With so many low-calories sweeteners in the market it can be hard to decide whether we should keep using sugar or switch and save some calories. In this post I will list some of the categories of low-calorie sweeteners, their known effects, and the beliefs surrounding them so that you can make an informed decision about whether or not to use them.
What Low-Cal Sweeteners Are Not
Sugar is sugar. Low- calorie sweeteners are not sugar.
So while alternative sweeteners like Agave, Coconut Sugar, or Honey can be considered healthier than sugar, they are still at their most basic lever, sugar. They're called natural caloric sweeteners. That is because they are still made up of simple carbohydrates that break down in the same way as sugar does when you eat them. While they may have other health benefits, they don't fall into the "Low-Calorie Sweetener" category because they are not low in calories. Although some people can be easily fooled by marketing and packaging that suggests that.
Low-calorie does not automatically equal healthy, and nutritious does not automatically equal low-calorie. In order to understand low-calorie sweeteners, we need to understand that they are not chemically the same as sugar, they just happen to taste like sugar (ish).
Sugar is the name we give to simple carbohydrates. Carbohydrates come in complex and simple versions. So one glucose molecule is a MONOsacharide, two of them are a DIsacharide, and many glucose molecules are called POLYsacharides. Table sugar is specifically a disacharide called sucrose. So when you eat table sugar it breaks down into glucose which gives you calories. Carbohydrates account for 4 kilocalories per gram.
The types of sugars are:
Low-Calorie sweeteners on the other hand don't give your body calories or they give you a much smaller amount. That is because they are built differently than regular carbohydrates and your body processes them differently.
Natural vs. Artificial
The two main categories of low-cal sweeteners are natural and artificial. Natural sweeteners are derived from natural sources like plants. Artificial sweeteners are man made. Once made into sweeteners they are both technically processed and technically all chemicals come from somewhere in nature so these categories tend to be used as ways to market the products as being better than others. Not all natural products are safer than man made ones and so it is important to learn about the specifics of each product rather than only buying products because they say Natural on them.
You have to wonder just how scientists found out these substances are sweet, like, what did they taste in order to find out??? There are 3 major artificial sweeteners that are commonly used these days so I will focus on those. While there is always new science going into creating new low-calorie stuff for us, these products do have to go through testing and the FDA before being allowed to go out into the market or for them to become popular.
So these 3 are the commonly used ones and the ones that are talked about the most when referring to Zero-Cal.
Aspartame (Equal) Blue Packet
Sucralose (Splenda) Yellow Packet
Saccharine (Sweet'N Low) Pink Packet
All three of these sweeteners are classified as GRAS (Generally Recognized As Safe) by the FDA. Each of them has their own set of rules when it comes to how they can or should be used. For example aspartame loses its sweetness when heated so its not suited for baking but sucralose is pretty stable and is marketed as the best for baking.
All three of these are considered high-intensity sweeteners because they are 200 -700 times sweeter than sugar. This means that you only have to use a tiny amount in order to get the same sweet flavor. Although, they do tend to have an aftertaste so that super sweetness does come with a slight different flavor. Usually these flavor differences are something that you can get used to if you use them often.
When it comes to safety, the major concern is for people who have a disorder called phenylketonuria because aspartame can be unsafe for them but for the most part people don't need to worry about this because its a disorder that you are aware of from a very young age. Apart from a lot of conspiracy theory, aspartame, is considered to be safe in the appropriate amounts.
"Aspartame is one of the most exhaustively studied substances in the human food supply, with more than 100 studies supporting its safety. FDA scientists have reviewed scientific data regarding the safety of aspartame in food and concluded that it is safe for the general population under certain conditions. However, people with a rare hereditary disease known as phenylketonuria (PKU) have a difficult time metabolizing phenylalanine, a component of aspartame, and should control their intake of phenylalanine from all sources, including aspartame."
Sugar Alcohols are carbohydrates that are found in plants that, while having the structure of a carbohydrate, are not digested the same way in our body, leading their calories to not be absorbed.
