by subtracting one half of the sugar alcohol grams.

Reducing the calories and carbohydrates of sweetened foods makes these easier to work into your meal plan. Some people experience bloating or diarrhea in response to sugar alcohols.

Some alternative sweeteners provide no caloric or carbohydrate advantage to your eating plan. High-fructose corn syrup, honey, molasses, fruit juices, and agave nectar are popular alternatives. High-fructose corn syrup is a common commercial sweetener used in soft drinks and many other food products as a replacement for sucrose.

Honey, syrups, and nectars are promoted as being healthier and less processed than sucrose. For all intents and purposes, these sweeteners all have calories and carbohydrates that should be accounted for equally, and should represent a small part of your healthy diet.

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