When it comes to sweeteners, everyone seems to have a vastly different opinion. Some swear by them, some have sworn off them. So we decided to ask a professional – Dr Alan Barclay, an accredited practising dietitian and nutritionist – what we need to know about the sugar substitute.
What different kinds of sweeteners are out there?
The artificial, or intense, sweetener category can be divided into two main groups: artificial sweeteners, which are a diverse group of compounds, and natural sweeteners, which are made from plants. Intense sweeteners tend to use aspartame, sucralose or saccharin as their main ingredient whereas natural intense sweeteners use a plant derivative, such as stevia, and are sometimes blended with sugar or erythritol.
What are some of the benefits and detriments of the main ones?
The alternative sweetener category is often misunderstood by Australians who avoid them altogether, due to misconceptions about what they contain and their health implications.
As with any area of science there will be studies that contradict each other. The body of science that indicates that intense sweeteners are safe and effective is based primarily on randomised controlled trials in humans which are the “gold standard”.
Stevia based sweeteners are the new kids on the block when it comes to the sweetener category but no studies I am aware of show any adverse effects associated with stevia based sweeteners.
Why are people turning to sweeteners over sugar?
Many Australians are guilty of consuming too much free sugar which could be contributing to weight gain and rising levels of obesity in Australia. Increased awareness of Australia’s obesity epidemic may be encouraging Australians to look for substitutions for sugar and alternative sweeteners are a great option and are extremely versatile and can be easily assimilated into everyday life.
For most people, cutting out sweet foods is unrealistic, we have an inherent liking for sweet foods that begins at birth (breast milk contains a high concentration of the sugar lactose). Replacing added sugars with sweeteners is therefore a viable alternative which can help people manage their weight. There is a solid body of scientific evidence which shows that replacing free sugars with alternative sweeteners has been proven to help people to lose weight and keep the weight off in the long term.
What’s the biggest mistake people make when choosing and using sweeteners?
The biggest mistake that people make when choosing a sweetener is assuming that they are bad for you! The sweetener category is extremely diverse and different sweeteners are suited to different purposes so it’s all about finding the right one.
For example, 100% sugar-free stevia based sweeteners are perfect for sweetening beverages such as tea or coffee whilst a half stevia, half sugar blend is great for baking as it browns in the oven just like sugar and has the same great taste without all the calories of sugar.
Is there a limit on how much sweetener you should be consuming per day / week?
The recommended dose for natural, stevia based sweeteners is 4 mg per kg of body weight per day as steviol. This is equivalent to 314 mg of steviol per day for the average 78.5 kg Australian adult. You would need to consume approximately 86 sachets of Whole Earth’s nature sweet sticks to pass this daily allowance.
Sweeteners differ greatly in their base ingredients and their level of sweetness. While it is highly unlikely that one would exceed the recommended daily intake, moderation should always be advised.
Dr Alan Barclay is an accredited practising dietitian and nutritionist with over 22 years' experience in clinical dietetics, public health and academia.