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Are sugar substitutes hiding in your food?

nutrition labelLately, ingredient lists on healthy packaged foods have increasingly included mysterious sweeteners ending in “ol.”

Zevia, a brand-new natural soda we see yogis sipping claims it has “no sugar and is sweetened with Stevia,” but beneath the zero grams of sugar is 7g of erythritol. The new Bai Antioxidant Infusions lists the same ingredient. Popular Think Thin bars are advertised as “sugar-free,” but maltitol is the fifth ingredient (and 12g of “sugar alcohol” reside in the nutrition facts).

So what are these sneaky sugars? They all belong to a category of carbohydrates called “sugar alcohols,” which are either extracted from plants or manufactured from starches.

“They contain calories, but less than regular sugar, to varying degrees. And they still provide that sweet flavor,” says best-selling author and nutritionist Julieanna Hever, M.S., R.D. They also have less of an impact on blood sugar, so they’re often used in products made for diabetics.

But that doesn’t mean you should start seeking out Xylitol every time your sweet tooth kicks in.

Julieanna Hever

Julieanna Hever, the "Plant-Based Dietitian"

“Because they’re low-digested carbs, they’re not digested the way other sugars are,” explains Hever. “So, they can be stressful on the GI tract.” So, unpleasant digestive symptoms may result if you consume too much, although the amount that actually causes them varies wildly person to person.

Still, even if your body can handle them, Hever cautions against any and all added sweeteners because they perpetuate sugar cravings.

“They make your taste buds crave high levels of sweetness. Plus, when you have sweet on your tongue, your brain expects calories and releases insulin. When the calories don’t come, you may end up storing more fat,” she says.

Renowned physician, Mark Hyman, MD, author of The Blood Sugar Solution, agrees. “My advice is to give up stevia, aspartame, sucralose, sugar alcohols like xylitol and malitol, and all of the other heavily used and marketed sweeteners unless you want to slow down your metabolism, gain weight, and become an addict,” he recently posted on his Facebook page.

Of course, easier said than done, right? Hever, however, promises it’s not as difficult as it sounds. “Once you give up added sugars and artificial sweeteners, real fruits and vegetables start to taste sweeter, and you retrain your taste buds to not crave.”

Until then, sugar alcohols are not the worst option, but be sure to pay attention to any threatening stomach rumblings. —Lisa Elaine Held

7 Comments | ADD YOURS

  1. June 15th, 2012 at 10:13 am

    Thanks for the great info–I have avoided sugar alcohols since I first learned about them for the reasons you mention here. While I do use stevia and coconut sugar, I am trying to cut back. . . I love my sweets, but I definitley have experienced cravings post-sweets, even those made with healthy sweeteners!

  2. June 15th, 2012 at 12:15 pm

    BUT — are they harmful ??? In other words, have they been found to cause any diseases such as cancer of some organs? Thanks.

  3. June 16th, 2012 at 10:04 pm

    Thanks for the practical and useful info! I appreciate the recommendations and the absence of anecdotal misinformation. Refreshing.

  4. June 18th, 2012 at 3:28 pm

    Thanks! I tend to avoid added sugars and artificial ingredients. I prefer fruit, and things sweetened with fruits like dates. That’s not to say I don’t get my fair share of agave, but I do try to keep that to a minimum.

  5. June 25th, 2012 at 12:54 am

    Stevia for me please!

  6. October 23rd, 2012 at 7:45 pm

    Hi Lisa, great article. Sugar is hiding in all processed food! I consider it worst than hard drugs like cocaine! I´m new to blogging, but I´ll be posting a video about looking younger without sugar soon! For now, please check out this one about processed foods and let me know your opinion: http://www.thehealthgladiator.com/why-you-should-stop-eating-processed-stuff/
    Thank you and blessings!

  7. April 2nd, 2013 at 2:44 pm

    Hi Lisa. Sugar is in so much processed food these days. When fat is taken out, the flavor goes so salt is added and then sometimes sugar is added to cover the taste of salt!

    I was amazed when I started checking the contents on breakfast cereals and saw just how much sugar is in them! With some foods you even get nearly your daily dose of salt in just one helping!

    Now that I’ve been diagnosed as pre-diabetic, I’m very careful about the amount of sugar I take in each day. I’ve cut way down on processed foods and taken to old-fashioned cooking with real meat and veg. Breakfast is now a bowl of porridge (still not used to that!)

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