Are your “zero-calorie sweeteners” as sweet as they sound? Or is this too good to be true?
Artificial sweeteners, although zero-to-few calories and often tasty, are not as good as they seem and should not be considered a better alternative to sugar.
Let’s say you stroll into your local coffee shop or diner. You sit down and order a coffee, and notice they have a wide assortment of “sugar packets.” The most popular “sugars” are granulated sugar, Splenda, Equal and Sweet N’ Low. Which do you choose?
Nowadays, “sugar” is not as straightforward a definition as it used to be. The original definition of sugar refers to the granulated white table sugar everyone should have in their pantry. But, now the term “sugar” represents even artificial sweeteners that are chemically very different from normal table sugar, although comparable in taste.
Even though these artificial sweeteners are considered alternatives for your everyday sugar, I think that normal table sugar is actually a better option, and artificial sweeteners should be used sparingly in comparison to the use of sugar.
First, table sugar is natural. Normal table sugar is sucrose–a molecule made from two simple sugars fructose and glucose. This may sound like a man-made invention, but “sucrose is simply the chemical name for sugar, the simple carbohydrate we know and love that is produced naturally in all plants, including fruits, vegetables and even nuts,” according to The Sugar Association.
Sucrose is made in plants through photosynthesis, a naturally occurring process that uses sunlight and carbon dioxide to produce water and energy (sucrose). We get most of that photosynthesized sugar from sugar cane and sugar beets, because they produce the highest amount of sucrose.
“It is completely pure and contains no preservatives or additives of any kind. That means the sugar we keep in our pantry… is exactly the same as sugar that’s naturally in peaches, almonds, sweet peas and more,” according to The Sugar Association.
What are artificial sweeteners made of? The most common ingredients are dextrose, maltodextrin, sucralose, saccharin, cream of tartar, calcium silicate, aspartame, phenylalanine and acesulfame potassium. Compared to the two ingredients in table sugar (sucrose and fructose), the ingredient list for artificial sweeteners is confusing and overwhelming.
Of this list, dextrose is the most common ingredient, found in many artificial sweetener brands. It is chemically identical to glucose, the sugar found in your blood.
According to an article by Jamie Yacoub on Livestrong.com, “dextrose is crystalline glucose, and a majority of dextrose in foods is derived from cornstarch.”
This specific ingredient is naturally derived, but what concerns me are the processes to create the other ingredients.
According to Go Clean Label, maltodextrin is a long chain of glucose molecules that “is commercially made starting with a simple starch and using the hydrolysis process.”
It has been added to foods to improve thickness, taste and texture. The problem I see with maltodextrin is that it is more processed and unnatural than table sugar. According to Medical News Today, maltodextrin not only has a higher glycemic index, but has also been linked to a reduction in “good” gut microbes necessary for digestion and immunity.
Saccharin is “made in a laboratory by oxidizing the chemicals o-toluene sulfonamide or phthalic anhydride,” according to Healthline. The other ingredients, such as cream of tartar and phenylalanine are not found in table sugar.
So why do people choose these alternatives, even though they have unfamiliar ingredients and undergo significant processing?
Many of these products claim to be zero-to-few calories and some boast “zero-carbs”. This is very attractive to people trying to reduce their sugar and/or carb intake and lose weight, while still getting their sweet fix.
For people trying to lose weight, these sugar substitutes do seem like the lesser evil. However, I will gladly take calories from a sweetener that my body recognizes as natural ingredients, over chemicals that it does not.
The bottom line is that artificial sweeteners are manufactured blends of different substances that are processed to produce the final sweet product. There are many more steps to manipulate these substances until they are safe for human consumption, than there are to get sugar ready from farm to table. In the case of sugar, I think less is better–the less ingredients, the less processing.