HEALTHY EATING: Sweet predicament at the table


Have you noticed how crowded the restaurant sugar bowl is getting? It’s a multicolored collection of little packets in pink, blue, yellow and green. Even sugar comes in two colors: white and brown. And some places add a packet of honey to the mix.

Sweeteners were invented to taste like sugar without all the calories. For instance, every time you choose a diet soft drink instead of the real thing, you consume 150 fewer calories.

But choosing a non-caloric sweetener for your morning coffee saves only 15 calories when you give up a teaspoon of sugar.

The weight control effect of substituting really depends on how much sugar you usually consume.

Turbinado sugar

Turbinado sugar is currently popular with consumers. Chris Hunt, for the AJC.

Still, the party line from the Calorie Control Council, a trade group representing companies that sell artificial sweeteners, is that the products are a valuable tool in the struggle to maintain caloric balance.

Dr. Adam Drewnowski, director of the Center for Public Health Nutrition at the University of Washington, agrees.

“Low-calorie sweeteners and reduced-calorie products are not magic bullets, which means using these products will not result in automatic weight loss. Instead, people looking to lose or maintain weight can use low-calorie sweeteners in addition to other tools (such as portion control) to help manage their calories,” he said.

Sugar Twin is an alternative sweetener used in baking. It contains saccharin. CHRIS HUNT, for the AJC.

Sugar Twin is an alternative sweetener used in baking. It contains saccharin. CHRIS HUNT, for the AJC.

Another consideration is that even though all of these sweeteners are approved as safe to use, critics have lingering health concerns.

It’s best to apply two top strategies in good nutrition — use in moderation and consume a variety of sweeteners instead of depending on just one.

The substitutes

Saccharin: Discovered in 1879, it’s the granddaddy of all sweeteners, the most controversial and probably most familiar as Sweet ’n Low in those little pink packets. In the 1970s, foods containing saccharin had to carry a label warning that the sweetener was found to cause cancer in laboratory animals. But based on further studies, the National Cancer Institute reported that saccharin did not cause cancer in humans, and in 2001 the saccharin warning label was removed.

Aspartame: Best known as Equal in the little blue packets, this noncaloric sweetener approved by the Food and Drug Administration in 1981 is 200 times sweeter than sugar. It’s deemed safe by the World Health Organization, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the FDA based on a detailed review of more than 100 studies. Heat causes aspartame to lose its sweetness, so baking with it doesn’t work.

Sucralose: Approved in 1999, Sucralose is 600 times sweeter than sugar. Known as Splenda, in the yellow packets, it’s made from sugar but has no calories because it’s not digested. Because this sweetener is heat stable, it can be used in baking.

Truvia is a calorie-free sweetner, derived from the Stevia plant. File photo.

Truvia is a calorie-free sweetner, derived from the Stevia plant. File photo.

Stevia: The latest to enter the scene, stevia is becoming more available in green packets of Truvia. Made from a sweet herb (Stevia rebaudiana), stevia in liquid form has long been available in health food stories and some vegetarian restaurants, but the powdered version is new.

The real thing

Honey: You can use a bit less honey than sugar. That’s because honey is made of fructose sugars, which are twice as sweet as sucrose. Honey is dense, however, so it has 22 calories per teaspoon compared to sugar’s 15. Honey, especially dark honey, provides the same antioxidant punch as many fruits and vegetables.

Turbinado sugar: This is raw sugar that has been steam-cleaned to remove impurities. It’s usually a blond color with a slight brown sugar flavor. It has the same 15 calories a teaspoon as white sugar.

Maple syrup: Produced from the sap of the sugar maple tree, maple syrup has 50 calories per tablespoon.

Carolyn O’Neil is a registered dietitian and co-author of “The Dish on Eating Healthy and Being Fabulous!” E-mail her at carolyn@carolyn

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18 comments Add your comment


November 11th, 2009
12:58 pm

With so many various stevia brands out there why does it seem that Truvia gets all the credit? (Especially when considering that Truvia may have GMOs in it, hardly making it the poster brand for stevia)

Not all stevia brands are created equal. Most use chemicals, solvents, and alcohols during extraction, which can cause that bitter aftertaste. Some are now adding masking agents to cover up that taste, so they are even less natural. Contrary to what some may believe, generally, the more natural the stevia brand, the better tasting it is! SweetLeaf is the only brand that uses only pure water during extraction, so the taste of the leaf remains. SweetLeaf was the first to receive GRAS (generally recognized as safe) status from the FDA and the ok to market it as a sweetener in March 2008. Its founder and CEO, dubbed “The Father of Stevia” ws the first to bring stevia to the U.S. back in 1982. Truvia did not receive GRAS status for its sweetener until December of 2008.

