Sweeteners Sized Up

Words: Dr Namitha RAJENDRAN P C

You don’t think of sweeteners until the word, diabetes, ‘pops up’ in your mind, or life — or, you are an avid health buff, more so with ‘up-to-the-minute’ information cherry-picked from WhatsApp University. When the ‘likely’ diagnosis of the famed sugar disorder becomes a reality, the thought of having to surrender all your sweet cravings also becomes not just a necessity, but peremptory too.

It is a given thing today that many of us ‘scan’ through the local market, or online store, to look at healthy versions of sugar and/or sugar-free options to satisfy that ‘sweet tooth.’ Most youngsters, especially fitness enthusiasts, are as a norm looking at sugar-free, or low-calorie food, options to keeping up with their goals.

Table Sugar

This is typically sucrose [glucose + fructose], extracted from sugarcane, or beet.

It provides energy, increases blood pressure instantly, elevates mood, heals wounds. Brown sugar is mixed with molasses, which encompasses of minerals like iron, calcium, potassium and magnesium, including vitamins.

Just one teaspoon of table sugar has 40 calories. Increased consumption may be a risk for diabetes, heart disease and cancer.

Jaggery

Jaggery is a traditional sweetener made from sugarcane juice, or palm sap.

It is unrefined. It is rich in nutrients, viz., iron, 11mg, magnesium, 70-90mg, potassium, 1,050 mg and manganese, 0.2-0.5mg [per 100gm].

Jaggery contains 19 calories per teaspoon; it is highly glycaemic.

Jaggery has a rich earthy flavour. It is commonly used in desserts, sweets, and traditional Indian dishes.

Honey

Honey is a natural sweetener made by bees — from the nectar in flowers.

It contains antioxidants, vitamins, such as pyridoxine, thiamine, niacin, riboflavin, pantothenic acid, as also certain amino acids. The minerals found include calcium, copper, iron, phosphorus, potassium, magnesium, manganese, sodium and zinc.

One tablespoon of honey contains 64 calories. After extraction, honey may yet contain undesirable compounds, such as beeswax and pollen, which are known allergens. Most commercial honey in the market is synthetically produced from a mix of glucose syrups, inverted sugar solutions modified with flavours, fillers, dyes, and sugar.

Honey is versatile and can be used in beverages, desserts, baked goods, dressings, and also as a topping for dishes.

Dates

Dates are the sweet fruit of the date palm tree.

They are high in fibre, vitamins, and minerals, such as pyridoxine, potassium, manganese, magnesium, copper and iron. It is rich in antioxidants. It contains fluorine and selenium. Dates provide good teeth protection against decay and also stimulate immune function.

An 8-gm serving of dates provides approximately 23 calories. Most easily digestible forms, such as date syrup, can contain added sugars and preservatives. They can cause spikes in your blood sugar levels.

Dates are often found in desserts, smoothies, energy bars and baked products.

Coconut Sugar

Coconut sugar is derived from the sap of coconut palm flowers.

Coconut sugar contains nutrients like iron, zinc, calcium, and potassium. It provides a better digestion rate and lower glycaemic index [GI] between 35 and 42. It is also high in vitamin C and other vitamins.

Coconut sugar contains just small amounts of minerals, antioxidants and fibre.

It is often used in cakes, cookies, sprinkled on top of granola, mixed into a parfait and also used in sauce.

Maple Syrup

It is made from the sap of maple trees. While not locally produced in India, maple syrup is available in health-food stores and online grocery platforms.

Maple syrup has a high content of minerals, such as manganese, zinc, calcium, iron and sodium. It has anti-cancer and anti-neurodegenerative properties.

It contains 12gm of sugar in a single tablespoon. Ingesting maple syrup can cause swings in your blood sugar and insulin levels.

It is commonly used as a topping for pancakes, waffles and desserts, as also as a flavouring for fritters, ice-cream and sausages. It is used as a sweetener in cakes, pies, breads, tea and coffee too.

Stevia

Steviol glycoside is the naturally occurring compound extracted from Stevia rebaudiana leaves.

Stevia is 250-300 times sweeter than sugar. It prevents tooth decay and helps in weight loss.

In high concentrations, its extracts may have a bad after-taste — liquorice-like, or bitter.

Stevia products are blended with artificial sugar alcohols used in baking — they may cause digestive problems, such as bloating and diarrhoea.

