In this article we’ll cover the most commonly used sugar alcohols, Stevia, and how sugar substitutes may affect our appetites.
Sugar alcohols are a hydrogenated form of a carbohydrate, similar but slightly different to the molecular structure of other sugars. Unlike artificial sweeteners, sugar alcohols are actually less sweet than sugar, with their sweetness compared to sugar varies depending on the sugar alcohol. However, because they taste much more similar to table sugar, they are frequently mixed with artificial sweeteners to create a taste comparable to table sugar. Additionally, sugar alcohols do have calories. On average, they contain approximately 2 kcal per gram. Because of this slight amount of calories contained, sugar alcohols can have an affect on an individual’s blood sugar levels. However, sugar alcohols are partially absorbed by our bodies in the small intestine (rather than almost immediately with common sugar), and so have a much more negligible effect on our blood sugar – again, a very important concern for diabetics. Depending on the country you live or purchase sugar alcohols, they can either be labeled as calorie free (as in the United States), or labeled as having few calories (as in Britain). A word of caution: our bodies are not able to fully breakdown and assimilate sugar alcohols, and thus over-consumption can lead to bloating, flatulence, and even diarrhea. Moderation is key.
Erythritol and Xylitol are two of the most commonly used sugar alcohols for food consumption, as they taste most similar to table sugar and have little if any after taste. Erythritol is approximately 60-70% as sweet as sugar, while Xylitol is approximately 90% as sweet as sugar. However, both are frequently labeled and sold as being the same sweetness as table sugar. Erythritol is more fully absorbed by our bodies than any other sugar alcohol, and thus has the least amount of flatulent or laxative affects. Research on Xylitol has been shown it to reduce harmful strains harmful micro-organisms. Specifically, it has been shown to reduce strains of Mutans streptococci, a group of bacteria shown to be a significant contributor to tooth decay.
Stevia is one of the newest sugar substitutes widely available for sale and used for food consumption in the United States, although has been used for decades to centuries in other countries (such as Japan). It is an herb of the species Stevia rebaudiana, and frequently referred to as sweet leaf. Stevia is approximately 300 times sweeter than sugar! Stevia does has marked aftertaste that some find undesirable, and is thus frequently mixed with sugar alcohols when used in food products. If small amounts of Stevia are used, the aftertaste is less marked. Stevia extract is used for processed food consumption, and is labeled as rebaudioside A. Stevia has been used for centuries by the indigenous people of Paraguay, where it was used a folk remedy to help control blood sugar. Recent research has validated this remedy, showing Stevia as being beneficial to help regular blood glucose levels.
Do Sugar Substitutes Affect Our Appetites? Various studies have been conducted through the years regarding whether sugar substitutes affect our metabolism in direct ways that could trigger our body’s desire to consume more calories or even directly affect our body’s metabolism and systems for storing fat. Sugar substitutes generally do not exist in nature (perhaps other than Stevia), and thus our bodies have evolved to associate a significant number of calories with a sweet flavor. Studies within the past few years on rats have shown that rats fed a surplus diet sweetened with saccharin (an artificial sweetener) gained more weight than rats fed a surplus diet sweetened with glucose or sucrose. When the rats’ core temperature was analyzed, the rats fed artificial sweeteners had a lower core temperature than those fed with glucose or sucrose immediately after eating. Core temperature is an indication of metabolism – a lower core temperature in rats fed artificial sweeteners indicated that the mechanism in the rats’ required to burn excess calories was not triggered, leading to lower overall metabolic rate. Additionally, the rats fed artificial sweeteners ate more total calories than rats fed glucose/sucrose.
While no studies have been conducted on humans regarding artificial sweeteners and metabolism, it is important to understand that artificial sweeteners recreate a taste our bodies are equipped to handle in a very specific manner. While we can’t say if they will in fact slow our metabolism, we do know that many people will crave more sweets the more they eat. Simply because a food contains artificial sweeteners, it does not mean it can be eating to excess – it still contains whatever calories it would have without sugar.
If you’re going to eat a cookie, eat a cookie. Don’t eat the whole box!
If you’re having trouble with sugar cravings, be sure to check out: Understanding Sugar Cravings!