Nutritive and Nonnutritive Artificial Sweeteners in Your Diet

Two kinds of sweeteners are widely used to replace sugar in your diet. Some are classified as nutritive, because they provide calories and nutrients; others are nonnutritive, because they don’t.

When artificial sweeteners were introduced, everyone thought that people would eat less sugar. But evidence now suggests that people simply add the sweeteners to their diets. In reality, consumers are eating three times the amount of sweeteners that they were ten years ago.

Most nutritive sweeteners used as replacements for sugar have just as many calories as sugar. Refined sugars, high-fructose corn syrup, crystalline fructose, glucose, dextrose, corn sweetener, honey, lactose, maltose, invert sugar, and concentrated fruit juice are examples of nutritive sweeteners that are just as caloric as plain old sugar.

Saccharin, aspartame, acesulfame potassium (or acesulfame-K), sucralose, and cyclamates are the most commonly used nonnutritive sweeteners in North America. They help add sweetness to foods for people who need to limit their intake of sugar, such as those with diabetes, and they also aid in the prevention of dental cavities. Although these no-calorie sweeteners may seem like a dream come true, most come with some warnings.

  • Acesulfame-K (Sunette) is 200 times sweeter than sugar. It is used as a tabletop sweetener, and in soft drinks, chewing gum, desserts, candies, sauces, and yogurt. It can be used in cooked and baked goods. However, it may not work well in some recipes due to its finer texture.

  • Aspartame (Nutrasweet, Equal) is 160 to 220 times sweeter than sugar, and is added to more than 6,000 foods, personal care products, and pharmaceuticals. It is considered calorie free.

    Aspartame is a combination of two amino acids: phenylalanine and aspartic acid. People who have phenylketonuria (PKU), which is only about 1 in 15,000 people, have adverse neurological reactions when they consume phenylalanine, because they can’t metabolize it. Therefore, foods that contain aspartame are required to carry a label warning consumers that the product contains phenylalanine. In the United States, all infants are screened for PKU at birth.

    Aspartame isn’t heat stable and loses its sweetness in liquids over time. Look for it in puddings, gelatins, frozen desserts, hot cocoa mixes, soft drinks, chewing gum, and tabletop sweeteners.

  • Cyclamate is 30 times sweeter than sucrose and is heat stable. Since 1970, however, it’s been banned in the United States based on a study suggesting that cyclamate may be related to the development of bladder tumors in rats. Although more than 75 subsequent studies have failed to show that cyclamate is carcinogenic, the sweetener has yet to be reapproved in the United States.

  • Saccharin (Sweet’ N Low): is 300 times sweeter than sugar, and has been back on the market in the United States since 1991, after having been banned in 1977, because it was found to cause cancer in rats. Newer studies cleared saccharin of links to cancer. Saccharin is calorie free, because the body can’t break it down.

    Saccharin is heat stable and, unlike aspartame, can be used in cooked and baked goods. However, it may not work well in some recipes as a substitute.

  • Sucralose (Splenda) is 600 times sweeter than sugar and doesn’t contain calories. It’s the only low-calorie sweetener that’s made from sugar. Sucralose is heat stable in cooking and baking and can be used virtually anywhere sugar can without losing its sugar-like sweetness. Currently, sucralose is approved in more than 25 countries around the world for use in food and beverages. It’s mainly a tabletop sweetener, and you can find it in desserts and candy.

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