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The skinny on sweeteners

Whether for calorie-counting or health reasons, the sugar substitute market is booming. But which sweetener is the right one for you?  "Today" food editor Phil Lempert shares a look at the latest products on supermarket shelves.
/ Source: TODAY

With all the confusing and conflicting “diet” data out there, one fact is clear — and that is, by consuming less calories you can help to control your weight. And for many of us that means reading the nutritional facts label to see how many calories, and how many sugars, are in the foods that we eat.

Americans have a sweet tooth and as the Baby Boomers age, their sense of smell, and therefore taste buds, diminish. This generation is pushing the trend for the food industry to blend high-intensity sweeteners, where the combination, or synergy, of the sweeteners is sweeter than the individual components. The reason is simple, make foods taste even sweeter, but without the calories.

It wasn’t until 1993 that our food labels were required to list sugars, and from that day on it seems that many of the facts about sugar consumption became a bit confusing.And it’s that “s” at the end of sugars that makes all the difference.According to the Food and Drug Administration, “sugars” includes sugar, corn sweeteners (high fructose corn syrup, glucose syrup and dextrose), honey, maple syrup and other edible syrups, but does not include the consumption of non-caloric (e.g., artificial) sweeteners.According to the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) Economic Research Service, sugar consumption of the average American was 146 pounds in 2002. But we need to look a bit deeper at the breakdown to get the real picture -- that in fact we are actually consuming the net of about 45 pounds of refined sugar (about two ounces per day), 58 pounds of corn sweeteners (about 2.5 ounces a day) and a little over a pound of honey/maple syrup per year.It should come as no surprise that many of us are looking to other “sweeteners” to reduce the amount of sugars we consume and according to ACNielsen, the sugar substitute market now tops $310 million for the 52 weeks ending 11/1/03 in the combined grocery/drug/mass channels.So just how much “artificial sweeteners” do we each consume? According to Landor Mills Commodities, the equivalent amount of sweeteners (food and beverage use) translates into 16.2 lbs per person per year. And that’s on top of the 146 pounds of all sugars!As we roll down the supermarket aisles these days, there is sugar and four FDA approved artificial sweeteners to choose from, along with one “dietary supplement” and one recently FDA approved sugar sweetener that hasn’t yet hit the market. It is also important to note, that due to the FDA regulations, the amount of calories can be rounded down to the nearest 5-calorie value. Artificial sweeteners, due to their intensity, contain bulking agents (such as dextroseand maltodextrin) that add on average four calories per teaspoon, although the sweetener itself may not contain any calories, nor will the package list the calories.What are the differences?
SugarThe standard for comparison is sugar and it’s level of sweetness. Otherwise known as sucrose, sugar is a carbohydrate that occurs naturally in every fruit and vegetable, but occurs in greatest quantities in sugar cane and sugar beets. The chemical composition of both of these plants is identical, and separating the natural sugar from the plant material, as we know it, produces sugar. There is no whitening or bleaching in the production. Refined white sugar is pure (99.9%) sucrose, and does not contain any additives or preservatives, and in fact the term “refined” is defined as “making pure,” as the refining removes the yellow or brown pigments. A teaspoonful of sugar actually contains 16 calories per teaspoon, but due to the FDA regulation may be rounded down to 15 calories. Sugar metabolizes in our bodies quickly and is broken down in our digestive system into simple sugars and then absorbed to start energy cycles that we need for brain and muscle functions. The sugar that is not used is stored, and converts for later use for energy as glucose or can be converted into other molecules including fat.SaccharinSaccharin is commonly known as Sweet n Low, first discovered in 1879 and has been used commercially for about a century (the first artificial sweetener). Saccharin starts with methyl anthranilate, a synthesized organic molecule derived from petroleum. Methyl anthranilate is also found in many fruits, especially grapes. It is 300 times as sweet as sucrose, produces no glycemic response, synergizes the sweetening power of nutritive and non-nutritive sweeteners, and its sweetness is not reduced by heating. In 1977, the FDA proposed a ban on saccharin because of several incidences of cancer found in lab rats, but the amount given to the lab rats was equivalent to hundreds of cans of soda daily from birth. Congress imposed a moratorium on the proposal for the ban, which was extended repeatedly until 1991 when the FDA withdrew its proposal. The warning label on saccharin was dropped in December 2000.Aceulfame-KAceulfame-K — commonly known as Sunette or Sweet One — was approved by the FDA as table-top sweetener and as an additive in a variety of desserts, confections, and alcoholic beverages, it is 200 times sweeter than sucrose, is non-carcinogenic and produces no glycemic response. Its sweetening power is not reduced by heating and can synergize the sweetening power of other nutritive and non-nutritive sweeteners. It does not provide any energy, not metabolized in the body and is excreted unchanged.Sucralose
