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The Scoop on Natural Sweeteners: Stevia, Agave and Xylitol

Feb 9, 2011
With today's obesity epidemic, the sugar substitute market is growing by leaps and bounds.  Product manufacturers are racing to discover sugar substitutes that taste good, provide fewer calories and are safe to consume.  In general, a sugar substitute is a food additive that is designed to mimic the taste of sugar.  These products can be natural or artificial; however, both must go through testing by the Food and Drug Administration to be deemed as safe before entering the food supply.  Due to consumer demands for more organic and less processed products, natural sweeteners such as stevia, agave nectar and sugar alcohols have recently claimed the spotlight.  

Stevia
Stevia is a plant native to Central and South America that has been consumed outside the United States for over 200 years.  The steviol glycosides are the sweetest portion of the plant.  When isolated and purified, the steviol glycosides are 250 times sweeter than sugar.  The glycosides cannot be absorbed in the human body thus are completely excreted in the urine with no accumulation.  The World Health Organization's Joint Expert Committee on Food Additives states up to 4 mg per kilogram body weight is an acceptable safe level for steviol glycosides.

In the United States, products sweetened with stevia include soda, juice, gum, yogurt and condiments with many more products currently being development. Two popular products made from stevia are SweetLeaf® Sweetener™ and Truvia™.  Both products contain zero calories and can be utilized for baking.  When substituting any stevia product for baking, it is best to follow the guidelines provided by the manufacturer.  For example; the substitution factor for Truvia™ is ¾ teaspoon for every teaspoon of sugar.  

Xylitol
Due to the similarity in sweetness to sugar, xylitol is the most popular sugar alcohol and provides only 2.4 calories per gram compared to 4 calories in sugar. Sugar alcohols are a hydrogenated form of carbohydrate that are not 100% digested by humans.  Many different sugar alcohols are available and found in thousands of products at the grocery store.  Xylitol is found naturally in beets, mushrooms, oats, berries and corn but is commercially produced from birch trees.  Xylitol prevents tooth decay, plaque formation and increases saliva production; therefore, is used in many sugar free gums.  Individuals with diabetes may benefit from xylitol as it does not stimulate insulin or increase blood sugar.  For baking, it is suggested to substitute half of the sugar for xylitol.  Be cautious the minty flavor of xylitol may not be acceptable in all recipes.  Some individuals may be sensitive to sugar alcohols and could experience abdominal discomfort, gas and diarrhea if consumed in large quantities.

Agave nectar
Agave is native to Mexico and until recently was most well-known for its use in tequila.  Agave nectar contains more calories than sugar (20 calories per teaspoon compared to 15 calories in sugar) and is 90% fructose.  However, since agave is significantly sweeter than sugar, less is needed when used for substituting.  Unlike other sweeteners, agave contains iron, calcium, potassium and magnesium. Due to naturally occurring steroids, agave is not considered safe for pregnant women.  Some healthcare researchers are concerned about the high fructose content and the effect on America's increasing weight problem.  Individuals trying to lose weight may want to choose a non-caloric sweetener instead.  

Laura N. Kenny is a Registered Dietitian and Certified Dietitian in the state of Indiana.  She received both her Bachelor of Science degree in Dietetics and completed her dietetic internship at Purdue University. She is currently pursuing her Master of Science degree from Central Michigan University. Laura works for the Indiana Obesity Center PC under the supervision of Dr. Keith McEwen. She specializes in both surgical and non-surgical weight loss including nutritional adherence, meal planning, and macro/micro nutrient status. Kenny also promotes healthy eating through various speaking engagements throughout Indianapolis and teaches indoor cycling and Pilates classes in her free time. Since staring her dietetics career, she has worked with a variety of populations and chronic diseases.  Each summer Laura volunteers at Camp John Warvel, a camp for children with diabetes.  She also enjoys writing, sports, exercise, and reading "hot topics" in nutrition.  Laura has a true passion for guiding people to choose healthy nutritional choices for each and every individual lifestyle. To contact Laura, email her at lkenny@ecommunity.com.

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