Whether it’s sugar in your coffee or tea, in sweet dishes, soft drinks and candy, or over strawberries and pancakes, we consume sugar in one way or another almost every day. Even though we actually know that sugar is not good for our health at all. But why is that the case? In this knowledge centre you will find more information about the production, functioning and effects of sugar and we will introduce you to a number of alternative sweeteners.
Sugar, or sucrose, is obtained from sugar beets. In a factory, the sugar beets are cleaned and cut into pieces. The small pieces of sugar beet are then boiled, which dissolves the sugar, proteins, acids, salts and colouring dyes from the beet. We call the remainder raw juice. This raw juice is heated and mixed with limestone. While the proteins and nitrogen compounds convert to acids and ammonia, the insoluble acids precipitate. The excess limestone is removed by means of carbon dioxide. After this process, a thin juice remains. To lighten the colour of the thin juice, it is treated with sulphur dioxide gas. The juice is then evaporated and centrifuged. The white sugar is separated from the syrup and then dried and ground into granulated sugar.
What does sugar do in the body?
Sugar belongs to the group of carbohydrates and serves as fuel for the body. Carbohydrates are divided into three groups.
- Monosaccharide - one sugar molecule
- Disaccharide - two sugar molecules
- Polysaccharide - chain of multiple sugar molecules
During the digestion of food, the di- and polysaccharides are broken down into glucose. Glucose is a monosaccharide and the only form of sugar that can provide the body with energy. After the digestion and breakdown of the various saccharides, the remaining glucose enters the bloodstream. The glucose is absorbed by the body and provides enough energy to, for example, make the heart beat, to breathe, to think and to move. To ensure that the amount of glucose in the bloodstream remains within the 'normal values', insulin is produced by the pancreas. Insulin is the hormone that ensures all glucose can be absorbed from the bloodstream and converted into the tissues.
Table sugar and sugar in soft drinks, sweets, pastries and other 'unhealthy' products are also referred to as 'fast sugars', as they have a high glycemic index.* The higher the glycemic index, the faster the blood sugar level rises after consumption of the corresponding product. But when we have too much glucose in our body, the pancreas has to work extra hard to produce enough insulin. The production of insulin does not work sufficiently or not at all in diabetic patients. That means they have to be extra careful when consuming sugar. The high amount of glucose in the blood can damage the blood vessels. In the longer term, this can even lead to cardiovascular diseases. Moreover, sugar increases the risk of tooth decay. As bacteria in the mouth convert sugar into acids, these acids cause damage to the tooth enamel and thereby increase the risk of cavities and other dental problems.
* The glycemic index indicates the rate at which blood sugar rises after eating carbohydrates.
Sweet without sugar?
Most people love sweets and that is not surprising. Research has shown that since birth we have a preference for sweetness, which remains throughout our lives. So we want sweetness, but at the same time we are increasingly aware of the bad properties of sugar. In order to meet this “sweet need” in a responsible way, a range of great alternatives meanwhile exists. These sugar substitutes can be divided into two categories, being natural and synthetic sweeteners.
Natural sweeteners (polyols) are obtained from natural products such as vegetables, fruits, plants and fermented foods. These polyols have a lower sweetening power than sugar and also contain fewer calories (2.4 kcal/g compared to 4 kcal/g). In addition, the carbohydrates in polyols are hardly or not at all absorbed by the body. They are only digested in the intestinal flora or leave the body unchanged through the urine.
Below you will find an overview of the most common natural sweeteners.
Erythritol is obtained from corn and has a sweetness of 70 to 80 percent compared to regular sugar. This natural sugar substitute is the only polyol that contains no calories. In addition, the carbohydrates cannot be absorbed by the body, thus keeping the blood sugar level stable. This makes erythritol the most suitable sugar substitute for diabetics, people following a low-carbohydrate diet or just anyone who wants to limit their sugar consumption. Erythritol has a fine crystal structure and is a perfect substitute for sugar. It is also very suitable for cooking and baking, given its reliable quality up to 200°C.
Xylitol is the only polyol whose sweetening power is equal to the sweetening power of sugar. This sugar substitute is obtained from the fibres of fruit and vegetables and has 40% fewer calories compared to regular sugar. It’s ideal for reducing the amount of sugar and calories in sweets, for example. Despite the natural origin of xylitol, it is mainly produced industrially nowadays due to its high cost.
Mannitol has a sweetening power of 70% compared to sugar and contains about 40% fewer calories than sugar. The structure of this polyol keeps foods from drying out and is also used as a filler and anti-caking agent for medicines. Because of these properties, mannitol is not only used for sweets, baking products and medicines, but also for infant and toddler nutrition.
Isomalt is about half as sweet as sugar and, like most polyols, contains about 2.4 calories per gram. Isomalt is widely used among bakers because the polyol has better baking properties than sugar. For example, the sweetener breaks down less quickly at high temperatures, has a preservative effect and it gives the end product a nice shine.
