Hi guys, Kris from Custom Fitness here, your personal trainer in Amarillo. Today we are going to look at something you see on the table of every restaurant you go to. If you have any questions about today’s blog or would like a more in depth look at your nutrition, give us a call: 806-322-3188. I’m often asked about sugar substitutes AKA Artificial sweeteners. Here is a question from one of our clients on the subject with a detailed answer.
QUESTION: I noticed the sugar free gum that I chew every day has xylitol. Someone told me that is sugar alcohol. What exactly is it and is it bad for me, and if this is bad, are there any artificial sweeteners that are good?
ANSWER: Nothing is necessarily good or bad. Some “good” foods have potentially bad properties and vice versa. Where use of many of the artificial sweeteners such as aspartame and acesulfame-K replaces sugar with zero or negligible calories, sugar alcohol does provide sweetness, texture . . and calories! I’ll explain what sugar alcohol is, the good and the bad, and then, in response to your question, I’ll do something that I’ve been meaning to do for some time . . . provide the “real story” on all of the most oft-used artificial sweeteners.
I want to apologize in advance, I’ve been in the fitness and nutrition industry as a holistic personal trainer in Amarillo for a long time. Thus, I’m going to give you a very long but detailed answer! I’ve had this stuff bottled up inside me, waiting to come out, so I’m about to let loose. Don’t be surprised if within this answer I refer to politics, corruption, and deception perpetrated by the sugar industry! Buckle up.
Sugar alcohols, also called polyols, are forms of natural sugars. In chemical structure they resemble both alcohols and sugars, although they are not actually classified as either. Keep in mind, alcohol is actually the simplest sugar in existence, with 7 calories per gram, so it shouldn’t be so much of a leap to understand how these compounds can resemble both.
Sugar alcohols may be listed on the label by specific name. These names include sorbitol, mannitol, and xylitol.
When added to food products in place of sugar, these sugar alcohols provide sweetness, texture and help retain moistness. You’ll find sugar alcohols in sugar-free candies, chewing gum, frozen desserts, cookies, cakes, and pastries.
Where regular sugars contain 4 calories per gram, sugar alcohols contain an average of only 2.6, thus if you have equal amounts of sugar and sugar alcohol (i.e. sucrose and sorbitol) you’d only be getting about 60% of the calories of sugar with sugar alcohol in its place. It’s important to note that while they may not bring about the same sudden rush of sugar into the bloodstream as simple sugars, sugar alcohols can have an effect on your blood sugar and ultimately insulin production, albeit less than sucrose would bring about.
Sorbitol and xylitol are found in plant foods such as fruit and berries, but keep in mind, sugar is extracted from a plant food, namely sugar cane. Although the sugar alcohols are present in certain fruits, the supply that is used in commercial product manufacture is usually synthetic . . . created in a laboratory.
Polyols are absorbed slowly when compared to sucrose. A percentage of the sugar alcohol ingested will not be absorbed. While that is presented as a benefit, in that you never transfer those calories through the gastrointestinal wall, an excessive amount remaining in your digestive tract can result in intestinal discomfort and diarrhea. The polite way of describing this on disclaimers is, “sugar alcohol may have a laxative effect.” 30-50 grams of sorbitol would likely be enough to bring about that effect.
It’s also important to note that sugar alcohols do not add sweetness to foods at the same level as sugar. Sorbitol, for example, is about 50-60% as sweet as sugar. In order to mimic or come close to the taste of a sugar laden food, greater amounts would be needed or the sugar alcohols would have to be combined with simple sugars and/or other artificial sweeteners.
Polyols have been loosely accepted by the AMA as “OK” for people with diabetes, mainly because the slow absorption keeps blood sugar spikes far lower than sucrose would. In other words, the glycemic response is lower. Again, that doesn’t make it ideal. Although it is not absorbed completely, or as rapidly as simple sugars, a good amount of sugar alcohol ingested can be absorbed, those calories DO count, and a bllod sugar spike is quite possible.
Other ingredient label indications of sugar alcohol present include Hydrogenated Starch Hydrolysates (HSH), erythritol, and mannitol
Xylitol is the sugar alcohol most commonly found in chewing gum. This is actually due more to the American Dental Association than any panel of nutrition experts! Xylitol does not allow mouth bacteria to ferment and cause decay, thus incidence of cavities may be reduced. Diabetics and those concerned with blood sugar irregularities should not see this as open license to chew xylitol sweetened gum. While small amounts may be OK, more than 60 grams per day can be hazardous for diabetics. When you begin to take in large amounts of xylitol, the liver converts the excess to glucose, simple sugar, and if enough insulin is not produced to handle the increase in glucose, high blood sugar and the associated risk factors are imminent. Even if you do not have blood sugar irregularities, the increase in glucose can hormonally alter insulin and glucagon levels to limit fat release.
