Alternative Sweeteners 101

Nutrition | | October 30, 2009 at 8:00 am
photo by Vali

Photo by Vali.

In 2003, the average American consumed 44 teaspoons of sugar a day. That translates to 142 pounds of sugar annually. That’s more than 7 times the recommended maximum intake of 6 teaspoons daily.

Chronic ailments like diabetes and obesity result from sugar over-consumption. Many people have turned to other sweeteners. The following is your guide to the most common alternatives:

Artificial sweeteners

Aspartame is the active ingredient in NutraSweet® and Equal®). Aspartame is 200 times sweeter than sugar and made by combining two amino acids (aspartic acid + phenylalanine) with the alcohol methanol. Alone, the two amino acids are harmless, but when transformed chemically by the toxic wood alcohol, the resultant artificial sweetener’s safety is questionable. Author and neurologist Russel L. Blaylock, states that metabolized Aspartame overexcites the brain’s neurons. This can lead to neuronal death, seizures, alzheimer’s and Lou Gehrig’s Disease (ALS). Some scientists have found that aspartame breaks down into formaldehyde (used to embalm cadavers) and accumulates in the body. NutraSweet® is found in over 5,000 products so read your labels.

Saccharin is found in such sugar alternatives such as Sweet’ N Low®. Saccharin is known by the chemical name benzoic sulfinide and is derived from coal tar. There are no calories or food energy obtained from saccharin because it can’t be metabolized by the body. Its super-sweet (200-700 more sweet than sugar) taste can induce insulin release by the pancreas and wreak havoc on blood sugar. Saccharin’s safety came into question the 1970s when male rats ingested large quantities. They formed toxic silicate crystals and developed bladder cancer.  Since 2000, the US government has removed saccharin from a list of potential cancer causing substances. Center for Science in the Public Interest immediately posted a press release that calls into question the delisting.

Sucralose is found in artificial sweeteners such as Splenda®. It is extremely sweet- an estimated 600 times more so than sugar. Sucrolose is manufactured by adding chlorine to sucrose (table sugar). Like aspartame and saccharin, sucralose is not metabolized into energy and thus makers of Splenda label it as a no calorie sweetener, it actually contains 3.31 calories per gram or 96 calories and 32 grams of carbohydrates per cup because of the added bulking agents dextrose or maltodextrin. The concern with sucralose comes from the chlorine that is added to the sucrose. This combination was discovered when trying to formulate a new pesticide. Long-term studies have not been done on the safety of sucralose yet chloride based organic compounds, like DDT, are considered dangerous.

Natural alternative sweeteners

Agave syrup (aka Agave necter) is a naturally heated and concentration of aguamiel in the sap of the Agave plant. This syrup is 1.5 times sweeter then sugar and contains magnesium, iron, calcium and potassium and can be used to sweeten recipe.  Agave has a low glycemic index and glycemic load. This is because it is composed of 90% fructose and 10% glucose. Of this, only glucose is measured in the rating system. This can make agave tricky for diabetics to use. The only other product in which fructose is this high is in high-fructose corn syrup. Additionally, most agave is produced in Mexico and before being shipped to the US it is sometimes diluted with corn syrup to increase the volume. Make sure you’re buying high quality agave. High fructose consumption is associated with reduced insulin receptor sensitivity, fatty liver disease, liver cirrhosis and oxidative cellular damage. Be cautious- even with this natural sweetener.

Stevia goes by the chemical name of stevioside (rebaudioside A) and is extracted from the stevia plant. Stevia is about 250 times more sweet than sugar. Stevia can be used by diabetics and those on a low carbohydrate diet  as it does not greatly affect blood glucose. It  also enhances glucose tolerance. This alternative sweetener can also be used to treat obesity and hypertension, but keep in mind it’s not completely safe. Like anything in excess, high doses of stevia have been associated with decreased sperm counts in men and interference of proper carbohydrate metabolism.

So what’s the smartest choice? Next time you bake a tray of cookies, try an alternative recipe that uses a natural sweetener. It’s healthy to return to the basics and eat whole foods. Stick to the natural concentrations of sugars found in fruits and vegetables. When consumed as whole food, sugars are absorbed slowly due to the high fiber content.

GibranDr. Gibran Ramos completed his six year training and internship in Naturopathic and Chinese Medicine at National College of Natural Medicine. Dr. Ramos helps patients transform their lives and optimize their well-being at a private practice in Portland, Oregon.

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  1. Bill says:

    Informative article, but I would like to know his take on Xylitol as a natural sweetener.

  2. Bill, thanks for your comment. Xylitol is a sugar alcohol that has years of research standing behind it showing its efficacy in preventing dental cavities. Here is a WellWire article about xylitol and its benefits:

  3. Dr. Arin Rao says:

    Thanks for this great guide to all the sugar alternatives. One form of sugar that I love is rapadura/sucanat. They are minimally processed forms of sugar cane which retains all of the minerals and nutrients in the sugar. It also ends up with a nice rich molasses flavor (so it’s not always the right fit if you don’t want that strong flavor). I think you have a cookie recipe with sucanat/rapadura.