Sugar serves many functions in foods & beverages, such as affecting the mouth-feel, texture & flavour perception. Similar to salt, sugar acts as a powerful flavour enhancer. A perfect example can be seen if we compare childrens products such as popsicles, beverages & candies with adult versions. Dosages of flavour in children's products generally can be dropped to very low levels relative to an adult version. Conversely, there will be more sugar to compensate for the lack of flavour impact, which certainly suites children world-wide. Various natural & artificial sugar substitutes exist, but each comes with different efficiencies, ranges, applications, nutritional information, possible side-effects, labeling restrictions, availability & price.
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Described below are examples of what common sugar substitutes are available either as food additives or for use in natural health products (NHPs).
Sugar substitutes are considered food additives, which imitate the sensory characteristics of sugar. Natural sugar substitutes are obtained from natural sources, as opposed to artificial sugar substitutes, which are derived synthetically. High-intensity sugar substitutes are often used due to the useful feature that they are several times the sweetness of common table sugar (otherwise known as sucrose). This allows them to be used in small dosages, resulting in a negligible energy contribution. This is favourable, as sucrose has an energy density of 4 kcal/gram, and is typically used in amounts that result in a considerable energy contribution to food products. In Canada, sugar substitutes are only permitted for use once they have undergone thorough safety assessments and have followed revisions of regulations[i]. Effective natural sugar substitutes are in high demand for consumers. Natural sugar substitutes that have been approved in Canada include sugar alcohols (sorbitol, isomalt, lactitol, maltitol, mannitol and xylitol) and thaumatin[i].
Sugar alcohols, also known as polyols, are a category of sweeteners, which are found naturally in small amounts in fruits and vegetables (including berries, apples, and plums). When used on a large scale, polyols, are manufactured from regular sugars. Although polyols are: naturally occurring, do not contribute to tooth decay, have little effect on blood sugar and insulin secretion, and contain a lower energy density than sucrose, a disadvantage to them is that they are also less sweet than sugar[ii]. Thus, they are often used in combination with artificial sugar substitutes to account for this difference. Sugar alcohols that have been approved in Canada, and their corresponding energy densities, include: sorbitol (2.6 kcal/g), isomalt (2 kcal/g), lactitol (2 kcal/g), maltitol (3 kcal/g), mannitol (1.6 kcal/g), and xylitol (3 kcal/g)[iii].
A high intensity natural sweetener and flavour modifier, Thaumatin is a protein extracted from the west African katemfe fruit (Thaumatococcus daniellii) [iii]. Thaumatin, although extremely sweet at approximately 2000 times the sweetness of sucrose, is not exclusively used for its sweetening capabilities. For example, in Canada, Thaumatin is approved for use as a flavour enhancer[iv]. Its use as a flavour enhancer can be partly attributed to the taste perception of thaumatin. Thaumatin’s sweetness perception can be described as a syrupy sweetness that builds up over time and has a lasting effect. At high levels, thaumatin gives a licorice-like aftertaste. These properties make thaumatin a useful tool for masking off-notes, while providing sweetness. Furthermore, due to its strong characteristics, very little is required for sweetening or flavour modifying. Thus, even at 4 calories per gram, this sweet protein contributes no calories in food products, due to the insignificant dosages used in order to obtain the desired effect.
Extracts of the stevia plant (termed steviol glycoside extracts) are estimated to be about 300 times the sweetness of sugar. The sweetness character of stevia has a delayed onset and longer duration of sweetness compared to table sugar. Similarly to other high intensity sweeteners, in order to obtain the desired sweetness, stevia can be used in small amounts in food products such that it does not contribute a caloric value. However, at higher dosages, stevia takes on a bitter taste. Several countries have approved the use of stevia, including Japan, which have been using it as a sweetener for several decades. The United States has approved rebaudioside A extract of stevia since 2008 and the EU since early December 2011. Stevia, to date, can only be sold in Canada for personal culinary use, in the form of stevia leaves (be them liquid, powder or whole), or in extract form in natural health products[v].
Also known as luo han guo, it is a Chinese fruit known for its intense sweetness, which has been developed into a non caloric sweetener[vi]. Luo han guo can be 250 to 400 times the sweetness of sugar by weight[vii]. Currently in Canada luo han guo can be used in Natural Health Products[viii].
The sweetener, derived from the agave plant and produced in Mexico, is frequently referred to as agave nectar or syrup. Although agave is approved for use as a sweetener in Canada[ix], it offers no big advantage over sucrose in terms of energy density. Claims have been made that Agave nectar is 1.4 to 1.6 sweeter than sucrose[x]. This could result in fewer calories ingested, if consumers truly consume 1.4 to 1.6 times less agave than they would sucrose, in order to obtain the same level of sweetness.
Nectar is derived from plants as a sugar rich liquid. As such, the principal composition of nectar is sucrose. Although sweet and natural, nectar contains the same sugar found in regular table sugar (sucrose)[xi]. Thus, it offers no significant advantage of regular table sugar.
Sugarcane is cultivated as a major crop in tropical and subtropical regions. Sucrose is extracted from the stalks to provide raw sugar used for such products as table sugar, icing sugar, brown sugar, and molasses. Sixty five to seventy percent of the world’s sugar production comes from sugar cane[xii]. The sugar that most are familiar with, it provides 4 calories per gram of sucrose.
Similarly to sugar cane, the sugar beet is processed for its sucrose content, which comprises 15-20% of the sugar beet’s weight. Thirty to thirty five percent of the world’s sugar production is derived from sugar beets[xii], with the consumption of the beet sugar being most popular in Europe[xiii]. Certain regions are better suited for sugar beet production, as opposed to the tropical sugar cane. Additionally, beet sugar has grown higher in price than cane sugar[xiii]. Thus, the reasons for one region preferring beet or sugar cane over the other, is unrelated to taste (the same sucrose is produced from both), but rather due to geography or price[xiii]. It provides 4 calories per gram of sucrose.