I use SweetLeaf and I love it! In fact, I made some great chocolate chip cookies with it just the other day!

spiritual vacations

November 12th, 2009
4:04 am

Health is an important matter in our lives and it has to be taken cared of for us to live a long and healthy life.


November 12th, 2009
12:07 pm

this breakdown is helpful. i’ve long wondered about the various types and brands of artificial sweetners. but why no mention of agave? it is an excellent liquid alternative to sugar and has no aftertaste like some honeys do.


November 12th, 2009
12:10 pm

sorry i guess i should have added that agave (or agave nectar or agave syrup) is another natural alternative to sugar as it comes from the agave plant,the same plant that tequila is made from.


November 12th, 2009
12:39 pm

I think the article needs to focus a little bit more on how controversial and harmful some of the artificial sweeteners actually are. Ever wonder why they are just now being approved by the FDA? While artificial sweeteners may be one way to cut calories; I would highly recommend everyone to do your research on these type of sweeteners and figure out what is best for you. For example, does this following sentence talking about the sweetener Splenda seem like a huge red flag to anyone else except me? “…it’s made from sugar but has no calories because it’s not digested.” … it’s not digested??? So Splenda essentially is an indigestible material going into our bodies. How can that be healthy? I’m just trying to advise people to do just a little bit of research on these products before using them. I would recommend the book, Skinny Bitch, I know this is an extreme book about food but it has some really great facts and will provide you with a lot more information about what you are eating. Just a thought.


November 12th, 2009
7:26 pm

yoda = the Chewlies gum guy from Clerks


November 12th, 2009
8:09 pm

I was told (can’t verify) that the chemicals in many artificial sweeteners are processed through the liver rather than the digestive system. This individual strongly implied that this must be bad for humans.


November 12th, 2009
8:40 pm

Left out of the Stevia section was an important note that it has long been used as a sweetener and diet aid in other countries. It’s only “new” in the US. It also has reported side benefits of lowering blood pressure. Very promising stuff. But not all Stevia is created the same, as another commenter noted.

Some of the other artificial sweeteners have a side effect of lowering metabolism which results in sleepiness in some cases or even weight gain. Sugar, after all, is energy. Energy powers the body. Aspartame does not contribute energy, it may even slow down the body’s ability to digest food and the longer your body takes to do that, the more of the food is absorbed and converted to energy or fat. So in a sense, drinking a diet coke will cause you to have more weight gain from a meal than if you drank a sugar coke and ate the same meal.

It is also important to note that Sugar is not the same as Corn Sweetener. In the body, sugar is easily processed and turned into energy for most people. Corn Syrup takes much more effort to burn and like Aspartame, it causes the body to slow down and digest more of the food you are eating. This would be useful if food was scarce but causes a disaster in a country where plates are full and meals come in super-sizes.


November 12th, 2009
10:15 pm

I’m very disappointed that there still isn’t a calorie-free sugar substitute that truly tastes like sugar. Whatever I use in, for example, coffee — Equal, Splenda, whatever — never does the trick. The coffee always tastes different compared to if real sugar is used in it.

Same goes for diet soft drinks — no matter which one I’ve tried, none of them taste as good as sugared soda.

I cannot wait for the day — if it ever comes during my lifetime — when I’ll be able to drink a diet soda that tastes like sugared soda, when I’ll be able to put a sugar substitute in coffee and not tell the difference from having sugar in it.

Keith Johnson

November 13th, 2009
12:15 am

I agree with those here who say the article wasn’t very helpful. It lists the various types of sweeteners, but doesn’t list the pro’s and cons. What are the risks of taking each, such as the headaches often associated with Equal? Why didn’t it discuss how people generally think each sweetener tastes? Why not discuss the Glycemic Index difference between sweeteners that otherwise have the same calories? G.I. is important for folks with diabetes as well as people just watching their health. And I too am a bit disappointed that Truvia is the standard for stevia, when many other brands exist, that stevia is called “new” (i first used it at least ten years ago) and that agave nectar–another lower G.I. food–was ignored. The article seems to be more something written by someone who just went shopping at a typical grocery store, and never has set foot inside a health food store.


