It is early in the morning, and your coffee is a little too bitter. Those colorful packets call your name, but how healthy are they? Artificial sweeteners clutter our tabletops in a collage that calls to our sweet teeth, but are these low-calorie substitutes truly good alternatives to sugar? They are found in a variety of food and drinks marked as "sugar-free," such as chewing gum, soft drinks, candy and fruit juice, while natural substitutes such as agave nectar and honey are widely ignored. While these sugar substitutes are helpful in maintaining a healthy weight and preferable for those individuals with diabetes, they are often the topic of controversy in the medical arena. As everything should come in moderation, use the 90/10 rule, meaning eat healthy fruits with natural sugars 90 percent of the time, and use other sweeteners to spruce your foods up the other 10 percent.
Equal (aspartame): The blue packet is 200 times sweeter than sugar, and only has four calories per packet. Aspartame contains amino acids, two of which are phenylalanine and aspartate, both of which are not carbohydrates. So for people who have diabetes, aspartame is preferable because it does not raise blood sugar levels and does not compromise the sweetness of the food. However, when it is heated, aspartame will often lose its taste, so it is not fitting as a baking substitute. The Food and Drug Administration has declared aspartame a safe alternative to sugar, but WebMD states that people who suffer from chronic migraines might see their headaches furthered when eating foods containing aspartame. Keep in mind that because these alternatives are low in calories, you might find yourself hungrier as the day goes on.
Splenda (sucralose): The yellow packets are 600 times sweeter than sugar and have zero calories per packet. Splenda can be used in baking but you may need to make some adjustments in your measurements, as sucralose is a more vigorous sweetener than white sugar. However, a topic of debate is the fact that the sucralose molecule contains chlorine. While chlorine is naturally present in many of the foods we already eat, LiveStrong.com articulates some health concerns when chlorine bonds to carbon, creating a chemical known as chlorocarbon. Chlorocarbons are found in insecticides, disinfectants and bleach, says Dr. James Bowmen, researcher and biochemist.
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Sweet 'N Low (saccharin): The pink packets sitting on your table at the local diner contain only four calories and can be used in baking, as saccharin is heat-stable. Saccharin does not raise blood sugar levels, so this is another alternative that is preferable for individuals with diabetes. Unfortunately, many individuals who use this sweetener note a bitter aftertaste. A word of caution: The National Cancer Institute outlines research done in the 1970s that found probable links of saccharin with the development of bladder cancer, although in 2000 it was delisted from the U.S. National Toxicology Program's Report on Carcinogens because there was no clear, definitive evidence directly linking saccharin to bladder cancer in humans.
Stevia: This sweetener, which looks a lot like its white sugar counterpart, comes from the leaves of a stevia plant. The herb contains zero calories and does not raise blood sugar levels. And just a small amount will go a long way; stevia is almost 300 times sweeter than sucrose. Stevia now comes in liquid and powder forms, and can be used in baked goods. But, like saccharin, some users cite a bitter aftertaste akin to licorice. Stevia has yet to be evaluated by the Food and Drug Administration.
Most artificial sweeteners are not recommended for nursing or pregnant women, but there are ways to safely satisfy your pregnant sweet tooth. Ultimately, more research is necessary to provide definitive information about artificial sweeteners and their potential health risks. As with anything, moderation is key. The American Heart Association said in a report in 2011 that these artificial, non-nutritive sweeteners, when used sensibly, can help maintain healthy weight and blood sugar levels. Check the labels on artificial sweeteners before attempting to use them in baking, and as always, consult your primary care physician about using any sugar substitutes, especially if you have diabetes.