The use of sugar substitutes is on the rise as manufacturers look for ways to cut calories without losing sweetness. But what kind of chemicals go into sugar substitutes? Are they safe? And are there any natural alternatives?
Weight loss plans work best of all when they fit around your lifestyle. Depriving yourself of every little treat will make your diet feel like a military program. Substituting your soft drink for the diet version or choosing a sweetener instead of sugar feels a little more civilised.
However, there’s more to those little white tablets than meets the eye. Alternative sweeteners can be natural or artificial, calorie-free or just as calorific as sugar, and hundreds of times sweeter than sucrose, begging the question: do we really know what we’re consuming?
What are alternative sweeteners?
Alternative sweetener is a catch-all phrase used to describe anything that is used in place of sugar – they could be artificial sweeteners, such as the tabletop sweeteners Equal, Splenda, Sugarless, Hermesetas and Sucrayl, and those used in diet products, or sweeteners derived from natural sources, such as Stevia.
There are a number of artificial sweeteners that have been approved for use in Australia by Food Standards Australia and New Zealand (FSANZ). Aspartame, cyclamate, saccharin and sucralose are among the most popular. These provide the base for many diet food products, such as low-calorie yoghurts, desserts, soft drinks, biscuits and diet jellies.
They provide virtually no calories and the same sweetness as sugar for much smaller volumes. For this reason, sweeteners are often used with a bulking agent. You may find that some low-calorie products using artificial sweeteners have a different mouth feel to their sugared counterpart, or an aftertaste.
Stevia is a sweetener that comes from a natural plant source. It has been cultivated as a sweetener since the 1970s in Japan and is 300 times sweeter than sugar. Because stevia has a negligible effect on blood sugar it is popular with people on a low-carbohydrate diet.
Making the switch
Accredited Practising Dietitian and exercise physiologist Michael Lawler told My Blackmores that, for him, the jury is still out on alternative sweeteners.
“There’s a pro-side and a con-side to artificial sweeteners,” he said. “If somebody has a lot of sugar in their diet and loves sweet food, they might still want to consume it while losing weight. In that case it can be a simple process of swapping over to diet versions of their favourite foods, creating a calorie deficit and losing weight.”
However, he argues that the “ultra sweet” taste of sweeteners attunes our tastebuds to a higher level of sweetness. Our tastebuds will begin to crave a sweeter taste and everything else will seem bland in comparison. This can escalate so that we no longer taste the natural sweetness in our fruits and vegetables, Lawler said.
One common mistake is that slimmers sometimes think they can eat as much of a diet, sugar-free version of a product as they like and forget about the other nutrients.
“Just because a product is sugar-free doesn’t mean it’s low calorie,” said Lawler. “Manufacturers often have to bump up other ingredients to make up for the lack of sugar.”
In addition to weight control, alternative sweeteners can be useful for people with diabetes. They tend not to raise blood-sugar levels because they are not carbohydrate. Your teeth will thank you for making the switch too, because artificial sweeteners don’t contribute to tooth decay like sugar does.
“Personally I think it’s better to change your taste and wean yourself away from a high sugar diet. But for people who eat emotionally, artificial sweeteners can give them the space to deal with the reasons why they overeat before having to cope with a dramatically changed diet.”
Best used in moderation
However, there are a few places where artificial sweeteners make an excellent alternative, Lawler said.
“If you’re used to having an alcoholic drink, then diet soft drinks are a great option. Also, night time is the worst time to eat sugar so, if you always get a sweet craving before bed, diet jelly or diet dessert can take the edge off. Having said that, frozen berries and natural yoghurt work just as well.”
What if you’re training for your sport? There’s no research to suggest that sweeteners can reduce athletic performance but if you are doing a lot of cardio work you shouldn’t need to worry about eating some sugar.
Lawler, who is also an exercise physiologist, said that some sugar immediately after a training session can improve muscle recovery. “I wouldn’t recommend artificial sweeteners to a lean runner or a bodybuilder because they need the carbohydrate.”
The best diets are balanced, varied and include all the major food groups, and all of the My Blackmores menu plans are based on this principle. Whether you choose table sugar, natural sweeteners or the artificial variety, don’t forget to include them in your online diary to help you control your energy equation and nutrient profile.