Thursday, August 26, 2010

The truth about artificial sweeteners!

Sweet treats are all around us in the form of candy, soda, desserts and lot more… the only thing that stops us from digging into them is the "sugar", and therefore the amount of calories.

There are so many low-cal options available from saccharin and sucralose to jaggery and honey. But which ones are the safest? Take a closer look at the ingredients in your low-cal sweetener before you buy it. Here's a low down on sugar substitutes:
"It is meant to be the best alternate sweetener as it does not raise blood sugar levels, does not contain calories and is up to 200 to 700 times sweeter than sugar," says Mumbai-based dietician Sushila Sharangdhar. Used in making jams, chewing gums, bakery products and confectioneries, it is said to cause allergic reaction in a few. "Saccharin was banned because it was found to be carcinogenic," says nutritionist Naini Setalvad.
"The calories in Aspartame are negligible. But, it could cause vomiting, nausea, abdominal pain and fatigue in some," says Sushila. Also, it is up to 150 times sweeter than sugar. "When metabolised, the bi-product of aspartame is methanol, that could damage your brain in the long run," says Setalvad. It is usually used in products that need longer shelf life like soft drinks and syrups.

Those with phenylketonuria (an inherited disorder that increases the levels of a substance called phenylalanine in the blood which is found in protein foods and artificial sweeteners. If untreated, this condition can build up to harmful levels in the body, causing intellectual disability and other serious health problems) should definitely avoid aspartame.

Sucalose is a non-nutritive sweetener that does not raise blood sugar levels and can therefore be consumed by diabetics. "It is sold under the name of Splenda and is made of sugar. But, the calories are again negligible. However, it is treated by chemicals like chlorine, methanol and acetic acid and therefore is not safe," says Sushila. It could be eventually harmful to your health. "It was banned by the FDA (Food and drug administration) as it caused neuro-toxic side effects," says Setalvad.
"Neotame is a newer version of aspartame. Except it does not put those with the phenylketonuria condition under risk," says Sushila. But, since it is nearly 13,000 times sweeter than sugar, it has to be used sparingly. Any long term health hazards related to neotame is not known. Low in calories, it does not raise blood sugar levels either. It is rapidly metabolised and is eliminated from the body.

"Since it is derived from the extract of a herb, it is one of the low-cal alternates to sugar. But, since it is 100 times sweeter than sugar, its use should be limited. It does not raise blood sugar levels," explains Sushila. "Since it is completely natural too, it can be consumed by diabetics," says Setalvad. There are no known side-effects to stevia, except for the feeling of fullness and nausea.

Agave syrup
Agave syrup or agave nectar is also a plant-based sweetener. " It is upto 50% sweeter than sugar, contains 90% fructose and does not raise blood sugar levels," says Sushila. It is absorbed slowly into the body than sugar, releasing constant energy. However, the process of converting the starch in agave to the concentrated sweetener is enzymatic (produced by enzymes which are proteins that catalyze and create bi-products). Agave therefore is not considered a natural and safe substitute for sugar.

Other substitutes
Jaggery is a concentrated form of sugarcane juice. It is a healthier form of sweetener as it contains iron and fibre. However, it is advisable for diabetics to limit the intake of jaggery. The main component in jaggery is sucrose and therefore it is a good source of energy.

Honey, another natural sweetener is about three times sweeter than sugar. "It is mainly made up of fructose and glucose. Which means, if diabetics cut down the intake of sugar in other forms like processed foods, it can easily be substituted by jaggery and honey," says Sushila. Honey is also healthier as it contains vitamins B2, B6 and trace elements like copper, iron and magnesium.


  1. You got this part about agave wrong: "the process of converting the starch in agave to the concentrated sweetener is enzymatic".

    1. There is NO starch in the agave plant.

    2. MOST agave produced does not use the enzymatic process (only Madhava and Aunt Patties uses that type of agave and process).

    Agave nectar is minimally processed without the use of chemicals. It is a natural sweetener, quite similar in process to maple sugar. Maybe you need to check out some other sources of information about how agave is grown organically and produced organically - it is a wonderful option for many of us!