Sucralose — known by brand name of Splenda — is 600 times sweeter than sucrose and is not perceived by the body as a carbohydrate. Starts out as a cane sugar molecule then substitutes three hydrogen-oxygen groups with three tightly bound chlorine atoms, which make it inert (not broken down). It has no calories and the body does not recognize it as a carbohydrate. It produces no glycemic response. Approximately 15 percent of sucralose is passively absorbed in the body, and the majority is excreted unchanged. The small amount that is passively absorbed is not metabolized and is eliminated within 24 hours. FDA concluded that it does not pose a carcinogenic, reproductive or neurologic risk to humans. Heating or baking does not reduce its sweetening power.Aspartame
Aspartame — known as Nutrasweet and Equal — provides the same energy as any protein (four calories per gram) because it is a combination of phenylalanine and aspartic acid, which are two amino acids, which is then combined with methanol. It is 180-200 times sweeter than sucrose, so the small amount needed to sweeten products does not actually contribute a significant number of calories. The product is required to carry a warning label about the contents of phenylalanine and the possibility of Phenylketonuria (a genetic disease where the body cannot produce the enzyme necessary to use phenylalanine) The FDA has set that acceptable daily intake at 50 mg per kilogram of body weight (about 17 cans of aspartame-sweetened soft drinks).SteviaStevia rebaudiana (stevia) is a plant of the daisy family and a South American shrub. The plant material between the veins of the leaf contains the sweet compounds, which is 250-300 times as sweet as sugar; but stevia, or stevioside, has not been approved by the FDA as GRAS (generally regarded as safe). The Dietary Supplement Act of 1994 allows stevia to be sold in the U.S. as a dietary supplement. It has been used in South America for centuries and Japan for over 30 years as a sweetener. Research in 1985 conducted at the College of Pharmacy at the University of Illinois found that when stevioside was exposed to a testing bacterium, the DNA of the bacteria was altered; and the FDA position is that stevia’s safety has not been adequately demonstrated.Neotame
Neotame is the newest FDA approved (July 2002) artificial sweetener that is the most intense sweetener to date, with a sweetness of between 7 and 13,000 times that of sucrose. It is a derivative of dipeptide, and made of amino acids, aspartic acid and phenylalanine. It is quickly metabolized and fully eliminated through normal biological processes. There are no products currently on the market that use Neotame. It is a product of the same company that producesAspartame, and this product does not require any warning label.So which one is the right sweetener for you?
To be honest, in my opinion, when it comes to a table top sweetener used to add sweetness to beverages or on top of cereal or fruit, the differences are more about personal taste preferences than anything else. My personal preference, since I use only a teaspoon or so, is to use sugar. For baking and in recipes, Splenda seems to perform the best of the sugar replacers.Read those labels carefully to understand which sweeteners or sugars are used as ingredients in foods. Be sure to read both the Nutrition Facts label, which lists the amount of total carbohydrates and sugars in grams; as well as the ingredient listing to see exactly which sugars or artificial sweeteners are contained in the product.Which artificial sweetener as an ingredient is the best? or worst?
It is getting to be a more difficult decision as more food products are using blends of two or more of these sweeteners to maximize sweetness and reduce costs. Based on what sweeteners are available now, my choice is Splenda, or sucralose, when used by itself.My recommendations is to consume as many fresh foods and minimally processed foods as possible with little or no added sugars, and if there is an added sugar, look for those foods that list sugar (rather than another type of sweetener) as the ingredient.

Phil Lempert, the Supermarket Guru®, analyzes the food marketing industry to keep consumers up-to-date about cutting-edge marketing trends. He is a regular “Today” show contributor, columnist for the Los Angeles Times, and host of Shopping Smart of the WOR Radio Network. For more food and health information, you can check out Phil’s Web site at: You can also contact Phil by e-mail at: