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Sugar: Natural or Artificial?

Por Lic. Nina Nazor Robles* -

Excess sugar consumption and excess calories translate into weight gain. Additionally, when we eat any carbohydrates (especially refined flours and sugars), our blood sugar (glucose) levels rise. As a result, our bodies release more insulin (a hormone), which facilitates the use of blood glucose by the body. This is a normal and controlled response in people who do not have any health conditions.  However, individuals that have diabetes do not have enough insulin or a complete lack on insulin.  Therefore, they need to pay close attention to when and what they are eating to ensure their bodies can maintain a normal blood glucose level.   Those who suffer from diabetes or those who wish to control their weight should consume more fresh foods and less than those who do not have any of these conditions. Everyone would actually benefit from eating this way, as well as minimizing the amounts of sweets and sweetened beverages we eat/drink.

Sweeteners are classified based on their energy (calorie) content. They are either nutritive/caloric (4 calories per gram) or non-nutritive/non-caloric (calorie-free).

Caloric sweeteners

You can find sweeteners in processed or natural form.

Some processed caloric sweeteners include:

  • Sucrose: found in unrefined sugar, granulated sugar, brown sugar, and confectioner’s sugar. It’s extracted from beets and sugar cane.
  •  Corn sweeteners: commonly used in soft drinks, baked goods, and in certain canned goods.
  • Dextrose: glucose combined with water.
  • Invert sugar: the result of breaking down sucrose in two equal parts, glucose and fructose (used primarily in the food industry).

Some of the non-processed caloric sweeteners include:

  • Unrefined, granulated, coarse, dark-brown sugar obtained from the evaporation of sugar cane juice
  • Light-brown sugar: processed sugar crystals from molasses syrup
  • Fructose: sugar found naturally in fruit
  • Glucose: sugar found in fruit and other foods
  • Honey: a combination of fructose, glucose, and water
  • Lactose (milk sugar): found in milk, a combination of glucose and galactose
  • Maltose (malt sugar): formed during the fermentation process and found in beer and bread
  • Maple sugar: processed from maple tree syrup and is a combination of sucrose, fructose, and glucose
  • Molasses: made from sugarcane residue
  • Sorbitol and manitol: used in diet and diabetic products. The body absorbs them slower than sugar, but can cause diarrhea if eaten in excess.
  • Estevia: natural sweetener found in a shrub originally from Paraguay and Brazil. The plant’s leaves are 30-times sweeter than sugar, and the extract is 200-times sweeter. The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has not approved it since no conclusive scientific testing can confirm that it doesn't harm your health.

Non-caloric sweeteners

This group comprises calorie-free, high-intensity sweeteners, such as:

  • Aspartame: a combination of phenylalanine and aspartic acid (two amino acids). It's 200-times sweeter than sugar, but can't be used for baking.
  • Ace-sulfame K: artificial sweetener used for cooking and baking.
  • Saccharine: 300-times sweeter than sugar. It was the first artificial sweetener used and is still used in various foods and diet drinks.
  • Sucralose: a sweetener made from sucrose (white sugar). After applying certain technological processes, it is converted into a molecule, which is almost completely excreted by the body. Since sucralose comes from ordinary sugar, it tastes very good and is the safest non-caloric sweetener known today.
  • Cyclamates: 30-times sweeter than sugar. These don't have FDA approval. Research conducted in the 1970s proved that they caused bladder cancer in animals.

Are they safe?

Before any sweetener can be approved for commercial use, it must undergo a series of tests that cost millions of dollars. It can take years before the FDA and each country’s regulating agencies will approve them.

Saccharin, aspartame, ace-sulfame K, and sucralose are FDA approved. The Acceptable Daily Intake (ADI) for aspartame was set at 18 packs or three 12-oz diet soft drinks a day for a 130-pound individual. Aspartame is not recommended for individuals with phenylketonuria (a metabolism problem detected at birth). Individuals with this condition cannot take phenylalanine (an amino acid).

In conclusion, sweeteners help our foods taste delicious. Natural sugars, such as brown sugar or honey, are better options. If you don’t want to add any extra calories to your diet, consider sucralose. People with diabetes should avoid natural sweeteners that raise blood sugar levels, such as sucrose or white sugar. Those who wish to lose weight should avoid caloric sweeteners. At any rate, remember not to consume anything in excess. Enjoy the benefits of sweeteners without overdoing it.

*Dietitian with the MyDiet™ Team


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