Sugar substitutes - healthy alternative to sugar?

Sugar substitutes such as stevia, xylitol or the synthetic sweetener saccharin are found not only in more and more diet products, but are also increasingly used in daily cooking and baking. Especially for diabetics, sweeteners and so-called sugar substitutes can be a good alternative to conventional sugar. Because the sweet-tasting substances have a significantly lower influence on the blood sugar level than table sugar. But also to protect the teeth or to reduce calories, many people resort to sugar substitutes. Whether the sugar alternatives are really healthier and where the pros and cons of the various sugar substitutes, you can find out here.

Why sugar replacement?

Every year we consume about 35 kilograms of sugar per person in Germany - the majority of which is not in sweets, but in industrially processed products such as fruit juices, soft drinks or processed foods. However, ordinary table sugar (sucrose) is considered very unhealthy: sucrose is associated with overweight, chronic diseases such as diabetes and cardiovascular disease as well as caries.

Therefore, more and more people prefer to use a sugar substitute. This offers several advantages:

  • Many of the different substitutes have significantly less or no calories - after all, table sugar brings in 400 kilocalories per 100 grams. The fact that sugar substitutes cause cravings and prevent the loss rather than to promote, has not yet been scientifically proven.
  • The substitutes are often not cariogenic, so they do not promote caries, unlike sugar.
  • For diabetics, sugar substitutes and sweeteners offer the opportunity to reduce sugar intake and eat sweets without overly affecting their blood sugar levels.

Sweeteners and sugar substitutes - where is the difference?

Anyone looking for a suitable sugar substitute can easily lose track of the jungle of terms because sweeteners, sugar substitutes and sugar substitutes are not the same thing. This is behind the different names:

  • Sweeteners are a chemically or naturally produced sugar substitute with an extremely high sweetening power. They contain virtually no calories and do not promote the formation of tooth decay, as they do not provide food for the bacteria in the oral flora. Sweeteners are considered suitable for diabetics.
  • Sugar substitutes are carbohydrates that are metabolized insulin-independently and thus affect the blood sugar level less than sugar. That's why most of them are suitable for diabetics. In addition to fructose, the so-called sugar alcohols are counted among the sugar substitutes. Its sweetening power is similar to that of table sugar, usually slightly lower. In addition, they contain a little less calories - but they should be taken into account when calculating the daily calorie intake.
  • Sugar substitutes is the generic term for any form of sugar alternative. So it includes both sweeteners and sugar substitutes.

5 alternatives to sugar

To save on cooking and baking sugar, you have the choice between different sweeteners. The list of possible sugar substitutes includes, for example:

  1. synthetic sweeteners
  2. Stevia
  3. sugar alcohols
  4. fructose
  5. glucose

In the following, we will introduce you to the different sugar alternatives.

Synthetic sweeteners - sweetness without carbohydrates

Synthetic sweeteners such as cyclamate (E 952), aspartame (E951) or saccharin (E 954) contain - based on the amount needed for sweetening - no or almost no calories and do not raise the blood sugar level. Because they contain no carbohydrates, sweeteners are commonly used in low carb recipes or "light" products.

Evidence from an animal experiment that artificial sweeteners may possibly promote the development of diabetes, could not be confirmed for humans so far. However, one study suggested that daily consumption of diet sodas could increase the risk of cardiovascular disease. More precise connections are not yet explored.

Also possible side effects from sweetener consumption such as an increased risk of cancer or an increased appetite could not be proven by studies - consumption consumed in normal household amounts, the consumption is considered harmless.

How much of a sweetener can be consumed without hesitation per day is given as the so-called Acceptable Daily Intake (ADI). This is determined by international expert committees and published, among others, by the Federal Institute for Risk Assessment.

Stevia as a herbal sweetener

Stevia is a natural sweetener from the leaves of a South American plant - the production of the sugar substitute is still not without chemistry, because the leaves must first be treated in the laboratory. The sweetener has been approved as a food additive E 960 in Europe since 2011, making it a comparatively new sweetener, but now available in almost every health food store and supermarket.

Stevia also has no effect on blood sugar levels and neither calories nor is the sweetener harmful to the teeth - therefore Stevia is considered a relatively healthy alternative to sugar.

However, the slightly bitter, licorice reminiscent aftertaste takes a bit of getting used to. Stevia is about 300 times as sweet as sugar, which is why it is important to dose the sugar substitute in baking and cooking exactly as stated by the manufacturer. When buying Stevia you should definitely pay attention to the ingredients: Often, the sweetener is enriched with other sweeteners such as erythritol (erythritol) or maltodextrin as a filler.

Sugar alcohols - laxative in larger quantities

Sugar alcohols such as maltitol (E 965), xylitol (E 967), mannitol (E 421) and sorbitol (E 420) are among the sugar substitutes. They contain fewer calories than sugar and lower the blood sugar level. However, they can cause bloating, diarrhea, and nausea, especially if consumed excessively. As a result, they are not suitable for irritable bowel patients, for example.

