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How sweet it is: The scoop on sugar substitutes

Whether you use them to bake or add a few to your coffee, you may want to consider putting down those sweet little packets. TODAY nutrition and heath editor  Joy Bauer reveals how sugar substitutes could be sabotaging your diet.
/ Source: TODAY contributor

Once upon a time, your choice for a sugar substitute was pretty much limited to one product — saccharin, commonly sold as Sweet ’N Low. Twenty-four years after “the pink one” made its debut in 1957, aspartame (Equal or NutraSweet) was introduced, and 18 years after that, sucralose (Splenda) gained FDA approval. Various other no-cal or low-cal sugar substitutes have also been on the market, but none has ever come close to the popularity of the big three. Recently, however, a number of natural sweeteners have been giving those pink, blue and yellow packets a run for their money. With New Age-y names like PureVia, Truvia, ZSweet, Zerose and Xagave, it’s easy to be skeptical, but I think a few of these products may be here to stay.

Before we get to the new guys on the block, let’s take a look at old pink, blue and yellow. Despite the fact that there are dozens of Web sites devoted to bashing saccharin, aspartame and sucralose, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has given all three its stamp of approval. That said, the Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI) does not agree with the FDA vis-a-vis saccharin and aspartame. This nutrition and health advocacy group cites various studies that indicate both sweeteners increase the risk of cancer, and advises people to choose sucralose, which they deem to be safe. Personally, I don’t think it matters which product you choose if you don’t consume a lot of it (please, no more than two artificially sweetened items a day!). And here’s the scoop on a few of the newer, natural sugar substitutes.

Let’s start with PureVia and Truvia, both of which are made from an extract of the stevia plant. Stevia has been consumed for centuries in South America, but until recently it could only be marketed as a dietary supplement in the U.S. This meant that it was largely relegated to health food stores and vitamin shops, where it was sold purely as a stand-alone sugar substitute. Now that the FDA has approved its use in food, it’s only a matter of time before stevia shows up in cookies, cake and candy (it’s already in some beverages).

Stevia extracts are up to 300 times sweeter than table sugar, and they lack some of sugar’s physical characteristics, so keep this in mind before you dump a boatload into your coffee or tea. Both Truvia and PureVia “cut” their products’ stevia content with erythritol (see below), so it’s a lot less sweet than pure stevia. The Truvia and PureVia Web sites feature recipes and conversion charts, and a quick Google search resulted in recipes that used other brands of more concentrated stevia.

Erythritol-based products like ZSweet and Zerose have also been receiving a lot of buzz lately. Erythritol is a sugar alcohol that occurs naturally in many commonly eaten foods, but the type of erythritol found in ZSweet and Zerose is manufactured from sugar (don’t worry, it’s still calorie-free). Unlike other sugar alcohols commonly used in dietetic foods — such as sorbitol, maltitol and xylitol — erythritol does not lead to gassiness or bloating, and it doesn't have a laxative effect. Erythritol is 60 to 70 percent as sweet as table sugar, so you may need to use more of it in your beverages and baked goods; the ZSweet and Zerose Web sites include conversion charts and some tasty-looking recipes to get you started.

Agave products, like Xagave, derive from a plant native to Mexico and are sold in syrup form, usually referred to as “nectar.” Unlike stevia and erythritol, agave nectar is not calorie-free; in fact, Xagave contains a few more calories than sugar (56 calories per tablespoon vs. 50 calories per tablespoon). However, agave is sweeter than sugar, so you can use less, and thus save calories. The Xagave Web site claims that 1/2 to 2/3 cup of their product has the sweetening power of one cup of sugar, which would save you 200 to 350 calories per cup. When cooking or baking with agave nectar, you may have to reduce the amount of liquid in recipes, and the Xagave Web site recommends that you use a lower oven temperature for baked goods.

The reason agave is often lumped into the same category as noncaloric sweeteners such as stevia and erythritol is because of something called the glycemic index, which is a measure of how rapidly a carbohydrate-containing food increases your blood sugar. Foods that boost your blood sugar higher and faster (i.e., high glycemic foods) tend to leave you hungrier sooner than do low glycemic foods. Agave has a low glycemic index, so it is less likely than other caloric sweeteners to lead to erratic blood sugar levels. This sounds great, but the reason agave has such a low glycemic index has led many people to be wary of agave’s health claims. You see, agave is extremely high in fructose — a simple sugar that ranks low on the glycemic index, but can trigger symptoms of irritable bowel syndrome such as gas, bloating and abdominal pain. Fructose has also been shown to increase the risk of heart disease by increasing triglycerides and — due to its negative effect on several appetite-regulating hormones — weight gain and obesity. If you have a weight problem, irritable bowel syndrome or other digestive issues, or if you’re at risk for heart disease, you may be better off with stevia, erythritol or those pink, blue or yellow packets (or small amounts of plain old sugar at only 16 calories per packet!).

One final thing to remember about sweeteners of any kind is that they’re often added to items that are not all that healthy. When choosing a food that contains any of the sugar substitutes just discussed, make sure to evaluate the product’s overall nutritional stats — not just the type of sweetener it contains.

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