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Myths and Truths About Sweeteners

November 18, 2010

While I was at the ADA conference, I attended a session entitled “10 Sweetener Myths” presented by registered dietitians Carolyn O’Neil, MS, RD (you may recognize her as the “Lady of the Refrigerator” on Alton Brown’s Good Eats) and Kristine Clark, PhD, RD, FACSM, Director of Sports Nutrition at Penn State. Sweeteners always seem to be a hot topic for people — I get many questions about the safety of them, which are the best to use, do they make you crave more sweet foods, and more. I was glad to see that the sweetener myths were going to be busted, and I would like to share some of the myths and truths with you here.

One note before I begin: As always, it is important to eat sweets (like all foods) in moderation. I am not suggesting that people increase their intake of sugar and foods that are high in sugar. The point of this post is to shed light on the truths about sweeteners, sugar and high fructose corn syrup in particular.

  1. Sugars have very different compositions. This isn’t true. People think that high fructose corn syrup is very different from table sugar, but they are actually almost identical. Table sugar (sucrose) is made up of 50% fructose and 50% glucose. The most commonly used HFCS, HFCS-42, is made up of 42% fructose and 58% glucose. Compare that to honey, which is 48% fructose and 52% glucose, and agave, which is 74% fructose and 26% glucose, and you can see that HFCS is actually most similar to table sugar.
  2. Our bodies don’t know how to handle fructose. Think about how ridiculous this statement is! So many of the foods we eat, including fruits, vegetables, and nuts, naturally contain fructose. If our bodies didn’t know how to handle fructose then we’d all have trouble digesting foods we eat on a daily basis. (There are some people who have trouble with fructose-containing foods, but that’s a separate issue).
  3. Some caloric sweeteners are too sweet. The relative sweetness of sugars is as follows:
    • Pure crystalline fructose = 117
    • Sucrose (table sugar) = 100
    • HFCS-42 (described above) = 92
    • Glucose = 65

    As you can see, HFCS has virtually the same sweetness as (and is in fact less sweet than) table sugar. It is pure fructose that is sweeter than table sugar.

  4. Research confirms fructose is not safe. The studies that have shown problems with the safety of fructose looked at abnormally high levels of pure fructose, which is not representative of our diets because we consume fructose with glucose for the most part. It’s important to keep in mind that HFCS ≠ [High] Fructose. The studies that compare HFCS to sucrose have found no differences.
  5. Sugars are not needed in most food. Sugar plays many roles in food and if you experiment with cooking or baking and decrease or remove the sugar, you will see the difference in the end result. Sugar is used for the following:
    • Stabilizes ingredients
    • Promotes browning
    • Retains moisture
    • Resists crystallization
    • Lowers the freezing point
    • Softens textures

Tomorrow I will share some more myths and truths about sweeteners. What are the myths you have heard or questions you have about sweeteners?

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  1. This is a great summary! A good approach is to stop focusing so heavily on the negative aspects of individual food components and instead look at a broader picture of health. In fact, small amounts of sweetener can enhance the appeal of nutrient rich foods and help people include more healthful food choices in their diets (such as a small amount of brown-sugar on oatmeal, maple syrup on baked squash or fruit preserves in yogurt ). Like you said, it’s all about moderation after all. Thanks for sharing this insightful post!

    1. Thanks Ashley! I absolutely agree with you that people need to stop the negativity surrounding foods and food components. Hopefully we and other dietitians can help people understand the place for all foods in a healthy diet. Thanks for sharing your thoughts!

  2. great post! Thanks for tackling this topic and sharing what you learned at FNCE. I always get this question and I’m with you, it’s all about moderation. Often, people don’t realize that their food is made with multiple types of sugar, not just HFCS. So knowing how to read ingredient lists and what is considered a type of sugar is more important than focusing on just one ingredient.

    I always get the question: are diet sodas worse than regular sodas?

    1. Thanks Nour! I didn’t mention reading labels in this post, but you are 100% right – there are multiple names for sweeteners and it’s super important to read the list of ingredients so you know what you’re getting. How do you answer that question you get about diet vs regular soda? Just curious to hear your take on that one!