Substitutes to the rescue
Sugar substitutes, also called sweeteners, have few if any calories. Unlike ordinary sugar, they don’t raise the level of glucose (blood sugar) in the blood. These sweeteners can be a good choice for diabetics and people watching their weight who still want to enjoy a sweet treat from time to time. “You can use them in moderation, if necessary,” states Marie-Claire Barbeau, dietician at Diabetes Québec. “They are handy to sweeten coffee, for example, but are not essential, even when making dessert.”
Are they safe?
Health Canada has the mandate to approve sugar substitutes before they hit the Canadian market. Only sweeteners that have accumulated enough evidence as regards to their safety get approved. All the substitutes in our table below have received Health Canada’s stamp of approval. However, some have been shown to have adverse effects in high doses and/or are controversial within the scientific community. This is why it is recommended to use them with caution. In any case, they should be consumed in moderation because sweet foods, artificial or not, are not the most nutritious thing to eat.
Over the coming years, you will see a longer list of sweeteners allowed in Canada, especially with the addition of tagatose and neotame. These sweeteners have recently turned up in some foods in the United States. Stay tuned.
The sucralose is a sugar (sucrose) modified at the molecular level so the body cannot absorb it and use it as an energy source. It is found in Splenda sweetener and in some brands of yogurt and frozen desser and there is no known health risks associeted to it. You can use it in many recipes but you will not always get the same result as with sugar. For ex., cakes, muffins and cookies don’t rise as much. Icing is less smooth. It doesn’t brown and alters the baking time of bread and pastries. It is recommended to replace only 25% of sugar with sucralose in several pastries and sweets (candy, caramel, angel food cake or pound cake).
Fructose is a sugar found naturally in fruits, vegetables and honey. To obtain its white granulated sugar form, fructose must be isolated from plants that contain it (it is done most often with corn). It is refined as white sugar extracted from sugar cane or sugar beets. Fructose is sold in grocery and health food stores under various brand names. It is also an ingredient in many products on the market. It has the advantage of being absorbed more slowly by the body and therefore has less of an effect on our blood sugar levels than regular granulated sugar. This seems interesting for diabetics but the American Dietetic Association does not recommend fructose. Why? Because it could increase the level of LDL or “bad” cholesterol and triglycerides and cause gastro-intestinal discomfort if consumed in large quantities (more than 30 g per day for adults and even less for children). It can be used in hot or cold mixtures. It does brown more than sugar and delivers as many calories. It is 1.6 to 1.8 times sweeter than granulated sugar, which reduces the amount used. For ex., instead of using 180 ml (3/4 cup) of sugar in a 12-muffin recipe, you can use around 110 ml (less than 1/2 cup) of fructose. This is a savings of about 15 to 20 calories per muffin. The difference is not that significant, unless you have to monitor everything you eat to the gram.
Acesulfame-potassium (or Acesulfame K)
Acesulfame-potassium (or Acesulfame K) is an artificial sweetener that is found especially in sugar-free gum. It is often used in conjunction with aspartame or saccharin. People with an allergy to sulphonamides should avoid this. Many experts in the health field believe more tests are needed to confirm it is safe to consume. It is not available for use in cooking.
Aspartame is a synthetic substance composed of two amino acids: phenylalanine and aspartic acid. Aspartame is a widely used ingredient. It is found in products such as yogurt, diet soft drinks, chewing gum and some breakfast cereals. On the market, it is sold under the brand names Equal and Sweet'N Low (blue packets). This sweetener is generally safe to consume. However, people suffering from phenylketonuria should avoid it. This is a rare genetic disorder marked by intolerance to phenylalanine. Due to this adverse reaction, the presence of aspartame is always listed on the product label. Like sucralose, preparations made with aspartame do not rise very much and it does not have the same browning capability as traditional granulated sugar. In addition, it cannot be heated at a high temperature for a long time, as it will lose its sweet taste. This greatly restricts its use in cooking.
Stevia is a sweetener derived from Stevia rebaudiana, a plant native to South America whose leaves have a sweet taste. You can buy it in some grocery and health food stores in liquid form or as a green or white powder. Green stevia is made from crushed or ground leaves of the plant. In equal amounts, green stevia is 10 to 15 times sweeter than sugar, while liquid or white stevia can be up to 300 times sweeter. In theory, it can act as a natural substitute to artificial sweeteners such as saccharin and cyclamate but its use as a food additive is banned in Canada, the U.S. and E.U. Why? Some studies on rodents suggest it may be carcinogenic and have an adverse effect on the reproductive system. It should therefore be used in moderation while further studies are done. It is added to hot or cold drinks and to cereal. It undergoes significant changes when cooked so it is better to use it in recipes that don’t call for a lot of sugar.
Cyclamate is an artificial sweetener that is available in Canada as a tabletop sweetener, under the brands Sucaryl, Sugar Twin, Sweet'N Low (pink packets) and others. It was used in food and beverages from the 50s on but was banned in 1970 after extensive research raised suspicions it was potentially carcinogenic and could damage male productive organs. Canadian Food and Drug Regulations state that the label of any sweetener containing cyclamate must contain a warning that it should only be used on a doctor’s advice. The American consumer advocacy organization Centre for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI) has another opinion: whatever your doctor’s advice, it recommends you simply avoid cyclamate.
Saccharin is an artificial sweetener that is only sold in pharmacies under the brand Hermesetas. Due to its carcinogenic potential in some animals, it is forbidden to use this sweetener in the industrial preparation of food and beverages. Canadian Food and Drug Regulations require companies to state on the label that saccharin can be harmful to one’s health and the product should not be used by pregnant women, unless advised by their doctor. CSPI recommends you avoid it.