Information put out by sugar sellers may isolate xylitol as a carcinogen, however, that information is the result of a single study where xylitol was fed to lab rats in excessive dosages.
In many supposedly sugar free candies, canned foods, and chocolates, sorbitol is used. It is used in some low sugar or sugar free “sports bars” since it does help keep certain ingredients moist and fresh.
Sugar alcohols are not limited to supermarket foods. You’ll find them in cough drops, breath mints, toothpastes, mouthwashes, and even some pharmaceutical products.
If you are ever confused by the apparent math that goes into calculating calories of foods containing sugar alcohols just note that while simple sugars provide 4 calories per gram, different polyols will throw off different numbers of calories. HSH for example presents 3 calories per gram, which is only 1 calorie short of actual sugars.
The next sweetener to note would be aspartame since it is so widely used and so many misconceptions abound.
In case you don’t recognize the name, Aspartame, there’s no doubt you’ll notice its commercial presence under the names of Equal and Nutrasweet. I’ve written about Aspartame in response to several questions asked over the last year, so I’ll keep it brief here. While many have heard that aspartame causes everything from headaches to seizures, and most health food stores avoid products sweetened with aspartame, aspartame is composed of two amino acids found in any health food store, Aspartic Acid and Phenylalanine. There is a condition known as phenylketonuria (PKU), a congenital condition that makes it
impossible for the body to metabolize phenylalanine. If an individual with PKU ingests aspartame, or pure phenylalanine for that matter, they do run serious risks. Toxic compounds accumulate in the body and lead to nerve damage and, in some cases, severe brain damage. It appears that since aspartame has become such a threat to sugar sales, and the sugar lobby is so powerful in the U.S., the risks present in individuals with phenylketonuria have been used to steer the public away from aspartame use. The supposed research evidence that anti-aspartame groups usually quote is sketchy at best, the propaganda is presented in hyped up scare language, and while I don’t encourage constant use of aspartame, my experience has never led me to anyone who suffered any of those dreadful side effects we hear about. It leads me to the opinion that, if it helps you enjoy a cola or diet soda one in awhile, and you strive to avoid sugar, aspartame, to my satisfaction, has proven OK. A 1-gram packet does yield four calories, however, aspartame is much sweeter than sugar. That influenced the FDA to allow food manufacturers to discount the calories present in aspartame on food labels. Since so little is needed, I don’t know that in this case it’s a major bone of contention. In fact, on this particular product I believe the FDA has acted admirably. The pressures the sugar lobby placed on the FDA throughout the 80’s, 90’s, and going into the next millennium did not cause the turnover of aspartame approval. That’s likely why there is so much underground disparaging of aspartame attempting to “scare the masses” one person at a time. Some of that underground literature suggests that the amounts used in testing was negligible when compared with actual use. After several court visits, hearings, and reviews, the FDA reviewed data including clinical studies in which humans who received single doses of aspartame up to 200 mg/kg of body weight — equal to consuming 70 cans of aspartame-sweetened soft drink in one sitting — showed no ill effects whatsoever.
To date over 100 million people are reported to use aspartame. The CDC estimates 15,000 people in the US have PKU. It seems absurd to use such a small segment of the population to evidence supposed danger which has never been documented in conclusive research. Sure, people with PKU should avoid aspartame, but they should also avoid milk and meats, two foods that contain more phenylalanine than diet cola. You don’t see the same effort going into pressuring the FDA to make the sale of milk and meat illegal. To further satisfy pressures without pulling this product from the market, the FDA required all products sweetened with aspartame to contain the words, “Phenylketonurics: Contains Phenylalanine.”
One of the reasons producers of health supplements steer away from using aspartame as a sweetener is due only to public perception. It you are trying to lose fat, there’s no question simple sugars can interrupt the fat release process. When I created my EAT! formulas, I knew I wanted to make something sugar free. I didn’t like the calorie content that would be added and the risk of stomach upset if I chose to use sugar alcohols. I had samples prepared using varied sweeteners. With aspartame, because it is so much sweeter than sugar, such a small amount was required I decided to run the risk of limited sales due to public perception and create the most viable product possible. In order to reduce further the amount of aspartame in EAT!, I combined it with acesulfame-K which I’ll describe next.