Aspartame is a non sugar, low calorie sweetener made from the combination of the two amino acids, phenylalanine and aspartic acid, to form a dipeptide. Though this means that aspartame has an enegery density of 4 calories per gram, due to the small amounts needed, it contributes little to no calories in most food products. Despite much controversy surrounding this sweetener, it has been approved for use as a food additive in Canada since 1981. Before approval, extensive evaluation of safety data of aspartame was conducted by numerous countries. Aspartame has been found to be safe for consumption for the majority of the population. However, for certain individuals with phenylketonuria, the excessive intake of phenylalanine poses a health risk. Thus aspartame-containing products must indicate on their labels that phenylalanine is present[xiv]. Some examples of sweetener brand-names containing aspartame are Equal, Nutrasweet, and Canderel.
Sucralose is an artificial sweetener approved for use in Canada[ii]. It is a high intensity (600 times the sweetness of sucrose) sweetener that is non caloric, due to the fact that it is not digested by the body. Sucralose tends to be the preferred sweetener over aspartame due to the fact that it is heat stable, pH stable over a certain range, and has a longer shelf life. Examples of sweetener brand-names containing sucralose are Splenda, Sukrana, and SucraPlus.
Neotame is an artificial sweetener approved as a food additive in Canada[xv]. It boasts a high intensity of sweetness ranging from 7000 to 13000 times the sweetness of table sugar. Neotame has certain similarities with aspartame structurally. However, the structure of Neotame is such that the phenylalanine is not readily available, thus rendering it safe for individuals with phenylketonuria.
Acesulfame Potassium (Ace K, Acesulfame K)
Acesulfame K is an artificial sweetener that is about 200 times the sweetness of sugar. Although currently approved as a food additive in Canada[ii], Ace K has certain organeoleptic disadvantages, such as a slightly bitter aftertaste. Thus, Ace K is often blended with other sugar substitutes to provide a fuller sweet taste.
[i] Health Canada (Retrieved November 12th, 2011). Sugar Substitutes. Frequently Asked Questions “FAQ’s” on Stevia. Retrieved from http://www.hc-sc.gc.ca/fn-an/securit/addit/sweeten-edulcor/index-eng.php.
[ii] Health Canada (Retrieved November 17 2011). Sugar Alcohols (Polyols) & Polydextrose used as Sweeteners in Foods. Retrieved from http://www.hc-sc.gc.ca/fn-an/securit/addit/sweeten-edulcor/polyols_polydextose_factsheet-polyols_polydextose_fiche-eng.php.
[iii] Green C (1999). “Thaumatin: a natural flavour ingredient”. World Rev Nutr Diet. World Review of Nutrition and Dietetics 85:129-32.
[iv] Health Canada (Retrieved November 24, 2011). Drugs and Health Products. Retrieved from http://webprod.hc-sc.gc.ca/nhpid-bdipsn/ingredReq.do?id=4596&lang=eng.
[v] Health Canada (Retrieved November 16, 2011). Sugar Substitutes. Retrieved from http://www.hc-sc.gc.ca/fn-an/securit/addit/sweeten-edulcor/index-eng.php.
[vi] Kinghorn AD and Soejarto DD, Discovery of terpenoid and phenolic sweeteners from plants, Pure Applied Chemistry 2002; 74(7): 1169-1179.
[vii] Institute for Traditional Medicine Online (Retrieved November 25 2011). Luo Han Guo. Sweet Fruit Used as Sugar Substitute and Medicinal Herb. Retrieved from http://www.itmonline.org/arts/luohanguo.htm.
[viii] Health Canada (Retrieved November 25 2011). Drugs and Health Products. Retrieved from http://webprod.hc-sc.gc.ca/nhpid-bdipsn/ingredsReq.do?srchRchTxt=luo+han+guo&srchRchRole=-1&mthd=Search&lang=eng.
[ix] Health Canada (Retrieved November 28th 2011). Drugs and Health Products. Retrieved from http://webprod.hc-sc.gc.ca/nhpid-bdipsn/ingredReq.do?id=12268&lang=eng.
[x] The Wall Street Journal (Retrieved November 28th 2011). Agave Syrup May not be so Simple. Retrieved from http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10001424052748704335904574497622806733800.html.
[xi] Nicolson, Susan W.; Nepi, Massimo; Pacini, Ettore (Eds.), "Nectaries and Nectars", Springer Publications, 2007 p.9). Retrieved from http://books.google.ca/books?id=0L1cTNozMw8C&pg=PA8&lpg=PA8&dq=Nectar+components&source=bl&ots=Z-6xPqUw21&sig=usWTYMAclZSov9jKZg5ilhVRso0&redir_esc=y#v=onepage&q=calorie&f=false.
[xii] "11. Important commodities in agricultural trade: sugar". Food and Agriculture Organization. Retrieved December 2nd 2011.
[xiii]Canadian Sugar Institute (Retrieved December 2nd 2011). Retrieved from http://www.sugar.ca/english/pdf/That_Beet_is_Sweet_Stats_Canada_08.pdf
[xiv] Health Canana (Retrieved December 2nd 2011). Food and Nutrition. Aspartame. Retrieved from http://www.hc-sc.gc.ca/fn-an/securit/addit/sweeten-edulcor/aspartame-eng.php.
[xv] Health Canada (Retrieved December 6th 2011). Healthy Living. The Safety of Sugar Substitutes. Retrieved from http://www.hc-sc.gc.ca/hl-vs/iyh-vsv/food-aliment/sugar_sub_sucre-eng.php.