From the point of view of dentistry, sugar alcohols are a good alternative to sugar: as they generally do not promote tooth decay, sugar alcohols are commonly used in chewing gum, toothpaste, and other dentifrices. In particular, xylitol (also known as xylitol), also referred to as birch sugar due to its presence in birch bark, is often used in dental care products.

Due to its better digestibility, erythritol (E 968) has recently gained in popularity and is sold, inter alia, under the brand names Xucker light® or Sukrin®: Compared with other sugar alcohols, erythritol does not cause flatulence and diarrhea so quickly, although in larger quantities as well laxative acts. Its sweetening power is slightly lower than that of sugar, but it has almost no calories. Erythritol has a good taste comparable to sugar and can therefore be a suitable substitute for baking.

Fructose unsuitable as a sugar substitute

Fructose (fructose) provides the same amount of calories as sugar, but affects blood sugar levels to a lesser extent. Therefore, it is also counted among the sugar substitutes.

However, the consumption of fructose in large quantities has a negative impact on lipid metabolism and blood pressure - industrialized products sweetened with fructose are therefore not a recommended alternative for diabetics. Naturally occurring fructose, such as in fruit, however, should have no harmful effects on blood lipid levels. For the teeth, fructose is just as unhealthy as conventional table sugar.

Incidentally, the same health effects as fructose include thick juices such as apple syrup or agave syrup, as the main component of these concentrated fruit juices is fructose.

Grape sugar as an alternative to fructose intolerance

Grape sugar (glucose or dextrose) is a type of sugar that occurs naturally in honey and various types of fruit. Contrary to the name, grape sugar is not made from grapes, but from corn or potatoes, or, strictly speaking, from their starch. The sweetening power is about half compared with table sugar, so you usually use larger quantities when cooking and baking.

Grape sugar is good for people with a fructose intolerance. For diabetics, however, the sugar substitute is not suitable because of its high glycemic index.

4 facts about sugar - © istockphoto, rangreiss

Is sugar taboo in diabetes?

As part of a balanced diet, a normal mixed diet with a carbohydrate content of 45 to 60 percent of the total energy is recommended for diabetics. This means that about half of the calories consumed daily should come from carbohydrates - so diabetics do not have to follow any special low-carbohydrate diet.

Ideally, the carbohydrates are derived from high-fiber foods that have a low glycemic load, so do not cause significant fluctuations in insulin levels. For example, whole grains, fresh vegetables and legumes are a good choice.

"Simple" carbohydrates such as table sugar, dextrose or fructose should, if possible, contribute no more than ten percent of the total daily energy intake. Therefore, some of the sugar substitutes for diabetics may be a good alternative. Here are tips for sugar-free snacking for diabetics.

Diet products for diabetics

Although special diet products such as cookies, chocolate or desserts usually contain less sugar, they often contain more fat and therefore more calories. Do not be fooled by the words "light" or "diet" - a comparison of nutritional information is worthwhile. Incidentally, since 2012, to avoid such misunderstandings, there are no special diet products for diabetics anymore.

In addition, diabetics should be aware that dietary products containing sugar substitutes may contain less carbohydrates. If this is not included in the calculation of the insulin dose, it can lead to low blood sugar.

Sugar substitute for baking and cooking

Not all sugar substitutes are suitable for baking and cooking. For example, some are not heat-stable and lose their sweetening power when heated or become bitter. Others can not be caramelized.

Also, especially when baking, remember that using sugar substitutes can change the volume and texture of the dough. The following should be considered when baking with sugar substitute in terms of dosage:

  • Due to the significantly higher sweetening power of sweeteners you need a correspondingly small amount of sugar substitute. This reduces the amount of dough.
  • If you also use liquid sweetness, it may be necessary to reduce the amount of other liquid accordingly.
  • For less sweet sugar substitutes, such as erythritol, you need a larger amount than sugar - otherwise the pastry will taste less sweet.

In addition, sugar has a binding power that you like to take advantage of when baking. This is eliminated when using many sugar substitutes.

If you are not yet experienced in baking with sweetener as a sugar replacement, it is recommended to use special recipes with the respective substitute. In addition, there are usually instructions on the packaging for use of the particular sugar substitute in baking and cooking.

Conclusion: sugar replacement is not always healthier than sugar

There is agreement that we are consuming too much sugar by far. Sugar substitutes are often advertised as the healthy alternative: The substitutes should be free of calories, care for the teeth and also allow diabetics unlimited snacking. But a closer look shows: Each sugar substitute has other advantages and disadvantages and not all are suitable for all sugar alternatives. Therefore, it is advisable to get detailed information before deciding on a variant.

In addition, sugar substitutes should be enjoyed only in moderation - not only because of possible side effects such as the laxative effect of sugar alcohols, but also because some of the supposed dietary products compensate for the calories saved on sugar by fat and other ingredients. In addition, some sugar substitutes are very expensive to produce and therefore very expensive.

Anyone who relies on a sugar substitute for health reasons will certainly find a suitable alternative to sugar in the large selection of possible substances. Sometimes, however, it is better to completely resist the desire for sweets in order to do something good for your health.

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