Non-nutritive Sweetener vs. Nutritive Sweetener – a Sticky Dilemma

I personally, have been quite conflicted in the past when it comes to what is best for your body in terms of non-nutritive sweetener vs. Nutritive sweetening agents.  

Here is a short and sweet read to help explain what they are, their differences and if we should be using them at all.

What’s the difference?

There are two main types of sweetening agents, nutritive and non-nutritive. Nutritive sweetening agents contain carbohydrates and provide energy. Nutritive sweetening agents are either sugars that give 4kcal/g, or sugar alcohols (polyols), which provide an average of 2kcal/g. Non-nutritive sweetening agents provide no energy or calories when consumed.

  • Nutritive sweetening agents

Sugar is a natural sweet substance of plant origin and is 100% carbohydrate and 100% natural. Sugar is classified as a simple sugar. Simple sugars are made up from different types of building blocks such as glucose (most common and found mostly in starchy foods), fructose (found in fruits) and galactose (found in milk products). When most people speak of sugar they are referring to sucrose which comes from sugar cane and is a combination of glucose and fructose. Sugars occur naturally in foods or may be added in food processing or by consumers before consumption.

Sucrose is responsible for the sweetness in honey, syrup, fruit, table sugar, icing sugar etc. However, sugars we cook with or add to food/drinks have been processed and highly refined. Sugar will provide 4kcal/g energy but table sugar can be referred to as an empty calorie as it provides only calories but no other nutrients such as protein, fats, fibre or vitamins and minerals. Added sugars in essence would then increase ones daily energy intake but offer no other nutritional benefits, take note though that sugar in the form of sucrose (or table sugar) can still form part of a healthy diet in moderation as it can improve palatability of nutrient dense foods as well as contribute an intermediate GI (Glycaemic index) to a meal which, as part of a balanced meal, can contribute to blood sugar control.

Some of the nutritive sweetening agents that aren’t very well understood are brown sugar, molasses, and high fructose corn syrup (HFCS). Brown sugar is the very similar to white table sugar but has had molasses or burnt table sugar added to it for colouring. It is also an empty calorie and is not healthier than white table sugar. Molasses is a thick brown syrup that is separated from the raw sugar during manufacturing and can therefore be considered the least refined form of sucrose. HFCS is typically 100% glucose where corn syrup undergoes enzymatic processing to increase fructose content and is then mixed with glucose. This makes the syrup much sweeter than ordinary sugar. HFCS is often used in cold drinks.

Sugar alcohols can be used alone but are more often used in combination with other sugar alcohols or non-nutritive sweeteners for bulking up. Energy provided varies due to differences in how they are digested. Foods containing sugar alcohols and no added sugars can be labelled as sugar-free.

  • Non-nutritive sweetening agents

Non-nutritive sweetening agents (NNS) are those that sweeten with minimal or no carbohydrate or energy. Examples are stevia, aspartame, saccharin, sucralose etc. They are a large percent sweeter than normal sucrose sugar so often a lot less is needed to achieve the same level of sweetness. They are regulated by the Food and Drug Administration as food additives and are generally recognized as safe. The Food and Drug Administration approval process includes determination of probable intake, cumulative effect from all uses, and toxicology studies in animals. They have different functional properties that may affect perceived taste or use in different food applications.

The question most consumers want to know is whether or not sweeteners are safe to use. The

American Diabetes Association (ADA) states that, “Sugar alcohols and non-nutritive sweeteners are safe when consumed within the daily intake levels established by the Food and Drug Administration”. Recommendations for management of diabetes include monitoring carbohydrate intake and so blood glucose control, and therefore if using NNS instead of nutritive sweeteners will help in that control then ADA supports them. The National Cancer Institute stated in 2009 that there is no clear evidence that the NNS that were available in the U.S were associated with any cancer risks.

Are there health risks?

A higher intake of added sugars is associated with higher energy intake and lower diet quality, which can increase the risk for obesity, pre-diabetes, type 2 diabetes, inflammation, dental caries and cardiovascular disease. The use of non-nutritive sweeteners can help by lowering your calorie intake for the day, has no effect on your blood glucose levels and so reduces your risks for those lifestyle diseases as well as assists in weight management.

What do the recommendations say?

Most dietary recommendations guide us to watch how much starches or sugars we are eating to monitor the calorie intake from carbohydrates. Some of the recommendations are as follows:

  • Acceptable Macronutrient Distribution Ranges for carbohydrate is 45% to 65% of total calorie intake.

  • The Recommended Dietary allowance for carbohydrates is 130 g/day for adults and children.

  • The American Heart Association recently proposed an upper limit for added sugar in the diet of 100 calories (420 kJ, 25 g) per day for women, or 150 calories (630 kJ, 37.5 g) for men.

  • The Food Based Dietary Guidelines of South Africa state that the use of food and drinks containing sugar should be consumed sparingly, and not between meals. The main focus is to have sugar intake contribute to less than 6% of your total calorie intake for the day.

So what should you do?

Now that you are more informed about what the different types of food items that are used to sweeten food and drinks, you can make a better, more informed choice. The main goal and recommendation is to balance what you put into your body with what you put out (energy burnt or used). Balance how much food you eat with how much exercise and activity you do so that you lead a healthier lifestyle. Whether you are using sugars or sugar containing foods that are contributing calories or using non-nutritive sweeteners, the key is looking at your diet as a whole and making sure you keep it in a healthy balance.  It is important to know that everyones bodies are different and preferences also differ.  

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