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Demystifying Sugar Substitutes

(As published on TheTownDish.com, May 23, 2013)

With so many sugar substitutes hitting store shelves, it's hard to tell them apart -- let alone decipher what that mysterious sweetness really is. You'll see words like "natural," "artificial" and "low-calorie," so it's important to be sweetener-savvy next time you're looking for a sugary alternative.

Let's look at natural and artificial sweeteners to learn the difference, and then you can weigh in on what tastes best.

Au Naturel

Naturally found sweeteners include white sugar -- as you might as expect -- along with honey, molasses, maple syrup and raw sugar. All of these are pretty comparable, nutritionally speaking. Just one teaspoon of the stuff will run you 15 calories -- but, hey, it's sugar.

Now, what about sweeteners that are considered "natural" AND have calorie counts close to zero? Enter stevia, agave nectar and monk fruit extract. These sweeties are 200 times sweeter than plain sugar, so you don't need as much to have the same effect. Stevia is a plant from South America that is available in all different forms -- liquid, powder and leaf. Agave nectar is made from the sap of a plant found in Mexico and South Africa. Monk fruit extract has been used by the Chinese for years and does not raise blood sugar levels. The term "natural" is left up to interpretation, as the Food & Drug Administration does not regulate its use.

These sources of sweetness are the base of many brand name sweeteners, so when you see that a product is made from stevia, agave nectar or monk fruit extract, now you'll know what you're buying.

Artificial Sweeteners

As you may have guessed, artificial sweeteners are those not found naturally. Artificial sweeteners are sugar substitutes that have been made from natural substances. Sucralose, aspartame and saccharin are a few of the popular ones on the market today. As with the above "natural" sweeteners, these imitators also provide more sweetness with less product all while containing few or no calories. Seems like a perfect solution, right?

Well, most people agree that artificial sweeteners aren't exact replacements for regular sugar -- some leave an aftertaste or just don't taste the same. And, what about the health factor? While the National Cancer Institute has found no scientific evidence of approved artificial sweeteners causing cancer or other serious health problems, there has been much speculation about these sugar substitutes. Research supports that they are generally safe in limited quantities.

Everything in Moderation

No matter what sweetener you choose, be sure to enjoy in moderation. An excess of calories from natural sugary sources can lead to weight gain, and you may be sacrificing taste for the artificial versions. There is no "magic" sugar source that will give you the best of both worlds, so choose a sweetener based on its taste, not what it claims to do for your waistline.

Even if you think you've championed the sugar aisle, beware. Sugar substitutes are prevalent in processed foods as well as "light" and "diet" versions of the classics. These are great hiding spots for sugar substitutes because a typical consumer will be blinded by the calorie count and ignore the ingredients. It's important to maintain a balanced diet of fruits, vegetables, lean protein and whole grains for a healthy lifestyle, so stock up on the good stuff and leave the sugar for small treats.

Information has been adapted from Mayo Clinic.

Last Updated: 5/30/2013