Monday, August 17, 2009

Artificial & Alternative Sweeteners

I am often asked which sweetener I use and would recommend. First, I’ll say that I’ve tried almost all of them! Right now, in my house, I have several sweeteners that I use in various ways, but my all-time, most dependable favorite is Stevia. I buy it by the large bagful and have dedicated a canister to it on my kitchen counter. Through experimentation, I’ve discovered that it is stable in cooking if the heat isn't too high (350-degrees or below) and will sustain its sweet flavor over a long period. When I need an extremely low-carb and calorie sweetener, this is the brand I turn to almost exclusively. Below is a review of the sweeteners I have used and for what purpose:

Artificial Sweeteners
1. Splenda is sucralose and comes in a granular form or various blends for baking. It's safety classification has been changed by the Center for Science in the Public Safety from "generally considered safe" to "caution."  The reason is because new studies have shown that there is a chemical transformation that occurs when heated that creates dioxins, which are toxic and can be harmful to health.  Also, there may be a link to certain health conditions, including insulin resistance, diabetes and may negatively impact the microbiome, reducing beneficial bacteria in the digestive tract.  This once was my artificial sweetener of choice, but after the recent findings, I no longer use it or recommend it.  To read more, please visit:
 Nutritional Information per teaspoon: 2 calories, 0.5 g carbohydrate.

2. Sweet-N-Low is a mixture of saccharin, dextrose and cream of tartar. It is best used for sweetening desserts that are not cooked or added to beverages. It has a slight bitter aftertaste and is not stable in heated foods and will eventually lose its sweetening power over time when heated. It comes in a very sweet powder or liquid. In my house, it is used to sweeten my husband’s coffee only. He prefers it over Stevia because one packet will sweeten his tall mug of coffee where two Stevia packets would be required. I never use it in cooking and don't recommend it. Nutritional Information per packet: 2 calories, 0.5 g carbohydrate.

3. Equal is a mixture of aspartame, dextrose and maltodextrin and has many of the same properties as Sweet-N-Low. It comes in packets and also in a dispensable form that can be used in cooking that can be measured 1:1 in recipes like regular sugar. It should never be used alone in baking, but can replace up to half of regular sugar. It is not stable in heated foods and will eventually lose its sweetening power over time when heated, so for that reason I don’t use it in cooking. It has a slight aftertaste which seems to intensify when heated, but is not as unpleasant as Sweet-N-Low.  There has been much negative press about aspartame and its impact on health.  I do not use it or recommend it. Nutritional Information per teaspoon: 4 calories, 0.5 g carbohydrate.

4. Sugar Alcohols are widely being used in processed and prepared sugar-free products, such as baked goods, puddings and candy. Xylitol is a form available for home use. As with most sugar alcohols, consumption can result in bloating, diarrhea, and odorous flatulence, although xylitol generally rather less so than other sugar alcohols, such as sorbitol or maltitol. Because I experience these uncomfortable and socially embarrassing side effects when having consumed even the slightest amount of sugar alcohol, I never use them or eat any product made from them. Many people can tolerate sugar alcohols at first but, over time, will eventually succumb to the side effects and no longer be able to eat them without discomfort. I have listed it here to warn others who might be saying, “I get sick when I eat any artificial sweeteners.” Check the nutritional label on your food products (don’t just look on the front of the box). Most often you will discover that these sugar alcohols are the real culprit, not all artificial sweeteners. Also, “sugar-free” products that use sugar alcohols for sweetening are not carb free. Maltitol, xylitol and the other sugar alcohols (usually ending in “itol”) do count toward your total carb intake of the product. When you’re counting carbs, you have to count the sugar alcohols by half. So, if the nutritional information says it has 12 grams of sugar alcohol in a serving, you need to count 6 as part of the total carbs. Nutritional Information per teaspoon: 2 calories, 2.4 g carbohydrate.

5. Stevia was once only available in health food stores in the supplement section, but it is now being manufactured in the USA and has become available in the sugar section of your grocery. It can be found under the brand names Truvia, SweetLeaf, SteviaPlus, Stevia in the Raw (and others) and available in packets, granular or liquid. It’s the topic of a lot of conversation and spouted as the natural alternative to those wishing to stay away from artificial sweeteners. It is labeled “natural” because it is extracted from the stevia plant, but it is processed and manufactured in a way that isn’t exactly natural, meaning it is derived from a natural source and being used in its natural state, so it falls in a weird category. (NOTE: Some brands combine it with Erythritol, which is a sugar alcohol. When compared with other sugar alcohols, it is much more difficult for intestinal bacteria to digest, so it is unlikely to cause gas or bloating. Although if consumed in larger quantities or if you have a sensitivity to sugar alcohols, it is possible to experience digestive disturbances. Also, allergic side effects can be itching with hives, so be aware and check the food label on the package.) Stevia can be an excellent alternative to other artificial sweeteners, especially for sweetening beverages and in recipes that don’t require high heat cooking. Unfortunately, even though it is a zero calorie sweetener, it is not the “magic” sugar substitute for every purpose because it has proven to be unstable in recipes cooked at temperatures over about 350-degrees Fahrenheit and will lose its sweetening power over time when heated. Also, some people complain of an aftertaste, similar to aspartame or saccharin. I don’t notice an aftertaste especially when combined with raw honey or table sugar in cooking.  Currently, this is the no-carb sweetener I use and recommend.  I use the drops in beverages and some recipes.  If bulk is needed, I use the granular.  Whenever possible, purchase organic stevia.  Nutritional Information per packet or drop: 0 calories, 0 g carbohydrate.

Alternative Natural Sweeteners

1. Fructose is the type of sugar found in fruits and high-sugar produce or plants, such as corn or agave. After processing, the result is either a sweet liquid or granulated sugar that has been clinically shown to have a lower glycemic response in the body than regular table sugar. This is not to say it is calorie or carb-free, because it is not. Because fructose is usually 25% to 30% sweeter than sugar, you can use less in recipes and maintain the same level of sweetness. The fact that you can cut the amount by ¼ to 1/3 is about the only advantage of using fructose in place of sugar. The final carb count may be slightly less, but your blood sugar will be raised significantly compared to artificial sweeteners. Recently there has been some controversy about fructose contributing to metabolic syndrome, which is very often a condition that T2 diabetics are afflicted with and can lead to many health concerns, including heart disease and high blood pressure. Personally, I avoid fructose (unless I'm eating fresh fruit or vegetables) and will not buy a product if it lists High Fructose Corn Syrup on the label. Nutritional Information per teaspoon: 15 calories, 4 g carbohydrate.

2. Due to its increase in popularity, I would like to discuss Agave Nectar, which can be found in most health food stores and is being added as a natural alternative sweetener to many prepared products these days. For diabetics, it is not the miracle sweetener because it does contain high amounts of carbohydrate (16 per tablespoon) and will raise your blood sugar quite a bit. It is fructose extracted from the agave plant and processed into a light or dark liquid, similar to honey but not as thick. It is 25% sweeter than sugar, so you can use ¼ less in a recipe and still maintain the same level of sweetness. Because it is a fructose, the same health concerns apply to agave nectar as to high fructose corn syrup and other fructose sweetening products. Nutritional Information per teaspoon: 20 calories, 5.3 g carbohydrate.

3. A new arrival on the scene is Yacon syrup. It is extracted and condensed from fresh yacon roots, a South American plant found in the Amazon region, and has a taste similar to molasses. Like agave, it is much sweeter than sugar so you can use less in recipes. It has a carbohydrate count of 6 grams per tablespoon, so it considerably less than agave. It is nutritionally known as a prebiotic. It contains inulin, an indigestible sugar (mainly fructose) that passes through the body essentially unrecognized and is broken down in the intestines and stimulates the activity of "good" bacteria in the digestive system. It must be noted that this process can cause some digestive symptoms in some people, such as bloating and gas, especially if consumed in larger quantities. It is best to experiment with small quantities to see how your body reacts before consuming larger amounts or using in recipes. Currently this product is hard to find and can be purchased on the internet or at Whole Foods. It is expensive, usually costing $10 or more for an 8 ounce jar! Due to its recent appearance, not much is available yet on how diabetics have responded to this product, although looking at the nutritional information and the fact that is fructose, I probably will not use it. I have purchased this product and have used it in tea and the flavor is pleasant. Due to the high cost, I don't believe it will be a staple in my pantry. Nutritional Information per teaspoon: 8.3 calories, 2 g carbohydrate.

4. Whey Low is another new line of alternative sweetener products to hit the scene. There is one type being advertised as suitable for diabetics, called Whey Low D granular. It is a combination of fructose and lactose (milk sugar) said to produce a lower glycemic response compared to 100% regular table sugar. I have used this product and have experienced a significant rise in my blood glucose. Also, it contains as much carbohydrate as regular sugar (4 grams per teaspoon or 96 grams per ½ cup), so I’m not sure I believe their claims. The one good difference between Whey Low and regular sugar is that it is reduced in calories, so using it can reduce the caloric count of the final product. In the recipes in which I've used it, the texture was a bit gritty, as if the sugar didn’t dissolve completely, which I found strange and a bit unpleasant. Also, it doesn’t easily dissolve in beverages (which probably explains the grittiness in my cupcakes). I don't recommend it because it is difficult to find and was not pleased with its performance. Nutritional Information per teaspoon: 5 calories, 4 g carbohydrate.

5. Honey is indeed a natural sweetener that is more dense and sweeter than regular table sugar, so you generally use less. If only a small amount is called for, it can be a good alternative, even though it does contribute carbohydrate to the final product. One tablespoon is 17.3 grams of carbohydrate (or 135.2 grams per ½ cup), which can add up quickly when used in quantity in recipes. The cautionary advice I would recommend is use it in moderation or small amounts.  Currently I use Wild Raw Honey sparingly or in combination with Stevia and am very pleased.   Nutritional Information per teaspoon: 21.3 calories, 5.7 g carbohydrate.

6. Let’s not forget table sugar. It is sucrose and primarily comes from sugar beets or sugar cane. It's chemical makeup is about 50% glucose and 50% fructose.  It is a basic food carbohydrate and immediately turns to glucose in the body. It needs to be limited in a diabetic’s diet because it can cause havoc on blood glucose when consumed in even moderate amounts at one sitting. But since we all know that ordinary white granulated sugar is the product everyone is trying to emulate, it is good for us to look at it for comparison. Nutritional information per teaspoon: 16 calories, 4.2 g carbohydrate.

The bottom line…
If you are diabetic and want to include an occasional sweet treat in your diet, most likely you will have to include some artificial sweetener in the recipe to reduce the carbohydrates and minimize the effect on your blood glucose. If going natural is your desire, before you choose a sweetener with carbohydrate, test to see how your blood glucose responds—don’t just guess, make assumptions or take anyone else’s advice. It is important to know how the product reacts in your body. The way to test is to dissolve about 4 tablespoons of the product in water and, first thing in the morning before eating anything or taking medication, test your fasting blood glucose level and record. Drink the mixture all at once and take a BG reading after 15 minutes and record. Thereafter, take your BG reading every 30 minutes for 2 hours to see what effect the sweetener has on your blood sugar readings. If you experience a significant rise, that particular sweetener should be limited in your diet or only eaten in small amounts.


  1. Totally agree on Splenda. It's definitely number one. I honestly cannot tell the difference between it and cane sugar. Thanks for the review, and thanks for not eluding to all the pseudoscience out there about artificial sweeteners being poison. These memes get enough attention as it is. Many diabetics (like myself) count on these products to keep our carbohydrate intake in check.

  2. I'm a little confused. You say you no longer use or recommend Splenda but your dessert recipes have Splenda as an ingredient.

  3. Yes, it is confusing, I know! I've been writing this blog for years and the jury has returned a verdict on Splenda that is not favorable, so I no longer use it. I use pure Stevia extract with no fillers, maltodextrin, dextrose or alcohol. Some people still use Splenda, so I didn't go back and change every recipe I've ever posted that suggests it as an ingredient. That would take just too much time! As I post new recipes, I no longer recommend Splenda. Please feel free to switch Splenda for Stevia in any recipe, the result will be the same.