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Sugar Substitutes – What are your options?

Then it is time to educate yourself about this sweet folly called sugar, and embrace a change in your life.

Modern health sciences have greatly stressed the importance of reducing sugar from our daily diet, not just in order to keep diseases like Diabetes, PCOD, obesity, and heart disease, but also for overall health. Sugars are present not just in the items at the tea-table and the dessert counter, but more deviously hidden in places you least expect it to be. While sugar is the primary fuel source for the body, most often this is taken to mean that the more sugar you consume, the more energetic you feel. True, the ‘sugar kick’ (feeling an energy high after having a sugary drink is an example) is a veritable phenomenon, but all this extra energy from large helpings of sugar is only going to cause tremendous harm to your body in the long run. So then, what are your options? If you are suffering from issues related to excess sugar consumption, for example obesity, then completely cutting sugar (all forms of it) from your diet is the best recourse. But if you are among those who go into sugar withdrawal and misery, it only leaves you craving for your fix, and more often than not, you end up cheating. “Just half a pastry,” did you say? Do not worry, because here is where sugar substitutes enter the picture. What are sugar substitutes? Sugar substitutes are compounds, either natural or artificial, that provide the sweetness of sugar with none (or very less) of the caloric bulk to add to your diet. In short, a guilt-free slice of chocolate pastry. Natural sugar substitutes include fruit and vegetable derivatives such as Erythritol, Xylitol, Sorbitol, and Stevia, among others. Artificial sweeteners are more in number and much more widely available, since commercial production is an easier process. The major artificial sweeteners available in the market include Aspartame, Sucralose, and Saccharin. Here is a comparative analysis of the 5 most common sugar substitutes (natural and artificial), how they compare with Sugar (Sucrose) in terms of energy provided (caloric values) and possible side-effects –   First things first, sugar (Also knows as Table Sugar, or Refined Sugar) is naturally processed from sugarcane juice, to be made into the crystal form that we recognize very well. However, as Sucrose, it is naturally found in fruits and several vegetables. It provides close to 4 calories per gram, and is the most readily used fuel in our body. Nutritionally, though, it does not have any benefits. If had in excess, it actually causes more harm than good. Now, here are the most common substitutes for Table Sugar in use in the market: 1) Aspartame: This is one of the most popular artificial sweeteners available. One of the most well known brand names for aspartame is Equal. It also provides almost 4 calories per gram, so the caloric value is nearly the same as Table Sugar. The reason why it is used as a substitute then is because it is nearly 200 times as sweet as Table Sugar! That means, instead of 10 gms of regular table sugar, all you need is 0.05 gms of Aspartame. Hence its value to dieters, as it has negligible impact on blood sugar levels. However, the history of Aspartame usage shows much debate and controversy around the possible side effects. While it has been cleared by the FDA, many researches have linked excess Aspartame usage to diseases like Alzheimer’s, ADHD, Cancer, Depression, Seizures, and many more. But despite the controversies, nothing conclusive has ever been proven regarding Aspartame and its link to these diseases. 2) Sucralose: This is a zero-calorie sweetener that is highly preferred by those suffering from diabetes. Sucralose is most popularly available under the brand name Splenda. It adds 0 calories to your food, while making it sweet to taste, hence is also preferred by dieters across the world. Sucralose is often preferred over Aspartame because it has an equal intensity of sweetness as regular Table Sugar, making it easy to measure and use. The usage of Sucralose has also been declared safe by the FDA, and in many other independent studies. However, possible side effects of ingesting very large doses of Sucralose range from headaches to stomach disorders like gas, bloating, upset stomach, and so on. The reason is that Sucralose adversely affects the healthy bacteria that live inside the stomach, thus disrupting digestion. What has to be kept in mind that this is likely to happen when someone consumes Sucralose in very high doses. 3) Saccharin: This is another very popular artificial sweetener, which made it to the headlines in the early 1900s due to its diabetic-friendly nature. Saccharin, like Aspartame, is several times sweeter than Table Sugar, and does not cause any impact on blood sugar and insulin levels, in addition to it being a zero-calorie sweetener. Saccharin advocates got into trouble when its use in very large doses was found to induce cancer in rats in a laboratory research experiment. However, the case was closed after it was determined (across various studies) that Saccharin, even in large doses, does not affect any other animal population, including humans. 4) Erythritol: Erythritol belongs to the class of chemicals that are known as ‘polyols,’ which are basically sugar alcohols (nothing to do with alcoholic beverages). They naturally occur in many fruits like pears and watermelons, and in several vegetables as well. In fact, research has found that Erythritol occurs in some of our tissues as well. Erythritol contains 0 calories, and is closest in taste to Table Sugar. The many benefits of Erythritol include its ‘non-glycemic’ nature, that is, it does not affect the levels of blood sugar, and consequently, insulin. It scores over Table Sugar in that it does not cause any dental ailments like decay, that is closely connected with high sugar intake. Erythritol has also been found to be safe even if consumed in large quantities (in researches undertaken by the FDA.) Possible side effects of consumption of large amounts of Erythritol have been reported as gas, bloating, and diarrhoea. However, it largely depends upon how much Erythritol has been consumed, and the general digestive constitution of the individual. That is, if you can digest it better, you will have no side-effects from Erythritol. 5) Stevia: Stevia is a high-intensity natural sugar substitute that is gaining in popularity in many countries. It is derived from the extract of the Stevia leaf, and provides 0 calories while also carrying the ‘natural’ and ‘herbal’ tag. It is largely marketed under the banner of the brand Zevic. Studies conducted on Stevia have proved very encouraging, showing its positive effects on diabetes control in the long run. In a study conducted in 2009, it was also found that high doses of Stevia consumption can actually help in lowering bad cholesterol, and increasing the good cholesterol in the human body. However, the point to note is that commercially available Stevia is a compound derived from the Stevia leaf extract, and therefore, is not the same as raw Stevia. The possible side-effects of raw Stevia have not been studied conclusively so far. As far as the commercially available variety goes, it is important to see what else has been added to the Stevia-based sweetener that you are using – occasional combinations include other forms of carbs like Dextrose and Maltodextrin, that may add those calories back into your tea and coffee! The only drawback that has been associated with this sugar substitute is a general complaint against the taste – Stevia is often known for leaving a bitter after-taste.   Are sugar substitutes safe to use instead of sugar? While sweeteners like Aspartame contain almost as many calories as refined sugar, others like Sucralose and Stevia are largely considered safe alternatives, and all of them have received a ‘safe status’ from the FDA (United States Food and Drug Administration). However, there is insufficient research when it comes to their specific effects in different populations, and they are generally not recommended for use by pregnant women, breastfeeding mothers, children, and patients with certain health complications. In addition, the opinion of the scientific fraternity is also divided when it comes to the use of these substitutes, especially the artificial sweeteners. But for health addicts and dieters, especially those with a sweet tooth, sugar substitutes in general represent happiness and a satisfaction of their cravings. And until scientific researchers reach a consensus about their possible health risks, sugar substitutes are here to stay on our shelves and in our lives. What remains is for us to use them judiciously. No matter what kind of food – natural or artificial, moderation is the key to a healthy lifestyle. Author Credits – Bhavani Rajesh
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