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.

Xylitol (XyloSweet)

  • Sold as a “tabletop sweetener” (packets used mostly to sweeten beverages)
  • Heat-stable; can be used for baking

What is it? Chemically classified as a sugar alcohol, xylitol’s chemical structure resembles both sugar and alcohol but isn’t a true form of either. Since xylitol is a naturally occurring food compound, it is “Generally Recognized As Safe” (GRAS) by the FDA and, therefore, exempt from the approval process mandatory for artificial substitutes regulated as food additives.

Sweetness factor: Same as sugar

Take note: The body absorbs xylitol but not fully—that’s why the sweetener provides 2 calories per serving and also why it causes digestive problems for some people. People trying to control glucose levels shouldn’t eat foods containing xylitol with abandon. The American Diabetes Association advises people with diabetes to count half of sugar alcohol grams as carbohydrates. Studies show that xylitol, which is often added to gums and mints, may also help reduce cavities by reducing acid in the mouth. Xylitol is very toxic to dogs.

Our taste test: Tasters rated the sweetness level as “very acceptable” with only a few detecting a mild, yet not unpleasant, aftertaste in hot and cold tea. The sweetness rated well in baked cookies but most described the appearance and texture of the cookies as unappealing and too soft.

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