A sweetener is a substance which is used to sweeten foods or drink, especially ones other than conventional sugar.
Sweeteners can be broken down into 4 separate categories. We want you to know the difference between them and make your choices according to what you & your doctor feel is best for your body and metabolism.
Natural SweetenersThese are all extracted or created from plants. All of these types of sugars have roughly the same amount of calories and sucrose is technically one of them since it comes from sugar cane or beets.
Some people consider that healthier alternatives can be agave, maple syrup, molasses and honey. There are pros and cons to their usage, however.
These sweeteners contain potent antioxidants but also can contain up to 90% fructose. Fructose is low on the Glycemic Index (approximately at 25, while table sugar is 100), however its perils lie in the way it interacts with our bodies. The toxicity of fructose depends on your body - for example, if you are overweight, insulin resistant, well- fed and getting both fructose and glucose together (like many people in modern societies are) it gets converted to fat at a very high rate, approximately 30% of your intake will be directly converted (see article in The Guardian). Added fructose has been found to be a leading cause of Type 2 Diabetes.
Thus, it is wise to consume fructose in small quantities as many consider it more harmful than sucrose (or table sugar) for overall morbidity and even fertility levels.When abused, natural sweeteners have the capability of being just as unhealthy, if not moreso, than traditional sugar.
Sugar AlcoholsSugar alcohols are sweeteners which have reduced-calories and are manufactured from sugar or extracted from a plant. They usually taste less sweet than sugar and can be extracted or synthesized from various fruits and vegetables. They are generally used as sweeteners in chocolates, candies and desserts for their texture. These are an attractive alternative for using in baked goods because they help keep food moist, prevent browning when heated and can often have a cooling sensation when tasted (ie. gym or xylitol mints).
Despite their name, sugar alcohols do not contain any alcohol (or ethanol), which is found in alcoholic beverages. Examples of sugar alcohols include Maltitol (most commonly used), Xylitol (often found in gums and breath-mints), Sorbitol and Erythritol.
These are not necessarily calorie-free but they are metabolized much slower in the body than sucrose. Their Glycemic Index level is lower than sugar because the body cannot completely absorb them so much of the sugar gets excreted out. Due to this effect, some individuals may experience a laxative effect when consuming too large of a quantity. Erythritol does not tend to cause gastric side effects and is the lowest on the Glycemic Index.
Novel SweetenersThese are new sweeteners (such as Stevia) which can either be extracted naturally or as a manufactured byproduct. Stevia is the most common and is isolated from the stevia plant. Stevia is 200 times sweeter than sugar and may have a bitter after-taste. It is for this reason that food manufacturers often have to get creative in ways that they mask this flavor. Some blends such as Truvia are known for using sugar alcohol blends to remove this after-taste.
Artificial SweetenersThese were synthesized in a lab and they are not properly absorbed by the human body, and therefore they have no calories. They are typically much sweeter than regular sugar because of the way they react with your taste buds and how much stronger of an interaction it is. Good examples are Sucralose (Splenda), Aspartame (Equal, NutraSweet) and Saccharin (Sweet'N Low). Usually only a small fraction of these is required to be added to sweeten a beverage or food.
These sugars can be difficult to cook with because they have different properties than natural sugars and are often recommended to diabetics because they have a Glycemix Index value of 0 and therefore do not increase blood sugar levels.
No matter which type of sugars you plan to incorporate into your diet, a good idea is always to run your plans through your doctor or dietitian, specifically if you have diabetes.
If you have any concerns about how much alternate sweetener you are consuming, make sure to check the FDA's website because they have established acceptable daily intake (ADI) for each artificial sweetener - the amount is roughly 1/100th of the amount that would cause adverse health effects.