How many times have we gone grocery shopping for one thing, and then within moments, something else catches our eye? It looks good. It probably tastes good. Hmm…the list of ingredients doesn’t say “sugar”. That means it must be healthy, right? At first glance we may think so. But as they say, “what looks good, is not always good for you”. Sometimes other sugary substitutes lurk on nutrition labels right underneath our noses. These “hidden sugars”, as we call them, are usually found as one of two forms: artificial sweeteners or sugar alcohols (1,2,3).
In the U.S. there are 6 common artificial sweeteners: The six products are: aspartame, sucralose, neotame, acesulfame potassium, saccharin and stevia (1,2,3). Most people know them by their brand names. Equal, Sweet and Low, Splenda, and Truvia to name a few. These sweet stand-ins are often hundreds of times sweeter than table sugar. They are easy to purchase at most stores. With low safety concerns, they are sometimes used to substitute for table sugar in various recipes and diet-drinks (2,3). Many of them are heat-stable and can be used in dishes which require exposure to high temperatures like home-cooked food and baked goods (3).
On the other hand, sugar alcohols are generally used in products like toothpaste, gum, candy, fruit spreads and manufactured baked goods. Some sugar alcohols like erythritol are naturally-occurring and can be found in certain fruit and fermented foods (3). Others like isomalt, mannitol, sorbitol, and xylitol are synthetically-made (1,2,3). Unlike artificial sweeteners, sugar alcohols are most times only a fraction as sweet as regular table sugar. Sugar alcohols are known to add bulk and texture to the foods and products they are added to (3).
While both artificial sweeteners and sugar alcohols provide the sweet taste of sugar, often with little or no calories, there can be some downsides (1,2,3). Used in moderation, these sugar substitutes can help people with diabetes control weight and even protect against tooth decay (3). However, “too much of a good thing is not always a good thing”. Sometimes the brain has trouble telling artificial sugar and regular sugar apart. When we eat sugar, the body begins to crave more. This craving can lead some people to overeat or eat more sweet things (1). The extra calories from overeating may lead to weight gain. A few sugar substitutes also have some undesirable side effects. Large amounts of sugar alcohols have been associated with diarrhea. This laxative effect often appears with bloating and intestinal gas (3).
Remember that just because a label may not state “sugar” as an ingredient on the food label, it does not mean that there is not any form of sugar in it. Be mindful next time you go grocery shopping!
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Artificial Sweeteners. The Nutrition Source. (Healthy Drinks). Retrieved from https://www.hsph.harvard.edu/nutritionsource/healthy-drinks/artificial-sweeteners/
Bjarnadottir, A. (2017, June 3). The 56 Most Common Names for Sugar. Retrieved from https://www.healthline.com/nutrition/56-different-names-for-sugar
Washburn, C., & Christensen N. (2012, June). Sugar Substitutes: Artificial Sweeteners and Sugar Alcohols. Retrieved from https://digitalcommons.usu.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?referer=https://www.bing.com/&httpsredir=1&article=1201&context=extension_curall