By Yvette Penner, B.S.
The U.S. government recently decided that high fructose corn syrup cannot be called "corn sugar." This brings sweeteners — and confusion about sweeteners — into the spotlight. Here are the facts, benefits and potential risks of sugar, high fructose corn syrup and artificial sweeteners.
Sugar is also called sucrose or table sugar. It's made of small solid crystals that come from sugar cane plants or sugar beets. The beets are soaked in hot water to separate out the sugar.
A sucrose crystal is made of two smaller sugar crystals: glucose and fructose (the sugar found in fruits). This means that sucrose is 50% glucose and 50% fructose.
Sucrose can be white (table sugar) or brown (brown sugar). Molasses, honey, evaporated cane juice and maple syrup are liquid sugars. They are made from glucose and fructose, just as sucrose is. Agave is mostly made of fructose.
Every type of sugar is considered a carbohydrate and has calories.
High fructose corn syrup is a liquid sugar that is added to drinks, cookies, breads, dressings, sauces or other foods. In addition to sweetness, it adds texture.
To make the syrup some of the sugar from corn is changed into fructose. The end product is made of the same, small sugar crystals that sucrose is made of: glucose and fructose. Instead of being 50% fructose, as sucrose is, high fructose corn syrup is 55% fructose.
High fructose corn syrup is considered a carbohydrate. It has the same number of calories as table sugar. High fructose corn syrup is no better or worse than sugar for health. Both have calories, so both can cause weight gain.
Artificial sweeteners and sugar substitutes include Splenda (sucralose), Sweet'N low (saccharin), NutraSweet (aspartame), Equal (aspartame), Sweet One (asulfame-potassium), neotame, Purevia (stevia) and Truvia (stevia).
Artificial sweeteners are man-made. And they are 200 to 8,000 times sweeter than sugar. They are typically found in "diet," "light," and "no sugar-added" foods and drinks. Artificial sweeteners are much sweeter than sugar or high fructose corn syrup. So, you need a smaller amount to sweeten foods compared to sugar.
Artificial sweeteners do not add calories to foods so they do not cause weight gain. They have not been proven to be harmful to health.
Sugar alcohol includes the sweeteners sorbitol, xylitol, lactitol, mannitol and maltitol. They are typically used to sweeten sugar-free gums and candies. They only slightly raise blood sugar. Half of the sugar alcohol in a food should be counted as carbohydrate.
The American Dental Association reports that chewing gum with xylitol can help prevent cavities. But beware, sugar alcohols in large amounts are known to cause cramping and diarrhea, so people looking for no-sugar-added candies may prefer other artificial sweeteners instead.
No one type of sweetener is necessarily better than another. Some people like sugar, agave, molasses or honey best because the amounts of glucose and fructose are not changed. And they feel these sweeteners are the most natural. Some people choose artificial sweeteners so they don't gain weight, and can get better control of their blood sugars.
Overall, all sweeteners should be eaten in moderation as they are typically added to foods like soda, juice, cookies, and cakes. These have little nutritional value. The healthiest thing to do is to eat whole grains, vegetables, fruits, lean meats, low-fat dairy products, nuts and beans first. Then you have an occasional, small sweet treat.
The best natural sweetener is fruit. It's packed full of healthy vitamins, minerals, antioxidants, fiber and great taste.
Try these tastey treats:
Disclaimer: This article is intended for a general adult audience. People with diabetes, pregnant or lactating women, and those concerned about sweeteners and young children should consult a registered dietitian or physician about specific recommendations when using sweeteners.
Yvette Penner graduated from Cornell University with a B.S. in Nutritional Science. She is currently completing her dietetic internship at Brigham and Women's Hospital. She plans to become a registered dietitian.