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The science of sweet: The varieties of sugar and the growing number of substitutes

The fascinating thing about science is that it does not produce “the one answer”… ever. Science produces an answer, based on current knowledge and the ever-changing limits of investigation. The more we know the more we know we don’t know. It’s frustrating to some, but not to scientists.chl susan logo2

One hundred years ago, you had a pretty good chance of dying by age 50. Thanks to science and safety, today’s average American or Ecuadorian lives beyond age 70. Our pursuit of science means we’re not doomed to perish in the face of bacterial or even viral infections.

While once all fat was grouped into a “bad” category that was deemed causal for obesity, new science has shown that it’s certainly not so simple: fat is a complicated nutrient. Some fats are healthful, and man-made fat (trans fat or partially-hydrogenated fats) is harmful.

Yes, fat has double the calories of protein and carbohydrate (9 calories per gram vs. 4 calories per gram), so it would seem that cutting fat calories is the answer to weight loss. However, when manufacturers of processed foods replaced fat with excessive sugar, the obesity rate didn’t decrease; in fact, some blame the “fat-free” trend of the 1980’s for the obesity epidemic that continues today.cubes of sugar

We know with certainty that excessive sugar has negative health effects and excess is linked to obesity, increased risk for diabetes, and high blood lipids including triglycerides and low-density lipoproteins (LDL). Excessive sugar is linked to higher risk for heart disease and even cancer.

Although the World Health Organization has dropped its sugar intake recommendations to 5% of your daily calories, the USDA’s 2015 Dietary Guidelines recommendation remains at 10% or less. Many health experts disagree that this recommendation should be so liberal.

(By the way, “added sugars” means sugars added to foods, such as to packaged and processed foods — to cereals and yogurts and beverages — not sugars naturally found in foods like dairy (lactose) and fruits, and to a lesser extent, vegetables (fructose).)

If we were to follow the U.S. recommended 10% of total calories in the form of added sugar that would equate to about 6 teaspoons — or 25 grams — of sugar per day — maximum. One tsp of sugar = 4 grams.sugar-bomb-breakfast1

But the Food and Drug Administration admits that the average American consumes 16% of their calories from added sugars. That’s 320 calories of added sugars, or 80 grams of added sugar…closer to 20 teaspoons of added sugar. Put it another way, that’s closing in on half-a-cup of sugar daily. Every day. The average American consumes 80 pounds of added sugar yearly.

Sugars, Sweeteners, and Non-nutritive Sweeteners

Caloric sugars range from table sugar (sucrose), to corn syrups, honey, agave, maple syrup, panela, molasses, and all “fruit sugars” like evaporated cane juice, nectars, and more.

Some caloric sweeteners have small amounts of nutrients, such as honey and molasses. But in the amounts recommended, they can’t be considered adjuncts to health — they’re mainly sweet, with a significant source of calories over time. Although many may perceive “natural” sugars as better for you than refined sucrose, the body processes all caloric sugars the same way. As reported in the Huffington Post, Dr. Marion Nestle, the Paulette Goddard Professor of Nutrition, Food Studies and Public Health at New York University, said, “Sugar is sugar, alas.” Meaning: No matter what type of sugar you consume — whether it’s table sugar or maple syrup chock full of “vitamins” and “minerals” — your blood sugar goes up. “Minerals don’t counter calories or hormones,” Nestle told The Huffington Post.

A common misconception is about agave and fructose. While regular sugar, honey, and maple syrup consislatin obesity_credit The Economistt of equal parts glucose and fructose, agave is much higher in fructose. Studies show that excessive amounts in the blood can lead to a higher circulation of triglycerides and higher risk for heart disease and possibly fatty liver with excessive intake of processed fructose. Agave syrup has more fructose than high fructose corn syrup — even Dr. Oz, a former proponent of agave syrup, has taken a stand against it. A small amount of agave nectar occasionally won’t kill you, but it’s no better than regular sugar or corn syrup.

The Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics (AND) position paper on use of nutritive and non-nutritive sweeteners lists the varieties of sugars commonly found in foods, and details their nutritional profiles.

All caloric sweeteners contain about 20 calories per teaspoon, or about 4 calories per gram. Glucose is a monosaccharide, the primary source of energy for body cells. Fructose is also a monosaccharide, found in fruit, honey, and some vegetables. In nature it’s linked with glucose as the disaccharide sucrose. Sucrose is commonly known as sugar, and is typically derived from sugar cane or sugar beets.

