The Scoop on Sugar Substitutes

The challenge of following any healthy eating plan is not feeling that you’re being deprived of your favorite foods — including sweets. While the South Beach Diet suggests you eliminate sugar and sugary products on Phase 1 (because they cause swings in blood sugar, which may lead to cravings) and continue to avoid them except for the occasional treat on Phase 2, the good news is that there are sugar substitutes to enjoy on all Phases, if you like. Unlike regular sugar, sugar substitutes are calorie-free, and consuming them does not affect blood-sugar levels. So, if you're in the mood for something sweet, you can happily have a treat (like a rich-tasting, no-sugar-added fudge pop) made with a sugar substitute.

Here's a look at some common sweeteners.

  • Sucralose: At 600 times sweeter than table sugar, sucralose (one brand is Splenda) is the sweetest of all artificial sweeteners. It’s used to produce low- or no-calorie frozen and gelatin desserts, beverages, and gum. In addition to being heat stable, sucralose has the advantage of measuring like sugar, so it's a good substitute for sugar in baked goods. There are more than 100 studies on sucralose that verify it's safe for consumers.

     

  • Aspartame: Aspartame (sold under brand names of Equal and NutraSweet) is 200 times sweeter than sugar. Manufacturers use aspartame in chewing gum, beverages, and desserts, and you may want to use it at home to sweeten whole-grain cereals or iced tea. Since aspartame loses some of its sweetness during extreme heat exposure, it's best to cook or bake with it using recipes that have been specifically designed by aspartame manufacturers. Aspartame is the most extensively researched sugar substitute on the market, so consumers can be confident that it's safe. However, certain people, including those with the rare metabolic disease phenylketonuria (PKU), pregnant women, and those with advanced liver disease, are urged to avoid it.

     

  • Saccharin: Frequently found in baked goods and diet soda, saccharin is the sugar substitute with the longest history. Several hundred times sweeter than sugar, saccharin is heat stable, making it an acceptable choice for cooking and baking. It's also commonly consumed as a sweetener for coffee and tea. While there has been concern over a possible link between saccharin and stomach cancer, this suspicion has not been confirmed in scientific studies.

     

  • Acesulfame K: Acesulfame K, also known as acesulfame potassium, was approved by the FDA in 1988. It's 200 times sweeter than sugar, and manufacturers often use it in combination with aspartame in candies, baked goods, beverages, and frozen desserts. At home, you can use acesulfame K in both hot and cold beverages. More than 90 studies involving the use of acesulfame K document its safety.

     

  • Sugar alcohols: Sugar alcohols provide sweetness and texture similar to sugar, but they contain fewer calories and don't impact blood-sugar levels. You can identify the many different sugar alcohols available by looking in the ingredient list for words ending in "ol," such as mannitol and sorbitol. The main concern with sugar alcohols is the laxative effect they can produce. Some people are more sensitive to this effect than others, so take note of your reaction to foods that contain sugar alcohols. The limit on Sweet Treats (75 to 100 calories daily) should also help reduce any unpleasant side effects.

     

  • Stevia: Stevia (one brand is Truvia) is a natural sweetener that comes from the Stevia rebaudiana plant. Its most popular form is a highly refined white powder, since the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has not yet approved whole-leaf stevia or its extracts as food additives; the FDA has identified the highly refined forms of stevia, however, as “generally recognized as safe,” which means they are just as acceptable for use as other sugar substitutes. Stevia is 300 times sweeter than table sugar, yet it’s virtually calorie-free and won’t cause spikes in blood sugar. Stevia can be used as a replacement for sugar in most recipes and is often used in baking.

     

  • Monk fruit: Also known as lo han guo, monk fruit (Siraitia grosvenorii) is a natural sweetener that comes from a round, green melon that grows on vines on remote mountaintops in central Asia. In its extract form, monk fruit is 150 to 200 times sweeter than sugar with zero calories per serving. Sold as a powder in packets and tasting very much like sugar itself, it can replace sugar in baked and nonbaked desserts, beverages, sauces, cereals, and so on, or be combined with stevia if you like to experiment. To date, monkfruit has received “generally recognized as safe” status from the FDA. Read package labels for sugar equivalents and how to use.

     

  • Agave nectar: Agave nectar is a natural sweetener made from a plant indigenous to Mexico called the blue agave. The consistency of agave nectar is similar to honey, and it can be used to replace honey and sugar in many recipes or instead of a sugar substitute. Agave nectar is made from the natural sugars fructose and glucose and is 1.4 times sweeter than regular sugar. While it does have 60 calories per tablespoon, agave nectar has a low glycemic index, making it an ideal choice for people with diabetes. Unlike honey, agave nectar is also completely vegan. Because it is calorie-dense, we limit agave to one tablespoon when it is being used directly as a sweetener in beverages, on oatmeal, and so on.

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