A Buyer's Guide to Sugar Substitutes

The good, the bad and the unacceptable.

According to a recent survey, seven out of 10 adults say they want to reduce or avoid added sugars. To do so, they’re turning to sweeteners that deliver zero or minimal calories. Data from Mintel, a market research group in Chicago, shows that while sales of caloric sweeteners like sugar have been declining in recent years, sales of “diet”-friendly substitutes have skyrocketed, increasing by about 50 percent from 2000 to 2006. And since 66 percent of Americans are overweight and 20.8 million have diabetes, even many health experts are advocating the use of these sugar substitutes.

Aspartame (NutraSweet, Equal)

  • Sold as a “tabletop sweetener” (packets used mostly to sweeten beverages)
  • Commonly added to packaged foods and beverages

What is it? A compound made by combining two amino acids— phenylalanine and aspartic acid—with a methyl ester that becomes methanol, a by-product of carbohydrate fermentation. FDA-approved in 1981, aspartame is digested but because such small amounts are used to sweeten foods, its calories are negligible.

Sweetness factor: 180 x sugar

Take note: People with a rare condition known as phenylketonuria (PKU) cannot break down phenylalanine, so it can accumulate to toxic levels; thus, people with PKU must avoid all foods containing phenylalanine, including aspartame.

Our taste test: Some tasters found it to have a nice level of sweetness in hot and cold tea; others called it too sweet and “fake” tasting. Most detected a bitter aftertaste.

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