Average read time: 10 minutes
It is no secret that Americans are consuming added sugar at unprecedented rates. On average, added sugar accounts for about 14% of an average American's daily calorie intake. Found primarily in beverages, cakes, ice cream, and candy, added sugars have become so common in foods that most people do not even realize how much sugar they are consuming on a daily basis. Consumption of added sugars has been definitively linked to a number of serious health issues, including Type 2 Diabetes, obesity, and heart disease. While artificial sweeteners and sugar alternatives are not a new phenomenon, the discovery of the relationship between added sugars and serious health conditions has resulted in a renewed determination to develop and vet safe and healthy alternative sweeteners.
The “original” artificial sweetener, saccharin, was discovered as early as 1876, but has spent more than 140 years riding a roller coaster of research and public opinion. It has been hailed as “the king of sweeteners,” as well as found itself being banned as a dangerous carcinogen. And many of its sweet relatives have found themselves in the same predicament. Over time, a number of other sweeteners have been developed and implemented within the food industry. Because of the up-and-down history surrounding sweeteners used in the food industry, it can be quite confusing to understand what they are and how they are used.
In general, there are three primary types of sweeteners used in the food industry today — high-intensity sweeteners, sugar alcohols, and natural sweeteners.
High-intensity sweeteners fall into two categories — nutritive sweeteners and non-nutritive sweeteners. A nutritive sweetener is one that adds calories to whatever food or beverage it is added to. A non-nutritive sweetener adds few, if any, calories. Most of the high-intensity sweeteners being used today fall into the non-nutritive category, with the exception of aspartame, as discussed later on.
Commonly known as: Sunett® and Sweet One®
Used in: beverages, candy, frozen desserts, baked goods
Because it is only about 200 times as sweet as regular sugar, acesulfame potassium is typically combined with other sweeteners rather than just being used on its own. However, it is heat stable, which means it can be used in baking.
Commonly known as: no brand name available
Used in: baked goods, beverages, frozen desserts, frosting, chewing gum, candy, pudding, jelly and jam, gelatin
A chemical relative of aspartame , this sweetener was just approved in 2014, making it one of the newer additions to the market, which is why it does not have a brand name associated with it yet. At nearly 20,000 times the sweetness of sugar, it can be used in a variety of products and is heat stable, which also makes it an alternative that can be used in baking.
Commonly known as: Equal®, Sugar Twin®, or Nutrasweet®
Used in: soft drinks, chewing gum, pudding, cereals, instant coffee
Besides being added to certain products, aspartame now also distributed as a "general purpose sweetener." This means it can be found in packets on tables at restaurants or purchased it on its own to add to food and beverages at home. While aspartame is a nutritive sweetener that adds calories, it is so sweet that a little goes a long way, so it does not add as many calories as sugar does. It is important to note that aspartame while is safe for consumption, it is not heat stable, so it cannot be used in baking.
Commonly known as: Newtame®
Used in: beverages, candy, gum
Neotame can be anywhere from 7,000 to 13,000 times sweeter than sugar. It is also heat stable, which makes it another good choice for use in baked goods. It has been the subject of more than 113 studies detailing its consumption and effects in animals and humans.
Commonly known as: Sweet Twin®, Necta Sweet®, Sweet and Low®, and Sweet'N Low®
Used in: beverages, bases, and mixes for many food products, table sugar substitute
The original "no calorie" sweetener, saccharin is anywhere from 200 to 700 times sweeter than natural sugar. It has been safely used in food and beverages since 1900 and is one of eight sweeteners approved by the FDA.
Commonly known as: Splenda®
Used in: Gum, frozen desserts, beverages
Approved for general use since 1999, sucralose is 600 times sweeter than sugar. One of its biggest benefits is that it is heat stable, meaning that it is often used as a sugar substitute in baked goods. While it is newer to the market than aspartame and saccharin, sucralose has been the subject of more than 110 studies which have all found it to be a safe and viable alternative to sugar.
Sugar alcohols are naturally occurring in fruits and vegetables in small amounts. They are commercially produced in larger quantities from starches and sugars. Some of their benefits include being low calorie and also that they do not react with bacteria in the mouth, so they are not likely to cause cavities and decay like sugar would.
Used in: fondant, ice cream, gum, tabletop sweeteners, chocolate, dairy products, jelly, beverages
Erythritol is naturally present in certain fruits, as well as yeast-derived products including beer, sake, wine, soy sauce, and cheese. However, it is typically produced by fermenting glucose. It can be used in a variety of foods and beverages and is notable because, unlike some of its related sweeteners, it does not cause bloating.
Commonly known as: glycerin or glycerine
Used in: dairy products, processed fruits, energy bars, jam, fondant
Glycerol has a number of edible and non-edible functions. In the food industry, it is often used as a thickening agent or to provide texture to a food, not just to make it sweeter.
Used in: infant formula, frozen fish, pre-cooked pasta, chewing gum, butter, chocolate flavored coatings used for ice cream and other desserts
Mannitol occurs naturally in a variety of fruits and vegetables, as well as mushrooms, however, it is typically manufactured by adding hydrogen to fructose. Once produced, it is often used as a thickener and emulsifier, as well as a sweetener, in a variety of commonly consumed foods.
