27. Jun, 2018

Which alternative sweeteners are natural?

There are so many alternative sweeteners around you'd be forgiven for being confused about what is 'natural' and what isn't.   

Following on from my post on stevia, I thought I would do a quick one on sugar alcohols, aka polyols, to counter some misinformation used mostly by proponents of the 'sugar is evil but I still eat agave sugar, honey and coconut sugar because they're natural and fructose is OK' movement. Yeah, I'm confused by their reasoning too. 

The sugar alcohols found in food products are mostly naturally occurring in plants. All except lactitol and isomalt, which are synthetically created disaccharides. The monosaccharides they are made from are derived from whey and beetroot respectively. 

As food additives, polyols are usually produced from sugars or starch. Still very much the identical molecule as it is found in nature in fruit, vegies, and other plants.  

Although they are chemically carbohydrates, sugar alcohols are not absorbed in the small intestine (except erythritol), entering the large intestine, where normal bacteria convert them into beneficial short-chain fatty acids, which are absorbed (hence the calories).  

The graph shows their glycemic index, which is how they affect your blood sugar levels compared to glucose. You'll notice erythritol has the lowest GI and zero calories, because it is absorbed in the small intestine, is unchanged in the body, and excreted in urine.  

If you are counting carbohydrates in food products because you are diabetic, subtract half of the grams of sugar alcohol from the total grams of carbohydrate to get more accurate total carbs. 

Why are they called sugar alcohols? Their chemical structure is simply similar to sugar and alcohol. Not the most imaginative name, and causes more confusion than necessary, hence the use of their other name of 'polyols' becoming more common.  

Pros: Low calorie; Low GI; Tooth-friendly (non-cariogenic); Prebiotic; over-eating (>20g) all but erythritol has consequences (see Cons) which is a good deterrent

Cons: FODMAPs (except erythritol), so can cause flatulence and diarrhoea; Not SIBO or IBS-friendly


Following is a list of common sweeteners used in Australia, and in brackets I try to quickly explain their origin: 

420 Sorbitol* or sorbitol syrup (from starch)

421 Mannitol* (from starch)

422 Glycerin or glycerol (from lipids)

950 Acesulphame potassium (synthetic)

951 Aspartame (synthetic diamide of phenylalanine & aspartic acid)

952 Cyclamate or calcium cyclamate or sodium cyclamate (synthetic)

953 Isomalt* (synthetic disaccharide of glucose & mannitol from beetroot)

954 Saccharin (synthetic)

955 Sucralose (synthetic - chlorinated sucrose)

956 Alitame (synthetic)

957 Thaumatin (plant protein)

961 Neotame (synthetic)

960 Steviol glycosides (stevia extract)

962 Aspartame-acesulphame salt (synthetic)

965 Maltitol* and maltitol syrup or hydrogenated glucose syrup (from starch)

966 Lactitol* (synthetic disaccharide of sorbitol & galactose from whey)

967 Xylitol* (hemicellulose - from birch or corn)

968 Erythritol* (from starch)

969 Advantame (synthetic - from aspartame + isovanillin)

1200 Polydextrose (synthetic polymer of glucose) 

*sugar alcohols


Why the interest in alternative sweeteners? Not only do I think it's a current issue worth knowing about, but full disclosure - I run an online business called Naturally Sugar Free which offers naturally sweetened and coloured food products for diabetics, Low Carbers and those trying to reduce their added sugar intake. I created it before I even started studying nutrition science, as Type 2 diabetes runs in my family and I was looking for good quality suitable confectionery for myself. I struggled to find any in the usual places (supermarkets, health food stores, chemists), so I sourced them myself and put them in one place for others like me to find and enjoy. Oh, and I get to taste... ahem, quality control test that is, everything I sell.



European Food Safety Authority 2018, Sweeteners, <http://www.efsa.europa.eu/en/topics/topic/sweeteners>

Food Standards Australia New Zealand 2016, Additives, <http://www.foodstandards.gov.au/consumer/additives/additiveoverview/Pages/default.aspx

International Starch Institute 2018, Glycemic Index, <http://www.starch.dk/isi/glucose/img/GI.gif

University of California 2018, Counting Sugar Alcohols, <http://dtc.ucsf.edu/living-with-diabetes/diet-and-nutrition/understanding-carbohydrates/counting-carbohydrates/learning-to-read-labels/counting-sugar-alcohols/>