There are at least 61 different names for sugar listed on food labels.
Sugar is demonized.
Artificial sweeteners are demonized.
Sugar substitutes are demonized.
What the heck are all of the different options out there and why would you choose one over another?
Cane sugar: what is commonly referred to as “table sugar” or sucrose. Cane sugar, white sugar, turbinado sugar, sucanat, confectioners sugar, and invert sugar all come from the sugar cane plant – the difference is in the processing and refinement.
Corn syrup: made from corn. Often used in foods to soften texture, add volume, prevent crystallization of sugar, and enhance flavor. Less expensive to produce (and purchase) than cane sugar.
HFCS: “high-fructose corn syrup”. Conversion some of the glucose from corn syrup into fructose, leading to a higher amount of fructose compared to corn syrup and a sweeter flavor. The average American consumed about 27.1 lb of HFCS in 2012.
**I can, and will, go into the topic of fructose and health in another article.**
These three are the most used sugar substitutes in the United States. Research has shown that consumption weakens the association of sweet taste as a food cue which can lead to over-consumption of high-calorie, sweet-tasting foods when eaten in a diet alongside artificial sweeteners – possibly leading to weight gain. A non-caloric sugar substitute that is often intensely more sweet, and therefore smaller amounts may be needed for desired sweetness.
Aspartame: Equal, NutraSweet. Discovered in 1965. Derived from the amino acids aspartic acid and phenylalanine. People who have phenylketonuria (PKU) need to avoid due to its phenylalanine component. Over 100 studies done to support its safety – a 165-pound adult would have to drink more than 18 cans of diet soda or more than 107 packets of Equal to consume after the recommended level (American Cancer Society). Some claim that aspartame gives them headaches or dizziness or affects their moods. Found in “light” and sugar-free dairy products.
Saccharin: Sweet N’ Low. 300-500x sweeter than sugar. Been around since 1879. Possible link to bladder cancer in rats via a mechanism not found in humans. Can alter the gut microbiome. Somewhat bitter, metallic aftertaste. Derived from either toluene or phthalic anhydride. Not metabolized by the body.
Sucralose: Splenda. Discovered in 1976. Made from sugar by selectively replacing three -OH groups with three -Cl atoms. 600x sweeter than sugar. Heat-stable and so can be used for baking. Not metabolized by the body. Fastest growing artificial sweetener in the market. Sometimes confused as a natural sweetener because it’s “made from sugar” – in one survey over 50% of consumers thought it was a natural sweetener.
Sugar alcohols are made from plant products and have fewer calories (one-half to one-third fewer) than sugar. Made by adding hydrogen atoms to sugars and fermentation. However, they are still carbohydrates and can raise your blood sugar, but convert to glucose more slowly than sugar. They can also act like laxatives or have other digestive side effects. Used in many sugar-free, processed foods.
Erythritol: discovered in 1848. 60-70% as sweet as sugar. Contains 0.2 calories per gram (vs. 4 calories per gram in sugar). Most is absorbed by the body and excreted in the urine. Less likely to cause GI distress and so is gaining popularity.
Lactitol: 40% as sweet as sugar. Used medically as a laxative. Popular for baking due to its high stability. Promotes colon health as a prebiotic. Contains 2.4 calories per gram.
Maltitol: typically used to sweetened chocolates. 75-90% as sweet as sugar. Made by adding hydrogen atoms to corn syrup. Contains 2-3 calories per gram. Potential laxative effect.
Mannitol: discovered in 1806. Also used as a medication to reduce pressure in the eyes and head.
Sorbitol: made from corn syrup. Contains 2.6 calories per gram. May be a cause for persistent symptoms in celiac disease patients already on a gluten-free diet. Risk of laxative effect in high doses.
Xylitol: found primarily in chewing gum because it does not encourage cavity-causing bacteria. Contains 2.4 calories per gram. May cause laxative effects in high doses. Low glycemic index.
Agave Nectar: mostly fructose – because of this it rates low on the glycemic index. From the agave plant (the same that we get tequila from), mostly from Mexico and South Africa. Sweeter than honey (1.4-1.6x sweeter than sugar) and tends to be less viscous. Lighter color = lighter flavor.
Brown Rice Syrup: made by adding enzymes to cooked rice. Primarily glucose and longer-chain glucose molecules. Glycemic index higher than sugar and almost the same as pure glucose (98 vs. 100). Should be avoided by those on a gluten-free diet due to the barley enzymes that are often used.
Coconut Sugar: derived from the nectar of coconut tree blossoms. Water evaporates out leaving sugar crystals that taste similar to brown sugar. Mainly sucrose.
Dates: the fruit of the date palm tree. Unlike many other sweeteners, dates will provide some fiber as well as sweetness. If soaked and then blended, they can make a paste.
Honey: primarily fructose and glucose. If raw and local, has been shown to help with seasonal allergies. Most microorganisms cannot grow in honey, so will not spoil if sealed. About as sweet as sugar.
Maple Syrup: mostly sucrose. Made from the sap of sugar, black, or red maple trees. Usually associated with Canada or Vermont in the US. Darker color = stronger flavor. Graded/categorized by color (and therefore taste).
Molasses: a byproduct of sugar production. Blackstrap molasses is considered the healthiest form because it retains the most vitamins and minerals – including calcium, magnesium, iron, and manganese.
Americans consume 66 pounds of added sugar each year, on average
Monk Fruit Extract: Luo Han Guo – a plant native to southern China and northern Thailand. 200-300x sweeter than sugar. Calorie-free. No known negative side effects. Relatively new in the US market.
Palm Sugar: made from tapping the trunk of a sugar date palm tree (the tree that dates come from). The sap is boiled down to a syrup and water evaporates out, leaving sugar crystals.
Stevia: derived from a plant native to South America. Generally recognized as safe. Some think that it can have a bitter, metallic aftertaste. My personal favorite no-calorie sweetener. While fairly new in the US market, it has been widely used for centuries. Zero calories, zero glycemic index. 150-300x sweeter than sugar, heat-stable, pH-stable, and non-fermentable. Established acceptable intake of 4 mg/kg of bodyweight per day. Often combined with erythritol in food products.
So, What Should I Choose?
Depends on your goals and your individual reactions to certain sweeteners.
If you are watching your weight, you may want to swap table sugar for artificial sweeteners like Splenda or other calorie-free sweeteners like Stevia.
If you want to eat a less processed or more whole-foods diet, you may want to swap table sugar for natural sweeteners like honey, maple syrup, and dates.
Maybe Equal makes you feel bloated, but Sweet ‘N Low doesn’t. Maybe you can tolerate Erythritol no problem, but are running to the bathroom when you eat something with Sorbitol in it.
Remember, sugar is still sugar regardless of the source, and too much can cause problems and increase your risk of developing diabetes, heart disease, obesity, and a fatty liver. Most sugars provide little else to the diet aside from additional calories.
Current recommendations are to limit added sugar to 6 teaspoons (25 grams) per day for women and 9 teaspoons (38 grams) per day for men.