Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Sugar substitutes

Sugar substitutes have been in use for years, and more recently they have been introduced into commercially packaged foods and beverages. There has always been, and continues to be, controversy as to whether sugar substitutes pose risks to health. Doubtless the scientific research and experiments will continue - without necessarily coming up with a definitive answer.

Most sugar substitutes, unlike sugar, do not contain glucose, and therefore do not require insulin for digestion. They mimic the taste of sugar, but supply less or no energy. Some are natural and some are synthetic.

Here are some of the better known sweeteners in use commercially, and available as granules or pills or powder for home use:

Saccharine (E954) was the first sugar substitute produced way back in 1878. It became very popular during World War II, when there were shortages of real sugar. It is kcal/kj free, 300x sweeter than sugar, and suitable for cooking and baking. It does have a slightly bitter aftertaste, so these days it is usually blended. It is used commercially in toothpaste!

Aspartame (E951) was first synthesized in 1965. It is 200x sweeter than sugar, and has only 4kcal/16kj per teaspoon. It is not suitable for cooking or baking because heat tends to break it down and it loses its sweetness - though I have made custard and stewed fruit quite successfully using aspartame. One big warning here - aspartame cannot be used by people who have the (admittedly rare) genetic condition phenylketonuria. This is an inability to break down the amino acid phenylalanine. It's perfectly safe for anyone else to use.

Sucralose (E955) - discovered in 1976 - is a zero calorie/kilojoule sugar substitute. It is about 600x as sweet as sugar. It is stable when heated, so it's suitable for baking and cooking. Because of its intense sweetness, it is usually 'bulked' with dextrose and maltodextrin to give it a granular appearance and a similar sweetness to sugar by volume.

Sorbitol is referred to as a nutritive sweetner as it supplies about half the kcal/kj you would get from an equal quantity of carbohydrates. It occurs naturally in stone fruits and some berries. Even if you don't take sorbitol orally, the cells in the body produce sorbitol naturally. Sorbitol is used commercially in cough syrups and sugar free chewing gum. It is also used in mouthwash, toothpastes (especially gels) and cosmetics, and - wait for it - as a humectant in cigarettes!

Xylitol and Stevia  are naturally occurring sugar substitutes, which are growing in popularity. Both have negligible effect on blood glucose levels, so they are probably the safest choice if you have diabetes or hyperglycemia.

Sugar substitutes can safely be included as part of a well balanced eating plan - always remembering that sugar (sucrose) is not the enemy; it, and its substitutes, should just be used in moderation. Personally, I have found that using sugar substitutes increases my appetite and perpetuates a sweet tooth!

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