November 13th, 2009
1:44 am

I think the big thing here is the variety of sweeteners now available. There are so many of them, each with their own taste and side effects, that it gives some of us who can’t have sugar an alternative. Being diabetic for 20 years, I have had only SnL (the Pink stuff) and = (the blue stuff) for most of my life. These non-natural sweeteners actually increase the cravings for sweet foods which is not good. Some of the “new” sweeteners, Stevia based, agave nectar, etc. are more natural and I have found them to not increase the craving/urges towards more sweet foods. I always agree that the more natural a product is, the better for the body.

More details needed

November 13th, 2009
2:10 am

Unfortunately, this article doesn’t even begin to do justice to educating the reader on the differences between true stevia and truvia.

For starters truvia hasn’t been thoroughly tested, yet it’s been called GRAS. Any chance it’s because it’s being pushed by Cargill and the Coca-Cola company? Funny how the FDA for years has refused to give GRAS status to stevia, but when the mightly conglomerates push it, it’s suddenly GRAS.

Added to the insult to the consumer, Truvia claims it doesn’t need to undergo as through a testing as other products, because stevia has been shown to be safe. While truvia, according to consumer advocates in most likely a safer bet that artificial sweeteners, the reality is that Truvia is an extract of stevia, and there is no 100% guarantee that it reacts in the body the same way as stevia, so Truvia’s claim that more testing isn’t needed because it’s already been done on stevia is disingenuous at best.

This is at best, a very superficial treatment by the registered dietitian. At the least the dietitian should have encouraged the reader to research some of the various studies comparing stevia to Truvia, so that the uneducated consumer doesn’t fall prey to the marketing hype.

mary stoddard

November 17th, 2009
1:20 pm

I agree with More Details Needed. Under current FDA regulations, Truvia [and all artificial sweeteners] may even have small amounts of the mega-aspartame, 13,000 times sweeter than sugar, called Neotame added without being labeled. It’s the aspartame formula, with toxic 3-dimethylbutyl added. Seems FDA caved in under pressure from the NutraSweet people to approve Neotame as safe and no labeling reuqirements. Neotame is even being added to Domino sugar to make it sweeter, without increasing caloric content. This will be the unfortunate wave of the future of natural and artificial sweeteners if the consumers [all of us] do not protest this toxic chemical pollution of our food supply.

search for self

November 18th, 2009
10:52 am

One natural sweetener that wasn’t mentioned is Xylitol. It’s endorsed by the ADA and is actually the only thing granulated and white, I’ve tasted, that’s aftertaste free and pleasing to my palate. And folks research, research, research! Lastly, I’d avoid aspartame and anything containing it period.


November 18th, 2009
12:45 pm

I wish comments were numbered,because I agree strongly with several,esp the lack of helpful info in the article,and the deception in products such as Truvia. I also am a big fan of Xylitol,for the same reasons as search for self.There is one big unfortunate effect,though,especially for people with any kind of intestinal problem,which is extreme diarrhea if you aren’t moderate in your intake.


November 18th, 2009
11:05 pm

Sweeteners dull your tastebuds and make you crave real sugar even more. If you cannot detect the sweetness of a granny smith apple, your tastebuds are ruined by all these chemical sweeteners.

Splenda was developed as an insecticide. It’s role as a sweetener is accidental.


December 16th, 2009
6:43 pm

Ultrasuede said “I’m very disappointed that there still isn’t a calorie-free sugar substitute that truly tastes like sugar.”

There is: cyclamate. It’s sweeter than sugar but tastes very much like it in low concentrations. Unfortunately it was banned in the US in 1969 but is still available in many countries. (Personally, I have long suspected that the ban was the result of efforts by the sugar industry.)

I came to this site from the Coca Cola website. I sure wish Coke would abandon high fructose corn syrup and go back to sucrose. I find fructose entirely too sweet.


December 28th, 2009
9:37 pm

Well, now I am completely confused. Guess I will go to a health food store. I drink at least a 12 pack of caffeine free diet coke per week. Wow, I’ve been worried about the aspartame in it and tried Diet Pepsi but they don’t make a drink that is caffeine free so stuck with coke. I really enjoy it but I notice lately my appetite is off. I don’t need to eat as much but I don’t think it’s because of the drink. I don’t know. I heard that Aspartame is harmful to the liver. Does anyone know for sure?? Would love to know.

I am using Truvia now on cereal but now I’m confused about that too. WHY CAN’T THE GOVERNMENT JUST BE HONEST.