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How Sweet It Is The skinny on sugar substitutes

What do you reach for to sweeten your food or drink? All synthetic sweeteners on the market are generally recognized by the FDA as safe, but the smart choice for pleasing your taste buds is a plant-based sweetener.

Food sweeteners fall into two classes: Naturally sourced, like sugar, molasses and honey, are mild to moderate. Chemical-sourced sweeteners include synthetics and plant extracts that pack a high-intensity punch ranging from 200-700 times sweeter than sugar. They also have zero calories.

A lesser-known benefit of non-caloric sweeteners is they reduce acids in the mouth. Who remembers hearing about candy and cavities? When oral bacteria mixes with sugar molecules, the resulting corrosive organic acids can eat through tooth enamel.

The better-known reason for using artificial sweeteners relates to age and weight. As we age, our metabolisms slow down, and the body’s ability to tolerate excessive carbohydrate intake is diminished. Even with moderate daily energy-consuming activity, most of us develop varying degrees of insulin resistance that can cause blood sugar to rise. Sugar replacements are not a source of carbohydrate intake, which the body needs to fuel muscle and organ activity.

So, when it comes to just wanting something to taste better, here is a historical look at your options.

Sweet N’ Low — sodium saccharin

This was the first of the palatable sugar substitutes, created in 1879, but it did leave somewhat of a bitter aftertaste. It is up to 700 times sweeter than sugar.

It was the only product available for decades. Faulty lab tests on mice generated a scare in the early 1970s, but It is available today with no significant reported negative effects and is found in pink packets.

Equal, NutraSweet — aspartame

Discovered in 1981 as part of research into treating ulcers, aspartame is most common in diet soda and is the blue packets.

It is still the most widely used substance of its kind worldwide, but it comes with a shadow. The FDA reviewed reports of brain dysfunction and gastrointestinal distress filed by people consuming aspartame but ultimately deemed it safe. But it would be wise to limit your intake of foods containing aspartame to one or two servings per day and avoid it completely a few days per week.

Ace-K, Sweet-One — acesulfame and Newtame — neotame

These two products, developed in 1988 and 2002, are similar in their chemistry and are the only sweeteners the body cannot absorb. That means they please the tastebuds and pass on through. No side effects have been reported. Like aspartame, these are about 200 times sweeter than sugar.

Splenda — sucralose

A completely different approach to chemical sweeteners brought about sucralose in 1998. Food chemists developed a product 600 times sweeter than sugar with no adverse effects. It enjoys wide use today in many foods and is in yellow packets.

Truvia — stevia

The latest classification of sugar substitutes comes from the plant world. While regular table sugar also is derived from plants — sugar cane and sugar beets — the extract from the leaves of the stevia plant is 300 times sweeter than sugar. Stevia is also extracted from swingle fruit and monk fruit and has the sweetness of two teaspoons of sugar, one packet saving you about 30 calories.

My go-to for coffee, cereals or anything that I like to sweeten is Truvia, one of several sweeteners available made from stevia. Its crystals are extracted and dried and provide a longer-lasting sense of sweetness in the mouth than table sugar with no noticeable alteration in taste.

Edward H. Nessel has a doctorate in clinical pharmacy and is a biochemist and physiologist. His third book, “Keeping the Athlete Healthy, Vol. 2,” was released this summer. He’s also been a swim coach for 52 years, coaching seven Olympians in that time. Visit or email him at

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