Spotlight on artificial sweeteners
The sugar veto for people with diabetes has helped create a huge market for alternative sweeteners from Aspartame (Equal/Nutrasweet) to stevia. In the second of a three-part series, Dr Alan Barclay checks out the pros and cons of non-nutritive sweeteners.
Non-nutritive (‘artificial’) sweeteners provide few calories (kilojoules), carbs or any other nutrient. Typically they are hundreds of times sweeter than sucrose, so you only need a minute amount. However, so you can use them in a similar way to white sugar (e.g. by the teaspoon), the manufacturer usually adds a bulking agent such as maltodextrin.
These sweeteners have virtually no effect on blood glucose levels and can help you cut back on your calories if you use them to replace equivalent amounts of sugar or honey etc. Their major drawback is that they aren’t as versatile as sugar and honey and other nutritive sweeteners (see July GI News). This is because they tend not to be heat stable, they don’t brown or caramelise and they don’t add texture or bulk to food when used in baking. They also tend to be much more expensive gram for gram than their nutritive sweetener counterparts.
What about the elephant in the room: their safety? There are many stories floating around on the Internet about this. This concern is not new – the safety of saccharin was questioned when it was first invented 130 years ago. Aspartame and sucralose have both been thoroughly investigated, and the United States Food and Drug Administration (FDA) keeps a register of any reported adverse effects. They are generally regarded as safe by both the FDA and Food Standards Australia New Zealand (FSANZ). As such, they can be used by all Australians, except for people with a relatively rare condition (1 out of 10,000 newborns) known as phenylketonuria. FSANZ also considers all non-nutritive sweeteners currently available in Australia to be safe for pregnant and breast feeding women, although some may choose to avoid saccharin and cyclamate as they both cross the placenta into the growing fetus, and may also be found in breast milk.
More to the point, do they actually do their job and help with weight loss? A recent review found little evidence that non-nutritive sweeteners had any benefits for weightloss. And there’s an interesting coincidence: aspartame and sucralose, for example, were introduced into the Australian food supply in the early 1980s and 1990s, respectively, and since then sugar consumption has been reduced by about 20%, suggesting that we have been using them instead of sugar as intended. However, since the early 1980s, rates of overweight and obesity have nearly doubled in Australia. Is this because people eat more high calorie foods when they use non-nutritive sweeteners – for example, eating a hamburger with the “works” and a large chips when they buy a diet soft drink? Or is that non-nutritive sweeteners confuse the way our brain regulates our feelings of hunger and fullness. Much more research is needed to answer this vital question.
Click for a complete guide to nutritive and non-nutritive sweeteners along with brands that carry the GI Symbol.
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Dr Alan W Barclay, PhD
CSO, Glycemic Index Ltd
Phone: +61 2 9785 1037
Mob: +61 (0)416 111 046
Fax: +61 2 9785 1037