If you’re looking to cut down on the calories in your diet or simply take control of the amount of sugar you consume, sugar alternatives can help. These natural and artificial sweeteners are found in a wide range of foods and drinks and can be added yourself to baking or in hot drinks.
Here, we’ll take a closer look at sugar alternatives, why people use them, how they do so and ask if sugar alternatives carry any health risks.
Also known as sugar substitutes, these food additives provide the same sweet taste of white sugar with far fewer calories. In fact, sugar alternatives often provide so little energy that metabolising them negates any calories you eat, making them effectively “zero” or “low” calorie.
Almost all sugar alternatives are either plant or chemical-based.
Artificial sweeteners are sugar alternatives made from chemicals deemed fit for consumption. They are typically much sweeter than regular sugar meaning you really don’t need a lot to sweeten up an iced tea or when used in baking, for example.
Nutritive sweeteners are sugar alternatives that contain carbohydrates and contain a non-negligible amount of calories.
Sugar alternatives are used for a variety of reasons, namely:
While there is a multitude of different sugar alternative options out there, these are the most common:
Whether it’s sold by itself or included as an ingredient in other products, both artificial and nutritive sugar alternatives can be found in your average supermarket. Many processed foods and drinks will contain sugar alternatives, especially in countries like the UK where a sugar tax (https://news.sky.com/story/sugar-tax-consumption-of-sugar-from-soft-drinks-falls-by-10-12242372#:~:text=Manufacturers%20of%20soft%20drinks%20containing,into%20force%20in%20April%202018.) has been implemented to help curb obesity.
Sugar alternatives are often found in products such as:
Nutritive sweeteners are typically sold on their own in either a syrup or crystalized powder form. Agave nectar, for example, made from the Mexican Blue Agave plant, typically comes in a squeezy bottle and can be used in baking, cocktails, or hot drinks. Date and coconut sugar, however, will come in a powder form and will somewhat resemble white sugar, albeit a more natural colour.
Artificial sweeteners are sold in powder or tablet form. The powdered forms can be used similar to sugar, and packaging will indicate a relative measure, typically half or less as much is needed. Tablet forms are great for hot drinks and bringing with you on the go, as they are small and can be dispensed quickly.
Sugar alternatives are attractive to a few different groups in particular:
Whether it’s the nutritive or the artificial kind, sugar alternatives have a much lower glycemic index (GI) than white sugar. Diabetics aim to eat foods with a low GI to avoid spikes in their blood sugar levels which can lead to further health complications. Sugar alternatives provide a way to avoid over-spiking blood sugar levels.
Technically known as sucrose, white sugar has a GI of around 65. Coconut sugar, for example, has a GI of only 35 and agave syrup a yet lower 15. Artificial sugar alternatives are even lower, with most registering a 0 on the GI scale.
People struggling with their weight also turn to sweeteners and sugar alternatives. Their lower calorie count means people can still enjoy the tastes and textures they are accustomed to without the accompanying food energy.
For some people, sugar in certain foods can trigger acid reflux. These foods include:
While avoiding these types of foods is one option, some choose to go for sugar-free or low-calorie versions where sugar has been replaced with an alternative. They may also choose to use a sugar alternative with their own home cooking to reduce acid reflux symptoms.
In some countries, the refinement process of white sugar involves the use of animal products. For vegans and those morally opposed to the use of animals for food, sugar is a bit of a grey area. Nevertheless, a lot of vegans will elect to eat less sugar and opt for non-sugar based alternatives when possible to avoid a moral conflict.
The types of sugar alternatives you will find in commercial products and purchasable from the supermarket are safe for consumption in reasonable quantities.
People are especially concerned over artificial sweeteners with an understandable reluctance to consume chemical substances they are not even sure how to pronounce. The issue is also compounded by outdated studies that linked sweeteners like saccharin to cancer after studies involving rats.
Both nutritive and artificial sweeteners are safe, however. This has been confirmed by a joint study undertaken by the United Nations’ Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) and the World Health Organization (WHO). Together, they established safe daily intakes of commercially available artificial sweeteners and deemed regular sugar alternatives use fine when included as part of a balanced diet.
One issue that does arise from the use of sugar alternatives, however, involves their use for weight regulation. Those looking to lose weight can sometimes feel overconfident in the number of calories “saved” by opting for a zero-calorie soft drink, for example, and overindulge elsewhere.