The Sweet Taste
The desire for sweet-tasting substances is an inborn trait, leading babies to seek out and accept breast milk for nutrition. For young children, the love of sweets may be associated with the need for extra calories during growth spurts. While the desire for sugar wanes as we get older, many adults still crave sweet foods and drinks.
One of the most common forms of sugar in the American diet is sucrose, or table sugar. Sucrose is actually a combination of two simple sugars, fructose and glucose. White sugar crystals range in size from regular (the form found in the sugar bowl) to superfine and powdered (confectioner’s sugar). Brown sugar is made by adding molasses to white sugar.
Low calorie and no-calorie sweeteners (sometimes referred to as artificial sugars) are often used in place of sugar because they give a “sweet” flavoring to food and drinks while adding few, if any, extra calories. For people with diabetes, low calorie sweeteners can improve taste without causing a significant rise in blood sugar levels.
Researchers estimate more than 160 million Americans use some type of sugar-free sweetener. Here’s a rundown on some sugar substitutes:
- Agave. Agave is derived from the same
Mexican plant used for making Tequila. Depending upon the processing, it
can contain up to 90 percent fructose. Agave contains about the same
amount of calories as sugar, but is three times sweeter. Thus, less is
needed to produce the same sweet taste.
- Stevia. Stevia comes from the leaves
of a South American plant, Stevia rebaudiana. It was approved as a food
additive in 2008. It has no calories and is 300 times sweeter than
- Neotame. Neotame is produced by
combining two amino acids, aspartic acid and phenylalanine. It has the
highest “sweetness” value of all the sweeteners and is 7,000 to 13,000
times sweeter than sucrose.
- Xylitol. Xylitol is a sweetener made
from birch trees, berries, almond hulls and corn pods. It has the same
level of sweetness as sugar, but fewer calories (about 9.6 per
teaspoon). Eating high amounts of xylitol can cause gas, bloating and
- Acesulfame K. Many artificial
sweeteners break down or change flavor when exposed to heat. Acesulfame K
is heat stable, so it can be used in cooking and baking. It’s roughly
200 times sweeter than sucrose.
- Sucralose. Sucralose is derived from
sugar. It’s produced by substituting chlorine atoms for hydrogen atoms
in a sugar molecule. Though it tastes like sugar, it’s not broken down
by the body, so it has no calories. Sucralose is up to 600 times sweeter
- Aspartame. Aspartame was approved in
1981 and is now widely used in the U.S. It is about 200 times sweeter
- Saccharin. Saccharin has been used as an artificial sweetener for more than 100 years. It’s used in many foods and beverages and even in some cosmetic products. Saccharin is up to 700 times sweeter than sucrose.
Shaking out Sweeteners
Artificial sugars and sugar substitutes sold in the U.S. are approved and regulated by the Food and Drug Administration to ensure product safety. Many people use one or more of the products to help them control weight or blood sugar levels. However, more recent research suggests these products may increase cravings for sweet foods, promote excess eating, disrupt the body’s ability to accurately access energy intake and reduce calorie burning efficiency. Thus, though often used to control weight, they may promote weight gain.
Josephine Connolly-Schoonen, R.D., Ph.D., Nutrition Expert with Stony Brook University Medical Center in Stony Brook, NY, says the best way to reduce consumption of all sweeteners is to go back to using natural sugar, then slowly cut back on the daily amounts. It’s not easy to make the transition. Artificial sweeteners have an intensely sweet taste and the body becomes accustomed to that level of sweetness. So initially, a person may need to use more sugar than usual to make the food or drink palatable until the taste buds have been retrained. Schoonen cautions that many packaged products contain artificial sweeteners so shoppers need to read labels. Since only small amounts of artificial sugar are needed, the sweetener is more likely to be listed at the end of the ingredients list rather than the beginning.
Patients with diabetes must be careful about how much sugar they use and should speak with a nutrition expert before making any dietary changes.
Calorie Control Council, http://www.caloriecontrol.org
International Food Information Council, http://www.foodinsight.org
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