Overview of Sweeteners
Sugar, in all its various forms, is one of the most widely consumed foods in the world. In the context of functional nutrition, “sugar” is an umbrella term that is used to describe four main types of sweeteners: sucrose, caloric sweeteners, artificial sweeteners, and sugar alcohols.
Added Sugars on Food Labels
Many food labels in the U.S. don’t currently list added sugars in the Nutrition Facts section. However, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration revised its rules for food labeling in 2016. One of these new rules states that the total amount (in grams) of added sugar must be disclosed on in the Nutrition Facts section of all labels. Food manufacturers have until July 2018 to comply with the new rules, so you might see both old and new labels when shopping for processed or packaged foods.
If you are looking at an older food label, it can be difficult to determine which sugars or sweeteners are naturally-occurring, and which are added to the food during the manufacturing process. An easy way to determine the added sugar content of a food is to see how many different sweeteners are listed in the ingredient list. If a food contains several different types of sweeteners, it’s safe to assume that some of those have been added. If a food contains processed sweeteners like maltodextrin or any kind of syrup, this is also an indication that some of the sugar in the food is not naturally-occurring. According to the American Heart Association, the maximum amount of added sugars adults should consume in a day is
9 teaspoons for men (equal to 37.5 grams, or 150 calories per day)
6 teaspoons for women (equal to 25 grams, or 100 calories per day)
To put those amounts in perspective, one 12-ounce can of regular soda contains 140 calories from added sugar. See the chart on the next page for other examples of foods and their sugar content.
The Relationship between Fiber and Sugar
The fiber content of food helps determine how your body is impacted by both naturally occurring and added sweeteners. When eating naturally sweet or sweetened foods with little or no fiber, the sugar hits the blood stream all at once, causing a spike in blood sugar levels. This temporary energy boost, or “sugar rush” is quickly followed by a crash, which results in low energy. Fiber helps slow the body’s absorption of sugar and helps to keep blood sugar balanced. This helps keep energy levels more even throughout the day.
Some foods with naturally occurring sugars lack fiber, but this doesn’t necessarily mean they should be avoided. An example is milk, which contains no fiber but is a good source of many vitamins and minerals for those who can tolerate it. When consuming nutrient-dense foods or beverages that lack fiber, it’s important to pair them with fiber-rich foods to help slow the absorption of natural sugars into the bloodstream.
Sugar Content of Popular Foods
If you find yourself confused by the many different types of sweeteners included in processed foods, you’re not alone. Many processed foods contain multiple forms of sweeteners, which makes it difficult to determine just how much sugar the food contains.
When possible, opt for foods that are naturally sugar-free, or foods that contain only natural sweeteners. The chart below lists the different names and types of artificial sweeteners, sugar alcohols, caloric sweeteners, and natural sweeteners. Use this list to help you make smart decisions about how much added sugar you consume on a daily basis.
*See the section titled “A Note about Stevia” below
Food manufacturers began developing artificial sweeteners and marketing them as healthy alternatives to refined sugar as early as 1880. These types of sweeteners became increasingly popular in the 1960s, and are still widely used today. The FDA endorses the safety of artificial sweeteners, but there is a lack of high quality, evidence-based research on humans to encourage their use.
Are Artificial Sweeteners Safe?
One of the main concerns about artificial sweeteners is their potential to cause harm in the body. Some have been linked to attention-deficit disorders, birth defects, diabetes, digestive upset, headaches, inflammatory bowel disease (IBD), seizures, and some forms of cancer. For this reason, consumption of artificial sweeteners is not recommended for children or pregnant women. Another concern about artificial sweeteners is how they affect the body and brain’s ability to gauge how much has been eaten. Providing sweetness without calories confuses the body’s normal digestive processes. This can lead to intense food cravings, overeating, storage of extra calories as fat, and metabolic diseases and disorders. For best health, it is recommended that only minimal amounts of sugars, natural sweeteners, and artificial sweeteners be consumed regularly. A balanced diet rich in whole foods and minimal inclusion of processed foods and additives is preferred.
A Note about Stevia
Stevia is marketed as a natural, no-calorie alternative sweetener. It is made from the plant Stevia rebaudiana, but packaged stevia and other sweeteners made with stevia aren’t always 100% natural. To make it shelf stable, some brands include additives and fillers that can cause adverse reactions to food. To be sure you are choosing the most pure, natural form of stevia, choose brands with only one ingredient: organic stevia leaves.