These are the main ones:
Sugar alcohols are becoming more popular and have been used in products like chewing gum for some time. They are usually not as sweet as artificial sweeteners and some of them are even slightly less sweet than sugar. Some have been shown to cause digestive discomfort like bloating if eaten in large amounts. While erythritol is one of the sugar alcohols that has both a low calorie effect and low GI effect, some of the other sugar alcohols have been found to have a high GI effect even with low calorie absorption. So that means that if you are watching your blood sugar, you may want to be careful. They are, though, generally recognized as safe as well.
Natural Low Calorie Sweeteners
These sweeteners are also found in plants but they are not carbohydrates so our bodies can't get calories from them. These sweeteners tend to have other health benefits as well and don't have a GI effect. These sweeteners also tend to be much sweeter than sugar and each one has its own rules when it comes to how to use them. They sound great right, well a downfall is that because they are less popular, they are more expensive and can be harder to find but, Stevia is becoming more and more afordable!
Luo Han Guo
So should I use them???
Whether or not to use zero calorie sweeteners really comes down to your specific needs and wants. You basically have to make a PRO/CON list.
These are some of the questions I ask myself:
Does it (the food or drink) have to be sweet?
I personally can't drink black unsweetened coffee, I just don't like the flavor, so when I don't have my creamers of choice, I do use zero-calorie sweeteners over plain sugar. The reason being that I am in a calorie deficit and sugar makes me have more cravings for more sugar. I try to use more natural sweeteners because I feel less guilty (I don't particularly believe in the conspiracy theories surrounding artificial sweeteners but what the hell, if there is a choice I am going to choose natural.) If a drink or food doesn't have to be sweet for me to like it, like tea, then I just don't add anything.
Am I choosing between diet or regular junk food?
Both diet soda and regular soda are generally pretty bad for your health. ...but....if I am going to drink one anyways and I am dying to kill the craving, then I choose diet. I know myself and I know that if I drink just one regular soda, it will be like falling off the wagon! You may have more self control? (LUCKY!)
Can I just drink water?
As you can see most of my sweetener needs come from drinks. I try to get in a certain amount of water a day and stick to one coffee and one diet soda per day so the rest of my day consists of water. If I can choose water over a sweetened drink of any kind, I will choose water. You can do this too.
The pattern should be ----> Water/Unsweetened Beverage > Zero Calorie Sweetened Drink > Naturally Occuring Sugar Drink> Sugary Drink.
Questions you should ask yourself are:
Do I have a health condition that requires that I avoid sugary foods?
If you have to watch your sugar intake because you're diabetic then you may want to opt out of taking overly sweet foods or use foods sweetened with zero calorie sweeteners. As always you should talk to your doctor first and work with your dietician to make the best decision.
Am I trying to lose weight?
If you are trying to lose weight then at the end of the day it will come down to how many calories came in and out. You have to be in a calorie deficit to lose weight and so it won't matter how many low-calorie sweets you eat if you're also eating too many calories each day. Low-calorie sweeteners can help though because you can make recipes fit into your Macro needs like my Vanilla Protein Cake.
Am I trying to eat clean or healthy?
What are your actual health goals? That's the real question. If you are trying to eat clean then you want to focus on whole foods. Using a packet of Aspartame each day for your salad dressing so that you can eat an ooober healthy salad is probably not going to be that bad of a decision. Choosing only "diet" products and still not having any fruit and veggies is not healthy and won't help you feel or look better overall.
I hope this post helps you understand zero-calorie sweeteners just a bit more so that you can make an informed decision about whether or not to use them. I am adding a ton of further reading below so that you can do more specific research on different products. New ones are always popping up, I'm excited to start using a new low-calorie sweetener called Allulose that can be caramelized. I will do a product review and share recipes once I see how well it works! I always like to test new things out and see how my own body reacts to them. I believe you should as well! :)