Savoring the sweet life is becoming more confusing with so many new sweetener options. Sugar alternatives like sorbitol, xylitol and mannitol are used in gums, frozen desserts and many confections and led to a family argument during a trip to the supermarket. These sweeteners can cause gastrointestinal side effects that many people want to avoid.
Recently, the Food and Drug Administration proposed that nutrition labels for processed foods indicate not just the amount of added sugar, but also the percentage of daily recommended calorie intake it represents. Manufacturers criticized the proposal and declared that the upper limit of 50 grams of added sugar per day is not scientifically valid.
Dr. Marion Nestle, professor of nutrition at New York University, thinks processed food companies do not want a label change because "One 16-ounce soda would be it for the day." (A 16-ounce soda contains about 12 teaspoons of sugar, and each teaspoon contains 4 grams of sugar.)
Whatever can be done to change food choices and reduce sugar intake could produce health benefits. According to a 2014 survey by the International Food Information Council Foundation, funded by the food and beverage industry, consumers said that they would be less likely to buy a product if the label listed added sugars.
Sweeteners were one of the main attractions at the recent Natural Products Expo in Baltimore. Xylitol and erythritol were well represented. (It's worth noting that if consumed in quantities of 2 teaspoons or more, bowel issues may result.) Erythritol is made in a fermentation process from corn, so those with sensitivities may need to avoid it. Coconut sugar and a new SugaVida (sap of the Palmyra tree) from India are both low in fructose, whereas agave and honey are more than 80 percent fructose.
Monk fruit, or Luo Han Guo, is a tropical vine from Southeast Asia that belongs to the gourd family. Buddhist monks grew it in the mountains of China for medical infusions. It has no calories and is about 200 times sweeter than sugar and used in beverages, yogurt and cereals. Chinese law prevents monk fruit trees and raw products from leaving the country, so cost and availability can be an issue.
Stevia plants hail from South America and are sold at local home and garden stores. Stevia grows like its relatives, daisies and ragweed, and most of it comes from Asia.
For years, stevia was sold as a dietary supplement. Then, stevia extract was developed by Cargill and Merisant. Known as rebaudioside A, or rebiana or reb A, it was granted Generally Recognized As Safe status by the FDA in 2008. Whole-leaf stevia has not been granted GRAS status despite numerous studies reporting no adverse effects. Currently, stevia-rebiana is used in many food products. It also can be used in cookie, cake and muffin recipes. Some brands contain erythritol to provide bulk in packaging.
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Stevia rebaudiana is a healthier alternative for dessert lovers.
Betty Wedman-St Louis is a licensed nutritionist and environmental health specialist in Pinellas County and author.