Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Sugar Impostors

I had a recent request to do a post on sugar substitutes.  While there is a lot of conflicting research and information on the subject, I'm going to try and give the basic facts without too much personal bias.
  • Sucralose (Splenda): Discovered by European scientists looking for new ways to use sucrose (sugar).  One researcher was told to test the new compound and thought he was told to taste it, thereby discovering its sweet property.  It is 600X sweeter than table sugar, and is poorly absorbed in the intestinal tract, therefore it provides almost no calories to the diet.  While it tastes the most like sugar of any of the substitutes, the chemical process of creating it leaves it looking nothing like sugar.  Splenda is probably the most commonly recognized sugar substitute, and while it contains Sucralose, it also contains absorbable carbohydrates in the form of dextrose and maltodextrin.  1 cup of Splenda contains 96 calories from 32g of carbohydrate VS. 1 cup of sugar = 770 calories, 200g carb. While the FDA and Canada consider Sucralose safe for consumption (1.1mg/kg/day), new studies from Duke University show that it may reduce the level of good bacteria in the intestinal tract, which can in turn lead to an increase in body weight in rats. 
  • Saccharin (Sweet 'N Low): Discovered in 1879 by researchers at Johns Hopkins University.  This product was created with the intention of using it as a sugar substitute for people with diabetes.  One of the chemists licked his hand at dinner and connected it to the compound he had been working with that day. It did not become widely used until the sugar rations during both World Wars.  Studies in the 1970s showed an increase in the incidence of bladder cancer in male rats.  However, the metabolism of this sweetener is different in rats than in humans; further studies have shown no CONSISTENT evidence that saccharin may cause bladder cancer in humans. In 2000 the US National Toxicology program removed it from its list of possible carcinogens.
  • Aspartame (Equal, NutraSweet): Discovered in 1967 when James Schlatter accidentily licked his finger while working on an anti-ulcer drug.  Created by the combining of Aspartic acid and Phenylalanine.  Both are amino acids-or the building blocks of protein.  It is 200x sweeter than table sugar.  It still contributes 4 calories per gram, but so little is needed to sweeten a product that the calories ingested are negligible.  In 1980 the FDA worked with the Public Board of Inquiry and determined that Aspartame does not cause brain cancer.  Between this time and the mid 1990s both the US and the EU approved aspartame for use in dry goods and sweetened beverages.  People with PKU should not consume products with Aspartame as its metabolism will cause a buildup of phenylalanine in the blood.  Metabolism of aspartame also creates formaldehyde, however this happens with other "natural" foods as well.
  • Acesulfame Potassium (Sunnet, Sweet One) Discovered in 1967 by Karl Clauss, once again the silly scientist licked his finger on accident.  It is created by the combining of acetoaceitc acid and potassium; forming a crystal.  It is 200X sweeter than table sugar and is heat stable, meaning it can be used in baked goods.  It has not been proven to cause cancer by the FDA...and has been approved for use in the US, EU, Australia, Canada, and many other countries.  People with renal failure should avoid this product due to the potassium.

  • Stevia (Truvia, Purvia): While it is new to the United States, people in the EU, Canada, East Asia, and South America have been using it in its natural leaf form as well as in a liquid and crystal form for years.  Paraguay indians have been using this herb for centuries, and the Japanese have used it in everything from sugar free gum to pickled vegetables.  There was some controversy in the US in 1985-1987 as to whether it was mutagenic...apparently a study showed that it may alter the DNA of salmonella bacteria.  Extracts are 200-300x sweeter than table sugar VS the herbal leaves which are only 10-25x sweeter.  As of 2008 it became approved for use as a food additive in the US and is generally recognized as safe.  If you want to use an artificial sweetener, this is the one I would go with.  Make sure to experiment with it when baking, as it does not caramelize or brown the same way sugar does.
For more information on artificial sweeteners check out these websites:
Mayo Clinic
Baking with out sugar
Family Doctor

What do I think... Artificial sweeteners are just that, artificial.  Our body does not need them and just like sugar they do not add any vitamins, minerals, or antioxidants to our system.  They also do not make food taste good.  Often times, products that are made with sugar substitutes also have to add extra fat and other chemical compounds to make them taste decent.  Would you rather eat 4 mediocre cookies made with Splenda for 150 calories, or 2 really good cookies made with sugar for 150 calories?  I know which I would choose.  There are some studies coming out that show people who consume artificial sweeteners actually eat more.  They trick the body into thinking it is receiving calories, and when they are not there, it craves more.  There is also very little evidence to support its efficacy in weight loss.  Weather or not they cause cancer, headaches, or ADHD, I recommend people avoid these products and limit their intake of refined sugars.  When you eat a sweet treat, go for the real thing and truly enjoy it.


  1. Thanks for this, Brenna. I'll tweet it and mention it at my blogs.


  2. Dear Dr Parker.

    Thank you for providing this post and its interesting data.

    Splenda easily gives me the trots - I don't use. I do use diet pops - aspartame and I find Stevia seems very good and have made home made ice creams which tast great and get the energy/calorie load scaled back.

    For me as a serious type 2, along with the excellent mediterranean diet info and the artificial sweetners have been extremely helpful for me.

    Thank you to you and Brenna.

  3. Just glad I can provide some useful nutrition information!