You might know acesulfame-K (acesulfame-potassium) commercially as Sweet One or Sunette. It is actually 200 times sweeter than sugar! It has received some bad press (again, I believe the “Sugar Powers” are to blame) in its chemical structure being compared to that of saccharin, a product that was once pulled from the shelves due to suggestions that it might be a carcinogen. While one study did show that acesulfame-K fed rats grew more tumors than those not fed the compound, more than ninety credible studies have shown that this potassium compound passes through the body unchanged. Because it is so sweet, such small amounts are used it has not been associated with any negative digestive concerns. It has an excellent shelf life, is unaffected at a wide range of temperatures and humidity, and can be used in baking so it is quite appealing for lowering or eliminating sugar content in foods. The reason I didn’t use acesulfame-K exclusively in EAT! is because, although in most foods acesulfame-K offers a clean sweetness, when mixed with the vitamin-mineral formulation in the EAT! product there was a slight bitter aftertaste. By finding the right mix of acesulfame-K and aspartame, we created a delicious sugar free formula. Studies on acesulfame-K have show no effect on blood sugar levels which makes it acceptable for diabetics. Despite pressures from “political groups” to step up testing, acesulfame-K has an excellent track record of safety. I don’t want to scare you with the “carcinogen suggestion,” so I’m going to balance it out with some pretty powerful evidence as to the apparent safety of this sweetener. To date, over 100 credible studies have been conducted.
The Joint Expert Committee on Food Additives (JECFA), the scientific advisory body to the World Health Organization and the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, reviewed the available research on acesulfame-K and concluded that it is safe. The Scientific Committee for Food of the European Union published a comprehensive assessment of sweetener agents in 1985. This committee of toxicological experts from member countries accepted acesulfame-K for use in foods and beverages. Acesulfame-K has been used in Europe since 1983, and in the U.S. since 1988, with no known documented adverse health effects.
I mentioned saccharin so I’ll cover that one next. You know it as Sweet n’ Low. This compound was discovered over 100 years ago. Those who discovered it found it to be intensely sweet. Food processors now recognize that saccharin can actually be hundreds of times sweeter than sugar. That allows them to cut food costs substantially. Since it also passes through the body unchanged, it found its way into the marketplace initially as a sweetener for diabetics. Of course the weight loss market soon jumped on the bandwagon and saccharin became quite popular. It always seemed to raise eyebrows with the FDA, consumer groups, and of course sugar concerns, and while it was banned early on, it was restored during the sugar-short years of World War I. For the next few decades, it was manufactured in foods, in powders, and in little tiny pills. It’s only drawback was a slight metallic aftertaste. Food processors learned that if they added cyclamate to saccharin (I’ll get to that one next), they could minimize that aftertaste. Of course consumer groups and scientists went to work feeding cyclamates to rats.
In the 1960’s two different studies suggested that cyclamate causes cancer . . . at least in rats. Testers went to work feeding those little furry creatures saccharin until they were able to surmise it might cause bladder tumors in rats. (Note that any time something threatens the sale of sugar, it sooner or later is considered unsafe or dangerous). The FDA moved to limit the use of saccharin, but Americans were consuming 2,500 tons of saccharin a year. That gave the saccharin manufacturers some money, some clout in Congress, and the ability to launch the politically oriented Calorie Control Council. They managed to hold off the FDA and keep saccharin on the market. The FDA did, however, remove it from their “Generally Recognized as Safe” list in 1972. Laws were finally passed that any products containing saccharin had to post the words “may be hazardous to your health” and “has been determined to cause cancer in laboratory animals” on their labels. The power of the saccharin groups held up and while it is classified by the FDA as a “weak carcinogen,” Sweet’n Low sales soar.
Cyclamates do not contain calories and offer sweetness 30 times that of sucrose. I won’t go any further on this one since they were banned in the 1970’s. There are efforts taking place to reintroduce it, but for now, you won’t find cyclamates being sold commercially as a sweetener.
Leave it to science. They’ve figured out a way to chemically make sugar 100 times sweeter. The end result . . . Sucralose, sold commercially under the brand name, Splenda. I use sucralose in some of my meal replacement formulas. Because it’s so sweet, such a tiny amount is needed it’s relatively insignificant in terms of its ability to spike blood sugar. Of course, as all other sugar substitutes, it will get some bad press, but based on the information I’ve come across, I don’t see any reason to avoid it.
Whew! I told you that would be a long answer, but I believe that about covers it. One final note, stevia is a natural sugar compound found in a plant, but is 100 times sweeter than sugar. It can act as a sugar replacement and is not likely to throw sugar levels out of whack due to the tiny amounts required. If you are using or wanting to try stevia, use the liquid version only. The powdered forms are showing up with more and more cornstarch as a filler.
I don’t want to overload you with too much info (too late?) today, so we’ll stop there. As always, if you have any questions about our personal training, nutrition counseling, or group classes and programs, please contact us at: firstname.lastname@example.org or 806-322-3188. At Custom Fitness we are YOUR personal trainers in Amarillo, Texas. Have a great day everybody.