Sweeteners are agents that add sweetness to foods and can be natural or artificial. Natural sweeteners include sucrose (table sugar), honey and jaggery, glucose or dextrose, liquid glucose, brown or demerara sugar, caramel, invert sugar, lactose, maltose, maltodextrins, malt extract, fructose, high fructose corn syrup, molasses and maple syrup that provide calories by themselves thereby increasing the energy content of the food. Natural sweeteners also include extracts of stevia plant and monk fruit that provide intense sweetness without extra calories and polyols or sugar alcohols that provide sweetness with lower calories as compared to sugar.
The most common sugar used in foods is sucrose which is made up of glucose and fructose. The human body handles glucose and fructose in different ways beginning with their digestion and absorption. Glucose is obtained from the digestion of both sugar and starch and is absorbed from the intestine into the blood and used to meet the body’s energy needs. Glucose in excess of energy needs is converted into glycogen and stored in the liver and muscles and are readily available energy stores to the body. Once the glycogen stores are full the excess is converted into fat and stored. Fructose upon digestion and absorption is metabolised primarily in the liver.
Over the last 50 years, the dietary intake of sugar and fructose has tripled all over the world and there is emerging evidence that increased fructose intake maybe partly responsible for the rising incidences of obesity, diabetes and heart disease worldwide. Excessive amounts of fructose have been found to be readily converted into triglycerides by the liver cells which in turn elevates levels of blood triglycerides, VLDL and LDL cholesterol and could result in non-alcoholic fatty liver disease (NAFLD). Fructose also promotes the build-up of fat around organs (visceral fat), increases blood pressure, elevates uric acid levels, makes the tissues insulin resistant and increases the production of free radicals that cause cell damage.
Artificial sweeteners also known as non-nutritive sweeteners or low-calorie sweeteners are chemical compounds that are generally a thousand times sweeter than sugar. Due to their intense sweetening power, these sweeteners can be used in very small amounts and thus add only negligible calories to foods and beverages. These sweeteners are widely used in the manufacture of a variety of food and beverages marketed as ‘sugar free’ or ‘diet foods’. Saccharine, aspartame, acesulfame potassium, sucralose, advantame and neotame are six artificial or low- calorie sweeteners that are permitted for use in foods.
The safety of long term consumption of artificial sweeteners has often been questioned and after reviewing a number of scientific studies, the U.S FDA has found that saccharine, aspartame, acesulfame potassium, sucralose, advantame and neotame are safe for the general population. These six artificial sweeteners along with monk fruit extract and stevia leaf extract have a status known as GRAS, or Generally Recognized As Safe for the general population. Only individuals with a rare hereditary condition called phenylketonuria (PKU) need to strictly avoid aspartame as it contains phenylalanine.
For people with diabetes who must control their blood-sugar levels through careful monitoring of their sugar and carbohydrate intake, low-calorie sweeteners can offer a sweet alternative that does not affect blood glucose levels.
Successful weight management requires a low-calorie balanced diet along with regular exercise to reach an optimal weight. Low calorie sweeteners when used in place of sugar or other natural caloric sweeteners help reduce total calories of the diet without depriving one of sweet taste. However, one must be careful as a food may still be high in calories from fat or starch.
Studies have repeatedly shown that low-calorie sweeteners do not cause or increase the risk of developing cancer.
(Writer is a consultant nutritionist with 19 years of experience, practicing at Panaji and can be contacted on firstname.lastname@example.org)