Stevia can be used as a natural sweetener in beverages, sweet treats and baking. It is commercially available as a sugar-free gum, Zindagi.

Artificial Sweeteners

They are synthetically produced. They are non-nutritive. They provide the sensation of sweetness in the foods we add them to.

The most common artificial sweeteners available are as follows —

Aspartame   

Its composition: methyl ester of a dipeptide.

It is almost 200 times sweeter than sucrose.

It increases cortisol levels and alters the activity of the gut microbiome, triggers headaches and migraines. The marketing gimmick that it is a protein derivative is misleading. Packaged products are labelled as sugar-free, no calorie/sugar and low-calorie/sugar.

It is used in carbonated soft drinks, powdered drinks, instant coffee and tea, fruit juice, table top sweeteners, dairy products, frozen desserts, puddings, yogurt, chewing gum, fresh breath mints, candy and cereals.

Brands: Sugar Free, Sugranil, Sugrano and Equal.

Sucralose

This is a synthetic organo-chlorine sweetener.

It has no calories.

Sucralose is 600 times sweeter than sugar. It has no bitter after-taste.

The bulking agents used with sucralose, such as maltodextrin, which is not listed in the ingredients list, can add 12 calories per tablespoon. It is not recommended for children.

Sucralose is used in baked products, beverages, chewing gum, gelatine and frozen dairy desserts.

Brands: Splenda, Natura, Wipro Sweet ‘n’ Healthy and Elita.

Xylitol  

It is made from polyalcohols obtained from berries, oats, mushrooms, corn husks and sugarcane.

It reduces glycaemic response, dental cavities and calorie intake. Its low glycemic index of 13 makes it 5 per cent less sweet than sugar.

It can trigger abdominal gas and diarrhoea. Xylitol is only low-carb, not zero-carb. It is toxic and potentially lethal for pets.

It is used in chewing gum, hard candies and pharmaceutical products.

Brands: So Sweet, Equal and Urban Platter.

Erythritol   

This has sugar alcohols derived from corn, or apples and pears. It is commercially obtained from fermentation of dextrose from corn.

It has no calories; it is non-glycaemic and non-carcinogenic, with less digestive issues. It does not cause acidity. It has antioxidant and endothelium protective properties. The granulated, or powdered, form is easy to use.

It may trigger digestive problems and diarrhoea. It may also cause bloating, cramps, and gas. Additionally, erythritol and other sugar alcohols may result in water retention in the intestines, causing diarrhoea, aside from nausea and headaches in certain individuals.

It is used in confectionery and baked products, sugar-free gums and mints and beverages like zero-calorie, diet sodas and energy drinks, sugar-free chocolate, ice-cream, cookies, biscuits and certain medicines.

Brands: So Sweet, Zevic, Urban Platter, La Casa.

Saccharin  

It is a compound — benzoic sulphamide, a coal tar derivative. It is available in three forms: acid saccharin, sodium saccharin and calcium saccharin.

It is 500 times sweeter than sugar and heat stable. It is not metabolised by the human body. It gets excreted in the same form as it is consumed.

Its use should be avoided in children and pregnant women.

It is associated with allergic reactions and altered gut flora in some people. It is known for its bitter after-taste. Consumption of high doses of saccharin, especially the sodium version, may lead to bladder cancer.

It is used in table top sweeteners, baked products, jams, chewing gum, canned fruit, candy, dessert toppings and salad dressings. It also is used in cosmetic products, vitamins and pharmaceuticals.

Brands: Sweet’n Low and Nutriwish.

Endnote

Extracts, or liquid forms, of sweeteners do not have bulking agents. Granulated, or powdered, forms are often combined with dextrose, or maltodextrin — forms of sugar — to maintain optimal texture and prevent caking.

Some people may purportedly consume high calorie foods with, or after, low-calorie foods to justify that they are moderating their calorie consumption.

Some artificial sweeteners are not suitable for certain medical conditions. Always check their constituents — under professional guidance — before consumption.

Dr NAMITHA RAJENDRAN P C, BHMS, who holds professional qualifications in applied psychology, medico-legal law and ethics, along with a diploma [Advanced Cases] from IACH, Greece, has been practicing homeopathy for the past 23 years with special interests in health education and veterinary homeopathy, apart from being a student in nutrition and health education. She lives in Bengaluru, India.

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