Side-by-Side: Sweeteners


Being faced with the rainbow of sweetener packets at your favorite restaurant or coffeehouse is overwhelming.

Which one to use? Which are “suitable” or “safe” or “appropriate” for people with diabetes? Most importantly, which one is most yummy?

I decided to do a little taste test and research. Here’s what I found.

Turbinado Sugar (brand name: Sugar in the Raw) is sugar that has been lightly processed. Sometimes it’s referred to as “raw” sugar, which is not really accurate.

Taste on the tongue: The crystals dissolve leaving a slightly syrupy taste on the tongue. This must be from the “sugar cane juice” that gets left behind on the crystals due to the light processing. This aftertaste quickly fades away.

Taste in black tea: I put a teaspoon of Sugar in the Raw in a cup of brewed Lipton black tea. Even though I gave the sugar a minute to dissolve and then a good stir with a spoon, I didn’t really taste the sweetness of the sugar until I got to the bottom of the cup where the crystals dropped to before dissolving.

A teaspoon of Sugar in the Raw has 20 calories and 5 grams of carbohydrates. Bottom line: it’s still sugar and “not recommended” for those restricting sugar in their diet.

Saccharin (brand name: Sweet`N Low, Sugar Twin) is the granddaddy of artificial sweeteners developed over 100 years ago in the chemistry labs at Johns Hopkins University.

Taste on the tongue: Saccharin powder dissolves into a light, bright sweetness then leaves a slight chemical aftertaste. This aftertaste lingers on the tongue.

Taste in black tea: Since the packet of Sweet`N Low says it’s the equivalent of 2 teaspoons of sugar, I only used half of it in my cup of Lipton black tea. The tea has a slight sweetness to it. And the taste on my tongue seems to be re-activated as I drink my cuppa.

A teaspoon of Sween`N Low has 0 calories, less than 1 gram of carbohydrates and is “suitable for diabetics.”

Aspartame (brand name: Equal, NutraSweet, Natra Taste) is made by joining a couple of amino acids which were discovered to have a sweet taste when put together. These amino acids are digested by the body the same as any other amino acid.

Taste on the tongue: The aspartame powder dissolves quickly across the tongue, but leaves a distinctive and strong chemical aftertaste. Which is not to my liking. Now I remember why I avoided aspartame for so long.

Taste in black tea: The chemical taste smooths out in my cup of Lipton black tea. Not so bad after all. The light sweetness is infused through the whole cup. Again I used only 1/2 of the packet of Equal which is equivalent to 1 teaspoon of granulated sugar.

A teaspoon of Equal has 0 calories and 0 grams of carbohydrates and is “appropriate for use by individuals with diabetes.”

There is one very serious health caution about aspartame: it has the amino acid phenylalanine which cannot be broken down by people with phenylketonuria, a rare genetic disorder. People with this disorder should not eat aspartame.

Because sweetness in aspartame is so concentrated it is often paired with a very small amount dextrose with maltodextrin (i.e., sugar) as a “bulking agent.” Together they “bulk-up” to a measured teaspoon of powder in the packet.

Sucralose(brand name: Splenda) is the new kid on the block among artificial sweeteners. It was developed in the late 1980s at Queen Elizabeth College in the UK. Derived from sugar, I’m not sure it should be called “artificial” as much as engineered. Sucralose is extremely sweet tasting. Scientifically it’s been measured at 600 times the sweetness of the equivalent amount of sugar.

Taste on the tongue: Sucralose powder is effervescent; it almost fizzes on the tongue. It has a strong and distinctively sweet flavor and a strong aftertaste.

Taste in black tea: Since sucralose is so sweet (by measurement and to my taste) I only used half of the packet in my cup of Lipton black tea. I can definitely taste the sweetness through out the whole cup.

A teaspoon has 0 calories, less than 1 gram of carbohydrates, and is “suitable for diabetics.”

Because sweetness in sucralose is so concentrated, very little is needed and it is often paired with  a very small amount dextrose with maltodextrin (i.e., sugar) as a “bulking agent.”

Some people (myself included) can’t tolerate a lot of sucralose. I find that if I have too much I get intestinal distress—not a pleasant feeling.

Stevia(brand name: Truvia, PureVia, SweetLeaf, Stevia in the Raw, Sun Crystals sugar-stevia blend) is a natural sweetener derived from a plant found in South America that has zero calories.

Taste on the tongue: Truvia powder has an effervescent quality similar to succralose. The powder feels like it’s evaporating off the surface of the tongue leaving a sweet sensation behind that lingers.

Taste in black tea: Since the packet of Truvia says it’s the equivalent of 2 teaspoons of sugar, I only used half of it in my cup of Lipton black tea. A very light taste of sweetness (more like a hint) was infused throughout the cup of tea.

A teaspoon of Turvia has 0 calories, 3 gram of carbohydrates, and is “safe” for people with diabetes.

Overall observations on yumminess

By themselves these sweeteners are not yummy. Even in black tea they still leave behind chemical tastes. The ones that are “safe” or “appropriate” for people with diabetes are clearly substitutes that need some getting used to. And side-by-side they all kind of taste the same and just vary in the strength of the sweetness and chemical aftertaste.

I was surprised to find that aspartame and sucralose are bulked up with a form of sugar. While the amount of sugar in a single packet is so small that it doesn’t “count” under FDA standards, if you eat a lot of foods that have these sweeteners it can add up. At some point you can eat enough that it will count. Where that point is is not at all clear. Just have to remember that sugar-free isn’t necessarily carbohydrate-free or even free of sugar (i.e., dextrose with maltodextrin).

Health safety and sweeteners

Over the years artificial sweeteners have been suspected of causing health problems. One study had saccharin causing tumors in rat bladders. Aspartame was suspected of causing brain tumors and multiple sclerosis.

The FDA did ban saccharin for a time, but ended the ban after reviewing the study that linked it to tumors in rats. Turns out rats were fed the equivalent of hundreds of cans of soda each day for a lifetime. It’s extremely unlikely that any sane person would drink that much soda or eat that much saccharin regularly.

As for the claims against aspartame, the American Council on Science and Health debunks them here.