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HelixTalk Episode #44 - The Science of Sugars and Sweeteners with Dr. Eric Walters

Date posted: May 31, 2016, 6:00 am

In this episode, we discuss the science of carbohydrate-based sugars, sugar alcohols, artificial sweeteners, and natural sweeteners with Dr. Eric Walters, author of the book "The Sweetener Book" and Professor at Rosalind Franklin University.


Key Concepts

  1. There are four main categories of substances that are used to produce sweetness in foods and drinks: carbohydrates (like sucrose), sugar alcohols (like sorbitol), synthetic sweeteners (like aspartame), and natural sweeteners (like stevosides)
  2. Sucrose is considered the "standard" or reference sweetener in which most other sweeteners are compared.
  3. Fructose is sweeter than sucrose and has a lower glycemic index, meaning that it produces a slower onset and lower peak blood glucose.
  4. Corn syrup is made up of chains of glucose (dextrose), which produces a very impressive blood glucose spike compared to other sweeteners.  High fructose corn syrup is made of 45% glucose and 55% fructose, which will have higher sweetness and a lower glycemic index compared to corn syrup.
  5. High fructose corn syrup (HFCS) has been the target of negative publicity of late, but there is a lack of data suggesting that HFCS is any better or worse for weight gain or blood glucose than other carbohydrate-based sweeteners, such as sucrose.
  6. Agave nectar, made of 90% fructose, will have a lower glycemic index than sucrose and high fructose corn syrup.
  7. Sugar alcohols (polyols) are chemically similar to carbohydrate-based sugars, but typically are not efficiently metabolized into glucose and/or are poorly absorbed from the gastrointestinal tract.  Most polyols do contain calories but at a lower amount compared to their carbohydrate-based counterparts.
  8. Sugar alcohols can produce gas, bloating, and diarrhea due to a laxative effect.  Mannitol tends to have the lowest (worst) laxative threshold and maltitol, sorbitol, erythritol, and xylitol tend to have the highest (best) threshold, although there is significant variability in the laxative threshold for all polyols.
  9. Synthetic (artificial) sweeteners like aspartame and sucralose are incredibly sweet compared to sucrose and essentially provide no calories to patients.  There is sufficient data to rule-out any cancer risks and insulin release (hypoglycemia) with these sweeteners.  There are insufficient data regarding these sweeteners' impact on satiety (sense of fullness) and weight gain.
  10. Stevosides (Stevia) is a naturally occurring sweetener that is much sweeter than sucrose but has a slower onset and longer effect of perceived sweetness compared to sucrose.

Additional Resources

  1. The Sweetener Book by D. Eric Walters, PhD
  2. American Diabetes Association (ADA), "Food & Fitness" section