Also known as: glucitol
Sorbitol is a nutritive sweetener because it does have a few calories in each serving. It can be naturally found in fruit but is manufactured in larger amounts for use as an emulsifier and sweetener in a variety of food products. One of its biggest benefits is that it does not have the aftertaste that is common in some other sweeteners.
Used in: hard candy, chewing gum, mints, ice cream, chocolate, cookies, beverages, table sugar substitute
Xylitol does occur naturally in small amounts, but the compound typically found in food and beverages is chemically produced. It has a wide variety of applications, both in the food industry and beyond.
Honey is a well-known, but often overlooked, option for sweetening without the use of sugar. It can often be used to replace tabletop sugar in certain beverages, such as tea. It can also be used in cooking and baking, although cooks will need to adjust the recipe measurements to account for the fact that honey is sweeter than sugar and also adds more liquid. Also, because it is slightly acidic, it can cause baked goods to brown more than they would otherwise, so oven temperature and ingredient lists should also be adapted.
Used in: beverages, pudding, granola, pudding, pastry, and other baked goods
Lucuma powder is a gluten-free, healthful alternative to sugar. Made from the fruit of the Pouteria lucuma tree, which is native to Ecuador, Peru, and Chile, it can add a sweet taste to a variety of dishes without raising blood sugar levels.
Maple syrup is derived from the sap of maple trees. It is completely natural and often used as an alternative to sugar, however, it is approximately 67 percent suga r, so it does not provide a complete break from traditional sugar as some of its other counterparts do. In addition to being all natural, it also contains antioxidants and minerals. It has traditionally been used as a sweetener on pancakes, waffles, French toast and similar breakfast items. However, its darker grades are also good to use for baking.
Used in: tea
Also known as Siraitia grosvenorii Swingle fruit extract (SGFE), monk fruit is only 150 to 200 times sweeter than sugar. Derived from a plant that is found in southern China, the FDA has received and not challenged a notice that this product is "Generally Recognized as Safe" (GRAS). Monk fruit is typically dried and then the powder is used as a sweetener.
Also known as: steviol glycosides
Used in: beverages, chewing gum, candy
Is Stevia approved by the FDA? This is a commonly asked question of this particular sweetener. The answer is: Stevia has received the "Generally Recognized as Safe" (GRAS) label by the FDA. The GRAS label is given by the FDA to products that have been scientifically shown to be safe when used as intended. Or they may have such a long history of safe use that they are accepted. In this case, products with a GRAS label have essentially already met the requirements a product would need to be approved, but they just are not required to go through the entire process.
Derived from the leaves of the South American plant Stevia rebaudiana (Bertoni), the Stevia most people know and use is a high-purity version of steviol glycosides. These should not be confused with other forms of Stevia, like stevia leaf or crude Stevia extracts, which have not been labeled as GRAS. Stevia can be used for baking, however, it lacks some of the "bulk" of traditional sugar, so recipes that replace sugar with Stevia should be modified by adding another bulking agent, such as egg whites, applesauce, or yogurt.
An increasingly popular weight loss aid, yacon syrup is naturally derived from the roots of the yacon plant, which grows in the Andes Mountains. It has been used for a long time in South America, where it is believed to have many medicinal properties, especially when it comes to kidney issues, diabetes, and digestive disorders. The reason it is being touted as a weight loss aid is that its active ingredients — fructans — are known to feed friendly intestinal bacteria, which promotes improved metabolism. However, only one scientific study has confirmed any of this.
Yacon syrup can be used in place of maple syrup on pancakes, as well as a sweetener in a variety of other ways. However, it cannot be used in baking.
Growing concerns over obesity and health issues such as diabetes mean that there will continue to be a demand for sweet alternatives to sugar. People want foods and beverages that taste sweet but do not come with the unwanted side effects of consuming sugar. This means that food and beverage manufacturers need to understand their options and be proactive in understanding the role that sugar substitutes can — and already do — play in their markets. An anticipated change in spending patterns and consumption is also expected to prove favorable toward low-calorie sweeteners.
Consumers are falling into two categories, although there is much overlap between them. First is the group of consumers who are interested in having low-sugar, low-calorie options to promote a healthy lifestyle and avoid some of the health issues associated with consuming high amounts of sugar, such as obesity, diabetes, and heart disease. Second are the consumers who are already dealing with one or more of these conditions and are looking for ways to improve their diet and manage their health. While the demand for artificial sweetener options in the beverage industry has been high and is expected to remain so, the demand for low-calorie sweeteners in place of sugar in baked goods, candies, and ice cream are increasing. This increase opens up a bigger market for food manufacturers, making it increasingly important to understand sweeteners and the roles they play in the lives of a significant percentage of food and beverage consumers worldwide.
That being said, it is also important to note that each of the sweeteners that we have mentioned continues to see ebbs and flows in its popularity. As new data comes to light, certain sweeteners become preferred over others. These preferences may impact food and beverage sales, so it is important that manufacturers stay abreast of the scientific developments surrounding each sweetener and the impact that those findings — real or perceived — may have on the demand for that specific sweetener.
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