NYS Certified Nutritionist

Choose Sugar Substitutes Wisely

With stress-eating a common coping mechanism during the current pandemic, many people have gained weight, and now seek ways to reduce their caloric intake. For some, sugar substitutes seem a logical option.

When asked for my opinion, I concur that focusing on calories consumed is the most important factor in weight management. When one wants to lose weight, the first approach should be eating fewer calories than are needed to maintain unacceptable weight. However, fat, not sugar, is the most fattening substance we consume. One tablespoon of cooking oil [corn, vegetable, olive, etc.] has about 120 calories. One tablespoon of table sugar has about 45 calories. Therefore, I suggest looking for ways to reduce unnecessary fats as a first strategy.

If a client wants to reduce added sugars in his/her diet by using sugar substitutes, I advise looking at the science to make sure the best options are selected. Studies show that stevia leaf extract and erythritol are the safest sugar substitutes, and would be acceptable choices.

Monk fruit extract has been consumed in China for hundreds of years, and may be safe. But, caution is advised because it has not yet been well studied in animals for safety. My advise would be to use caution.

Aspartame, sucralose, and saccharin have all been shown to cause cancer in animal studies. Acesulfame potassium studies have been of poor quality, and in Europe its use is restricted to only certain consumables because of safety concerns. At the moment, I advise avoiding these products.

Sugar alcohols like maltitol, mannitol, sorbitol, etc. contain fewer calories than table sugar, but are not calorie free, and they are known to cause bloating, gas, and even diarrhea in many people. They are often used in diabetic/dietetic desserts and candies, and may be labeled as sugar-free because they do not contain table sugar. This is a real consumer issue. Use caution, especially if you have a pre-existing bowel condition.

A new sweetener is now being used in processed foods- allulose. It is finding its way into cake mixes, ice creams, cereals, etc. Like the chemical structure of sugar alcohols, this product is similar to fructose [fruit sugar]. As with sugar alcohols, this reduced calorie sweetener makes its way unprocessed into our intestines where it feeds the bacteria living within us. The bacteria consume it as food, producing gas, abdominal pain, and perhaps diarrhea. It is unknown how much can be safely consumed, especially in those with IBS [irritable bowel syndrome], inflammatory bowel diseases, or in children. Use caution.

Because certain fibers taste sweet, they are sometimes used as reduced calorie sweeteners in processed foods. Chicory root extract, known as inulin, is in many packaged foods like energy bars, ice creams, and yogurts. On ingredient labels inulin is counted as fiber, rather than a sugar, despite its sweet flavor. This fiber is highly fermentable, producing gas, bloating, and cramping in everyone. But, in those with sensitive guts, the symptoms can affect quality of life. Use caution.

Bottom line…read lists of ingredients to be a wise consumer, and if experiencing puzzling GI symptoms, pay special attention to your intake of sugar substitutes, and always seek medical attention if symptoms persist. Never self-diagnose.

My best advice for weight control mirrors that of the respected Michael Pollan. “Eat real food- not too much- mostly plants.”

Dateline: Latham, Albany County, New York