Nonnutritive Sweeteners

Calorie-free sweeteners, also known as sugar substitutes or nonnutritive sweeteners, help support the Dietary Guideline for Americans to reduce the intake of added sugars.  Sweetened beverages and foods increase the intake of sucrose and high fructose corn syrup (HFCS), the latter being linked to increased triacylglycerol (triglyceride) concentrations.  High triglyceride levels are a known risk factor for the development of type 2 diabetes.   In addition, beverages sweetened with HFCS also dramatically increase serum glucose levels in diabetics, and can increase risk for complications related to uncontrolled blood sugar.  Sweetened beverages are also implicated in overweight and obesity, and these conditions are epidemic in both children and adults in the United States.  New research has now implicated sweetened beverages in the risk for cardiovascular disease.  As little as 2 sweetened beverages per day can increase a woman’s risk for heart disease by as much as 35% (Nurse’s Health Study; 1980-2004).

Questions abound regarding nonnutritive sweeteners.  Many nonnutritive sweeteners have been more thoroughly researched than some drugs or food additives currently on the market.  In total, there have been more that 200 toxicological and clinical studies conducted over 30 years on aspartame alone.  The conclusion is that consuming aspartame is not associated with adverse effects in the general population.  Reports further state that: “Studies have found no evidence of an effect of aspartame on a wide range of adverse symptoms, including hypersensitivity reactions, elevated blood methanol or formate levels, hematopoeitic or brain cancers.  Neurological changes tested included cognitive functions, seizures, headaches and changes in memory or mood.  Again, there was no evidence of adverse effects on any of these parameters. 

There is a misconception that nonnutritive sweeteners will cause weight gain.  This myth came from a study out of the psychology department at Purdue University comparing intake of a glucose-sweetened diet to a saccharin-sweetened diet by rats.  Since straight glucose is not very palatable, the rats consumed more of the saccharin-sweetened foods; therefore, overall calorie intake was higher in the saccharin group.  Simply put, the rats ate more, so they gained weight.

In reality, calorie-free sweeteners may assist in weight management, blood glucose control, and prevention of dental caries.  When replacing calorie-rich beverages and foods with low-calorie alternatives, research suggests that consumers stand to benefit from lower overall energy intake and better blood glucose control, reduced risk of heart disease and more.  As another strategy, if adding nonnutritive sweeteners to nutrient-dense food choices such as fruit will help to improve palatability for some, they have the potential to boost overall diet quality by increasing nutrient intake without increasing calories. 

While the internet is a wonderful education tool, consumers may have difficulty sorting out what’s credible from convincing but nonetheless anecdotal evidence.  Websites such as eatright.org, the American Heart Association sites, and the Harvard School of Public Health can help to sort out fact from fiction.   Registered Dietitians are trained to focus on credible, evidence-based research and can provide patients with science-based information about sweeteners and supporting research on the use of sweeteners to promote eating enjoyment, optimal nutrition and health.

 

Common Nonnutritive Sweeteners

Sweetener and Calories Brand Name(s) Sweetener
Factor
Cooking and Baking Ability Notes Safety
Info
Acesulfame
(calorie free)
Sunett, Sweet One 200x sweeter than sugar Heat stable; suitable for cooking and baking Often blended with other low-calorie sweeteners Used in over 90 countries
Aspartame
(metabolized as protein but insignificant calories) 
NutraSweet, Equal 160-200x sweeter than sugar Not heat stable, not suitable for cooking but may be added to end product Comprised of two amino acids,  only in small amounts needed to impart sweetness Approved use as a general sweetener, not for use by individuals with PKU
Saccharin
(calorie free)
Sweet ‘N Low, Sweet Twin, Sugar Twin 300x sweeter than sugar Heat stable; suitable for cooking and baking Oldest low calorie sweetener, discovered 1978 Used in over 100 countries

Stevia/Rebiana
(calorie free)
PureVia, Truvia 250-300x sweeter than sugar No information available Derived from leaves of a South American plant GRAS sweetener by FDA
Sucralose
(calorie free)
Splenda 600x sweeter than sugar Heat stable; suitable for cooking and baking Derived from sugar, process substitutes three chlorine atoms for three hydrogen-oxygen groups on the sugar molecule Safe per 110 amimal studies

Source: Jenna A. Bell-Wilson, PhD, RD, CSSD
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