Health and Wellness
January 27, 2008
HEALTH & WELLNESS
Low-calorie sweeteners can be a helpful tool for weight management and maintaining a healthy diet. For years, the most commonly used low-cal sweeteners were aspartame (as in Equal), saccharin (as in Sweet’N Low), sucralose (as in Splenda) and acesulfame potassium (as in Sweet One).
But some of the newer sweeteners are getting a lot of buzz recently, too. Sugar-alcohol based sweeteners, like Sweet Simplicity, fiber-based sweeteners, likeSweet Fiber, and plant-based sweeteners, like those made from agave syrup and stevia,are currently hitting the market.
To get the skinny on some of the newer sweeteners, we talked to Dr. Christine Gerbstadt, National Spokesperson for the American Dietetic Association. Here’s what she had to say.
Can you tell us more about sugar-alcohol based sweeteners?
Sugar-alcohols are slowly and incompletely absorbed from the small intestine into the blood. Once absorbed, they are converted to energy by processes that require little or no insulin, so there is usually a smaller change in blood glucose than with “regular” sugar (sucrose).
As a result, they are popular sweeteners among diabetics, although they are not “calorie free.” Because of this, the American Dietetic Association recommends that persons with diabetes manage their blood sugars using the carbohydrate counting method.
Sugar-alcohol sweeteners are often used in combination with non-calorie sweeteners such as sucralose to smooth out the excessive sweetness that is characteristic for this type of sweetener. They do not promote dental caries and do not caramelize when heated.
One downside of sugar-alcohols is that they can lead to bloating, diarrhea and flatulence because they are not absorbed in the small intestine. The effects vary and tolerance may develop with continued use. An exception to this is Erythritol (Sweet Simplicity uses this form of sugar-alcohol), which is absorbed in the small intestine and excreted unchanged through urine, so it has no side effects at typical levels of consumption.
What about the fiber-based sweeteners?
Fiber-based sweeteners mix Inulin natural fiber with Lo Han low glycemic fruit extract. There are no artificial ingredients. Each spoonful contains the sweetness of one teaspoon of sugar, and they can be used with hot (coffee) and cold beverages (iced tea). Fiber-based sweeteners must be stirred completely until they dissolve. Fiber-based products are used in the same proportion as those using sugar. They may also be used for glucose management in diabetes since they are near zero on the glycemic index.
We’ve been hearing a lot about some of the plant-based sweeteners. Can you tell us more about agave syrup?
Agave Nectar is a sweetener commercially produced in Mexico from several species of agave, including Agave tequilana (also called Blue Agave or Tequila Agave), and the Salmiana, Green, Grey, Thorny, and Rainbow varieties. Agave syrup is sweeter than honey, though less viscous, and is vegan, unlike honey.
Agave consists primarily of fructose and glucose, ranging from 92% fructose and 8% glucose to 56% fructose and 20% glucose, presumably reflecting variation from one vendor of agave syrup to another. As a sweetener, agave syrup is notable in that its glycemic index is 32, compared to honey, which has a glycemic index of 28. However, it is not calorie-free. One teaspoon is 20 calories and 5 grams of carbohydrate.
Stevia is a genus of about 150 species in the sunflower family (Asteraceae), native to South and Central America. The species Stevia rebaudiana, commonly known asSweet Leaf, Sugar Leaf, or simply, Stevia, is widely grown for its sweet leaves.
Stevia's taste is up to 300 times the sweetness of sugar, and has a slower onset and longer duration than sugar, although it may have a bitter or licorice-like aftertaste at high concentrations. Stevia has a negligible effect on blood glucose.
What is actually approved for use by the FDA?
Stevia products remained banned in the U.S. until after the 1994 Dietary Supplement Health and Education Act forced the FDA in 1995 to revise its stance to permit stevia to be used as a dietary supplement – although not as a food additive. Stevia proponents regard this as contradictory because it simultaneously labels stevia as safe and unsafe, depending on how it is sold.
Basically, it can be packaged by itself and on a shelf in the market labeled like vitamins and herbal supplements. It cannot be used to make chewing gum the way sorbitol and other sugar-alcohols can, or the way aspartame (nutrasweet) can be added to low-calorie yogurt or Jello, or any other food product (non-sugar sweetened items such as carbonated beverages, baked goods, etc.).
Unresolved questions remain concerning whether metabolic processes can produce a mutagen from stevia in animals, let alone in humans. The early studies nevertheless prompted the European Commission, Singapore and Hong Kong to ban stevia’s use in food. Then, the World Health Organization in 2006 suggested that these policies may be obsolete.
Agave syrups are available as a syrup on-line and at specialty health food stores, but they are not usually mixed into other products (though some health food/energy bars may contain them). One Mexican brand of agave syrup was actually denied entry by the FDA in 2007 due to pesticide content. Fiber-based products are available packaged alone, but not with other food products.
Sugar-alcohols may be used in food and have been used for some time in chewing gums.