Non-nutritive sweeteners (NNS) provide little or no calories (energy), and are also known as high-intensity sweeteners and they are many times sweeter than sucrose. Since they don’t have the same functional properties of sugar (browning, crystallization, microbial inhibition), they’re typically used in baked goods or frozen desserts alongside regular sugar — so the manufacturer can cut back on the sugar but not the sweetness.stevia tablets

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) regulates non-nutritive sweeteners such as food additives, and the approval process includes determination of probable intake, cumulative effect from all uses, and toxicology studies in animals. Those approved for use in the USA and seen throughout Latin America include: acesulfame potassium (ace-K or Sweet One), aspartame (Equal and NutraSweet), neotame, saccharine (Sugar Twin, Sweet ‘N Low), and sucralose (Splenda).  Other more “natural” no-calorie sweeteners include luo han guo extract (monk fruit), and the herb stevia, from which an extract and powder is obtained (Stevia, Truvía). Both these “natural” sweeteners are highly processed too, and not so “natural” after all. has instructions to grow your own stevia herbs, and how to harvest, dry, and home-process a powdered sweetener. writes about possible side effects.

Another type of non-nutritive sweetener are polyols (sugar alcohols) including sorbitol, xylitol, and mannitol. Typically found in candies, chewing gum and desserts, they’re not calorie-free, but have about half the calories of sugar, and don’t cause tooth decay. Too many polyols can cause gastric effects like bloating and gas.

A New Kid On The Block

I recently returned from speaking at The International Congress on Food and Human Nutrition, University of Antioquia 2016, in Medellin, Columbia. I was invited to present on behalf of Tate & Lyle’s new ultra-low calorie sugar called Dolcia Prima (allulose). Allulose is generally recognized as safe in the USA (GRAS), and has been approved for use in Chile, and approval is pending in Colombia as well.

I’m always interested in new “tools” to put in my weight management toolbox. These tools include foods and services that can help people manage their diets and increase their activity so they can manage their weight.

I like that allulose is found naturally in small amounts in figs, raisins, and jackfruit. Tate & Lyle has developed a proprietary enzymatic process to manufacture this sweetener from corn, although it could be produced from other plant foods like wheat, sugar cane, or beets.

As reported in, the sweetener allulose has 70% of the sweetness of table sugar, but 90% fewer calories (it’s absorbed by the body, but not metabolized), and has the texture and bulk of regular sugar, and browns during baking (Maillard reaction) — it can be used to reduce or replace regular sugar in just about everything that requires a sweetener — beverages, yogurt, ice cream, candy, salad dressings, gum, cereals, and even baked products.

It’s currently not available in markets as a tabletop sweetener, but in the USA, Chile, and soon in Colombia it will be used alone or with other no-calorie sweeteners such as stevia or sucralose (Spenda) to sweeten a variety of foods.

Beverages, yogurts and processed foods in general are full of added sugars.

Yogurts are my pet peeve. Natural yogurt is by its very nature, tangy. But you’ll be hard pressed to find yogurt that tastes like yogurt in the grocery store. Instead, there are dozens of varieties of over-sugared yogurts: some varieties can contain as much as 36 grams of added sugar, or 9 teaspoons!

Kids’ yogurts are especially sweet. They even add little packages of candy on top of the sweetened yogurt. Hey, vote with your pocketbook. Unsweetened yogurt allows you to control the sugar. If you like it less tangy and/or a little sweet, add naturally sweet fruit (mango is my favorite), and for a little more sweetness, drizzle on a bit of organic honey.

Personally, I like to use sugar substitutes on occasion, to enjoy a sweet treat without the consequences of excessive calories. If I feel like chewing gum, I’ll choose sugarless. I’ll add a packet of stevia to sweeten my unsweetened cereal, and occasionally indulge in a diet soda. Real sugar isn’t out of my diet absolutely, just not regularly. Sugar does more than just sweeten foods; it bulks, browns, and texturizes baked goods. There’s no substitute for sugar in my chocolate biscotti.


Position of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics: Use of Nutritive and Nonnutritive Sweeteners.

Growing Your Own Stevia.


Susan Burke March is a Registered and Licensed Dietitian, a Certified Diabetes Educator who specializes in smart solutions for weight loss and diabetes-related weight management, and a Cuenca expat. Contact her at


2 thoughts on “The science of sweet: The varieties of sugar and the growing number of substitutes

  1. Some mice fed with unnaturally high amounts of allulose died, but when normal amounts were administered, the only observable effect was enlarged kidneys and liver. (This is what my research came up with, sooo I’ll stick with stevia.) By the way, if you don’t like stevia, just use less. When people use to much it does have an after taste.

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