Sugars and Natural and Artificial Sweeteners
Americans seem to have the world’s largest sweet tooth, and according to the USDA, we have the largest sweetener market in the world, consuming quantities of high fructose corn syrup and sugars processed from sugar beets and sugarcane.
What Are Sugars?
Sugar occurs naturally in starches as the end product of metabolism. Common forms of sugars are glucose, or blood sugar; sucrose, the sugars used in cooking; dextrose, or corn sugar; fructose; lactose or milk sugar, and maltose, or malt sugar. Because sugar is a carbohydrate, it is also a source of energy needed to fuel every organ and to keep muscles working smoothly. Table sugar, or sucrose, is made up of a bonding between glucose and fructose.
But naturally occurring sugars are one thing; added sugars are something else entirely. The numerous forms of sugars added to such foods as baked goods, soda pops, and many processed foods are posing health problems—particularly obesity and its concurrent risk of type 2 diabetes and tooth decay—because they can boost sugar intake to excessive levels.
According to the Institute of Medicine’s Dietary Reference Intakes (DRI) Report, Americans should get the majority of their daily calories from carbohydrates—about 45 to 65 percent of their daily calories. The DRI for carbohydrates and sugars recommends a maximum intake level of 25 percent or less from added sugars.
Figuring out what is an added sugar makes reading labels important: you’ll know sugar has been added when you see listed such ingredients as high fructose corn syrup, corn syrup, dextrose, fructose, fruit juice concentrates, honey, and malt syrup. As in everything else, moderation is key.
Other Natural Sweeteners
Vegans generally avoid using refined sugars because some sugars from sugar cane may have been processed with animal bone char; however, modern technology has advanced so far that most sugars are whitened by other means, and refined sugar made from sugar beets or natural raw sugar has never been processed with bone char. (Note that vegans also do not use honey.)
If you are looking for a sweetener other than refined sugar, you have plenty of options, including agave syrup, maple syrup, date sugar, evaporated cane juice, fructose, brown rice syrup, molasses, stevia, and raw sugar.
Whether they are friend or foe, artificial sweeteners, also known as sugar substitutes, are chemicals that form a product that sweetens without adding discernable calories. For diabetics and dieters, these products are a real boon. But not every food labeled “sugar free” is calorie free, or even totally sugar free. The sweetener sorbitol, for example, contains calories, so it can have an effect on your blood sugar.
The FDA has approved four sugar substitutes, or sweeteners, that are safe—and sweet—and currently on the market. These include saccharin, aspartame, sucralose (sold as the product Splenda), and acesulfame potassium. If taken in moderate amounts, none pose health risks, not even saccharin, once thought to be linked to certain cancers.