When is sweet not so sweet


Most parents have a pretty simple goal: They want their kids to be as healthy as possible.

When it comes to drinks, the safest, simplest way to make that happen is to serve water or low-fat milk, and no more than one small glass of 100% juice or 100% juice diluted with water a day. But there are a lot of choices out there. So, as so often is the case in parenting, it’s not always simple.

A lot of drinks have added sweeteners. That may not be so bad. If your concern is obesity, you want to steer clear of sweeteners that are high in calories. Sugar is the most obvious example. So you might choose a non-caloric sweetener, such as aspartame (an ingredient in many diet drinks).

However, there is a debate over whether even low-calorie sweeteners lead to weight gain, perhaps by reinforcing an expectation of sweetness in food. What’s more, some parents like to avoid anything labeled as “artificial.” That’s where things get confusing. So we placed sweeteners into three groups:

  • Natural: Sweeteners most experts say are not synthetic and require minimal processing. These are the kind of ingredients your grandmother might have used – cane sugar, molasses, honey, fruit juice, natural fruit essence, and so on.
  • Artificial: Sweeteners widely agreed to be synthetic and not naturally occurring. These include the sugar substitutes in diet drinks that are regulated by the FDA.
  • Hybrid: All other sweeteners, those some might describe as natural and others might see as artificial.

The hybrid group can be broken into subgroups. One subgroup would be “sugar alcohols,” which typically contain one-third to one-half as many calories as sugar. While sugar alcohols have many of the physical properties of sugar, they do not cause cavities and have only minimal impact on blood sugar levels. Common sugar alcohols include xylitol, mannitol, sorbitol, lactitol, isomalt, erythritol, and hydrogenated starch hydrosylate. Since they are not entirely absorbed by the body, excess consumption can cause gastrointestinal discomfort and diarrhea. Another sub-group is “novel” sweeteners, which are sweetening materials not previously known or used in the food supply. Some of these are marketed as “natural.”

Below is a look at all the sweeteners contained in beverages listed on this site, listed according to the group.

Natural Sweeteners
Cane sugar Sugar extracted from sugarcane.
Date sugar Unprocessed, finely chopped dates.
Maple syrup Concentrated syrup left after water is evaporated from the sap of a maple tree.
Agave nectar Concentrated syrup left after sap of the Blue Agave plant is extracted and heated.
Fruit juice concentrate Fruit juice with most water content filtered out.
Molasses Thick, dark substance made by beating sugarcane, grapes, or sugar beets.
Honey Sweet food made by bees using the nectar from flowers.
Rice Syrup Sweetener derived by cooking rice with added enzymes that break down starches into sugar.
Fruit Sugar/Fructose A simple sugar found in plants.
Artificial Sweeteners
Acesulfame potassium The potassium salt of 6-methyl-1,2,3-oxathiazine-4(3H)-one 2,2-dioxide. Brand names include Sunett and Sweet One.
Aspartame A methyl ester of the aspartic acid/phenylalanine dipeptide. Brand names include NutraSweet, AminoSweet, and Equal.
Saccharin The basic substance is Benzoic sulfilimine. Brand names include SugarTwin and Sweet'N Low.
Sucralose Produced by the selective chlorination of sucrose, sucralose is a highly heat stable sugar substitute found in many foods. Splenda is the most common brand.
Neotame An artificial sweetener made by Nutrasweet that is 7,000 to 13,000 times sweeter than sucrose. Chemically it is similar to aspartame.
Hybrids
Stevia extracts Calorie-free sweetener derived from the leaves of the Stevia plant. Brand names include Pure Via and Truvia.
High Fructose Corn Syrup/Corn Syrup Sweet syrup processed from starches found in corn.
Maltitol A sugar alcohol with fewer calories than table sugar. Brand names include Lesys, Maltisweet, and SweetPearl.
Mannitol A sugar alcohol used as a low-calorie sweetener. Often called mannite and manna sugar.
Sorbitol A sugar alcohol found in apples, pears, peaches, and prunes.
Xylitol A sugar alcohol found in the fiber of fruits and vegetables.
Erythritol A sugar alcohol that is low calorie and produced through the fermentation of glucose.
Lactitol A sugar alcohol used in low calorie foods, and medicines.
Hydrogenated starch hydrolysate A mixture of several sugar alcohols that is used as a sweetener and moisture retaining ingredient in foods.
Glucose Simple sugar produced commercially through the enzymatic hydrolysis of starch.
Maltodextrin Mildly sweet food additive that is enzymatically derived from starch.
Sucrose Technical name for table sugar, and the most commonly added refined/processed sugar in food.
Tagatose Low calorie sweetener that is enzymatically derived from galactose. A common brand name is Naturlose.
Trehalose A disaccharide sugar extracted from cultured yeast.