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Your guide to sugars and sweeteners

We’re encouraged to use sugar (and high-sugar food and drinks) sparingly, but what do we do about our natural preference for sweetness? We break down the options.

One small thing: Struggling to wean yourself off sugar? Halve your sugar intake in beverages and halve it again after a week – you will feel better for it.

There are two categories of sweeteners added to food and drinks: nutritive sweeteners that contain kilojoules, and non-nutritive sweeteners, which are kilojoule-free. Here are the facts on both varieties.

Nutritive sweeteners

Sucrose

  • This is the chemical name for the cane sugar we commonly add to food and drinks.
  • It has a temptingly sweet taste and contributes texture, colour and flavour to baking.
  • It’s very energy dense and overconsumption has been linked to a variety of health conditions, such as obesity and hyperactivity.
  • When consumed in excess, it can have a harmful effect on insulin levels.
  • It’s not realistic or necessary to avoid sugar altogether. Ideally, intake should be limited to 3-4 teaspoons per day and should form part of a balanced, high-fibre diet.
  • There’s almost no difference in the nutritional value of brown and white sugar.

Fructose

  • Found in fruit, honey and certain vegetables.
  • Although it's often perceived to be healthier and less refined than sugar, powdered fructose is extracted from a highly refined product called high-fructose corn syrup, which has the same energy content as sugar
  • Fructose is absorbed into the bloodstream at a slower rate than regular sugar, but it’s still broken down into glucose and therefore can still increase blood-sugar levels.
  • Large amounts of fructose can increase triglyceride levels and cause gastrointestinal problems such as bloating and diarrhoea in people who have difficulty digesting it.
Other popular sweeteners

Honey and agave nectar are often thought to be healthier than sugar. However, they have no nutritional advantage, don’t contain many more micronutrients and are as energy dense as sugar. In addition, these “healthy” options are often processed and refined. A note of caution: honey shouldn't be given to children younger than one year in age.

Sugar alcohols

  • You may see these in ingredient lists as isomalt, maltitol, mannitol, sorbitol, and xylitol. (Despite their names, they don't actually contain alcohol.)
  • They’re commercially made, not directly extracted from plants.
  • They contain fewer kilojoules than sugars and are often used in sugar-free chewing gum and sweets as they don't contribute to tooth decay or cavities.
  • Consuming excessive quantities can result in various gastrointestinal side effects, including abdominal discomfort and diarrhoea.
Non-nutritive sweeteners

Artificial sweeteners don’t contain kilojoules. Examples of the most common non-nutritive sweeteners include stevia, aspartame, sucralose, acesulfame K and saccharin. The preferred sweeteners used for PnP’s own brand of products are stevia and sucralose.

Benefits of using non-nutritive sweeteners
  • Can help moderate energy (kilojoule) intake in weight management.
  • Can assist in reducing sugar intake for people affected by diabetes.
  • Can assist with the prevention of tooth decay.
Reading food labels

Only sweeteners mentioned on the Department of Health’s list of permissible sweeteners are used in products sold in South Africa. The category of sweetener and its name are shown on the product label, for example: non-nutritive sweeteners – acesulfame K and sucralose.

Are artificial sweeteners safe?

The FDA has established safe limits for all artificial sweeteners, and manufacturers tend to use a blend of sweeteners to obtain a desirable taste profile and ensure sweeteners are well within these safe limits.

There is a tremendous amount of unsubstantiated anecdotal information in the media, which can leave one unsure of whether non-nutritive sweeteners are safe, or not. There's no scientific evidence linking consumption of these sweeteners to cancer, and they’re safe for consumption by children, pregnant and breastfeeding women. They should not, however, be used in foods for infants and young children.

Moderation is key

When choosing sugar substitutes, be informed and look beyond the hype. While artificial sweeteners may help with diabetes and weight management, they aren't a magic bullet and should only be used in moderation.

Try to get into the habit of drinking all your hot beverages, such as tea, coffee and hot chocolate, without sugar or sweeteners, and remember that water is the best drink for hydration.

As a guideline, use no more than three to six sachets or tablets of sweeteners a day, and limit diet cold drinks to a maximum of one 250ml glass a day.

If you have a question for our dietitians, click here, or to find a dietitian in your area, visit adsa.org.za. To get in touch with us, email healthhotline@pnp.co.za.