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.
Interest in no-calorie sweeteners isn’t new. Saccharin, the first, premiered in 1879. Its slightly bitter taste and poor performance in the kitchen didn’t bother people with diabetes or dieters: they now could enjoy sweets. Unfortunately, after the safety testing of food additives was federally mandated in 1958, saccharin was shown to cause cancer in animals. In 1977, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) proposed to ban it. But public outcry kept it on the market, albeit with a newly mandated health warning. In 2000, the National Toxicology Program concluded that saccharin did not increase cancer risk in humans and Congress revoked the rule requiring the disclaimer.
“The public should feel confident that any approved sweetener is truly safe and has been closely scrutinized,” says Manfred Kroger, Ph.D., professor emeritus of food science at Penn State. And most food scientists agree.
But the saccharin-cancer connection has left many skeptical of artificial sweeteners. Some public health advocates say that the FDA’s food-additive approval process—in which an ingredient’s manufacturer is responsible for demonstrating its safety—is biased and too lax. For years, the Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI), a Washington, D.C.-based consumer watchdog group, has advised consumers to avoid saccharin, Ace-K, an artificial sweetener approved by the FDA in 1998, and even aspartame, after a 2007 study in the journal Environmental Health Perspectives showed increased incidence of cancer in rats with long-term exposure to it. However, a recent review of aspartame in Critical Reviews in Toxicology concludes that there is no evidence to support its association with cancer.
And, despite CSPI’s warnings, its executive director, Michael Jacobson, acknowledges, “The risk that any individual will develop cancer as a consequence of consuming aspartame is very low. But when millions of people are routinely consuming [a variety of ingredients that may pose a slight risk], the overall risk of cancer may become very significant.”
The Reassuring Scoop
Sucralose, the newest artificial sweetener, hasn’t raised red flags with CSPI. And those wary of anything “artificial” now can choose from several “natural” options: xylitol and erythritol, sugar alcohols long used in foods marketed to people with diabetes.
But safe doesn’t necessarily mean tasty—or even acceptable. How do these sweet substitutes stack up? We put some of the most popular ones to the test (in beverages and “sugar” cookies).
What is it? A compound made by combining sucrose (table sugar) with three chlorine molecules. The body doesn’t digest or derive calories from sucralose.
Sweetness factor: 600 x sugar
Take note: There has been legal controversy over the Splenda slogan, “Made from sugar so it tastes like sugar.” Critics claim it falsely implies that the substitute—which was approved as an additive by the FDA in 1998—is natural, which it is not.
Our taste test: Tasters found Splenda pleasantly sweet in hot and cold teas, but some noted an objectionable metallic aftertaste. Cookies made with Splenda rated well for sweetness but poorly for texture, appearance and aftertaste. However, Splenda Sugar Blend for Baking, which is a 50/50 blend of sugar and sucralose, rated better on all counts.
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.
What is it? A compound containing sulfur and nitrogen that provides no calories because the body cannot break it down.
Sweetness factor: 300 x sugar
Take note: Saccharin, first discovered in 1879, has a long, controversial history. The FDA re-approved saccharin for limited use as a food additive (in beverages and some processed foods) in 2000.
Our taste test: All but one taster rated it as “unpleasantly sweet.” Most commented that, in tea—hot and cold—saccharin tasted “artificial” and had a bitter aftertaste.
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.
What is it? Naturally found in melons and pears, erythritol is another sugar alcohol. The body fully absorbs erythritol (unlike xylitol) but can’t break it down, so it provides (virtually) no calories and does not produce a glycemic response.
Sweetness factor: 60 to 80 percent as sweet as sugar
Take note: Because it’s absorbed, erythritol is less likely to cause gastric distress than xylitol. In Sun Crystals, erythritol is combined with cane sugar for a product that delivers 4 calories per teaspoon and registers a slight glycemic response.
Our taste test: In hot and cold tea, ZSweet and Sun Crystals earned good to excellent sweetness scores. Cookies baked with ZSweet received poor scores for texture and appearance and had mixed ratings for overall sweetness. Tasters also noted an unexpected cool sensation when eating the cookies. Sun Crystals is not currently available in a baking product.
What is it? A sweet extract of the Stevia rebaudiana plant. Stevia itself does not raise blood sugar, but it’s usually combined with a bulking agent so that it pours like sugar. The bulking agent erythritol doesn’t raise blood sugar either, but other bulking agents might. Read each product label closely.
Sweetness factor: 200 to 300 times as sweet as sugar
Take note: Until December 2008, stevia and its derivatives could be sold in the U.S. only as a dietary supplement. But in 2008, the FDA affirmed a highly purified form of the stevia plant, called Rebaudioside A (a.k.a. Rebiana or Reb A), as a generally recognized as safe ingredient (GRAS). This form of stevia (Reb A) is sold under different brand names like Truvia and PureVia. The FDA did not, however, change the previous ruling on whole-leaf stevia or other stevia extracts.
Our taste test: At the time of our tasting, none of the FDA-affirmed stevia-derived sweeteners (e.g. Truvia, PureVia) were on the market, so all of our tasting was done with stevia sold as dietary supplements. The overall sweetness of stevia rated well in hot and cold tea, but most tasters detected an unpleasant aftertaste that was described by one taster as “corroded tin can.” The sweetness, texture and appearance of the cookies sweetened with stevia were “unacceptable.”
Sweet alternatives don't bake up exactly like sugar. We used the same recipes for each batch of these cookies, substituting sweeteners in the ratios recommended by their manufacturers.