Sorbitol is about half as sweet as sugar and also contains 2.4 calories per gram. Sorbitol has a preservative effect and absorbs water well. This gives the foods it is used for a syrupy and creamy texture. Sorbitol is very popular in pastries, sweets, jams and desserts for a reason.
Tagatose is not a polyol. During the breakdown of lactose (milk sugar), glucose and galactose are formed. Galactose is then converted into tagatose by enzymes. Tagatose has a sweetening power of 92% compared to sugar, but contains a lot less calories (1.5 kcal/g compared to 4 kcal/g). Despite its natural origin, tagatose is often mixed with synthetic sweeteners due to its high production costs.
Tagatesse is the source of the tagatose mentioned above. Tagatesse consists of 40% tagatose, 40% isomalt and 20% fibre.
Stevia is an exception in the line of polyols because it is the only natural sweetener with an extremely high sweetening power, compared to sugar. The leaves of the stevia plant contain a number of very sweet particles, called steviol glycosides. Rebaudioside A (Reb. A) is the purest steviol glycoside. The stevia leaf itself is 15 to 20 times sweeter than regular sugar, while the steviol glycosides extracted from the stevia leaf are 100 to 500 times sweeter than regular sugar. Stevia contains zero calories or carbohydrates and therefore has no effect on blood sugar levels.
Synthetic sweeteners are obtained artificially. Small molecular adjustments create sweeteners with an extreme sweetening power. Because of the high sweetening power, these sweeteners are added to products in very small quantities. This makes the amount of calories negligible. The synthetic sweeteners can be produced cheaply, making them very popular in the food industry. Despite the fact that all synthetic sweeteners contain an E number (deemed safe by the EU), they have a strict ADI (acceptable daily intake). If these values are exceeded, there is a real risk of health problems.
Below you will find an overview of the most common synthetic sweeteners.
Sucralose (E955) is made industrially by replacing three OH-groups of sucrose (table sugar) with three chlorine atoms. With this adjustment, the sugar substitute becomes 500 to 600 times sweeter than regular sugar. Unlike sugar, the sugar substitute is not absorbed by the body and contains no calories. Due to its high sweetening power, sucralose is added in small quantities to soft drinks, candy, sauces and other light or zero products. The acceptable daily intake of sucralose is set at 15 mg/kg body weight per day.
Aspartame (E951) is a synthetic sweetener consisting of a linkage of two different amino acids and a methyl group (functional group in chemistry) and is 200 times sweeter than sugar. In the body, aspartame is broken down into four separate substances. One of these four substances is methanol. Methanol is harmful to the body in large quantities, but the amount of methanol obtained from aspartame is almost negligible. The acceptable daily intake of aspartame has been studied several times and has been established at 40 mg/kg body weight per day.
Neotame (E961) is artificially created by linking the amino group of aspartame to a new methyl group (functional group in chemistry). This new compound creates a sweetener that is 30 to 60 times sweeter than aspartame and no less than 6,000 to 8,000 times sweeter than sugar. This means that neotame has, by far, the highest sweetening power of all sugar substitutes and can only be used in very low concentrations. In addition, neotame is heat-resistant, soluble in water and flavour-enhancing with fruit, vanilla and chocolate flavours. Because of these properties, neotame is used in soft drinks, dairy products and candy, among other things.
Saccharin (E954) is a synthetic sweetener that is 300 to 500 times sweeter than sugar. The sweetener provides no calories and does not affect blood sugar levels. In addition, saccharin has a preservative effect. Saccharin has a long shelf life and can be heated or frozen. Because of these properties, saccharin can be used in, among other things, canned fruit and vegetables, soft drinks and other zero and light products. The acceptable daily intake is 5 mg/kg body weight per day.
Acesulfame-K (E950), also known as acesulfame potassium, is 200 times sweeter than sugar and comes from an organic salt. This synthetic sweetener is not converted or stored in the body. Due to its good solubility, it is quickly absorbed and the sweetener leaves the body through urine. Because acesulfame-K has a bitter and unpleasant taste at higher concentrations, it is often mixed with other sweeteners and added to, for example, soft drinks, fruit- and sports drinks, dairy products and desserts. The acceptable daily intake of acesulfame-K has been established at 9 mg/kg body weight per day.
Cyclamate (E952) is 30 to 50 times sweeter than sugar and is artificially made from cyclamic acid. Like acesulfame-K, this sweetener comes from an organic salt. Only in the intestines is cyclamate absorbed, and then excreted unchanged. Research indicates that cyclamate is converted into cyclohexylamine to varying degrees. For this reason, the ADI was reduced to 7 mg/kg body weight in the year 2000. Cyclamate is used in soft drinks, sports drinks, desserts, sauces and sugar-free chewing gum, among other things.
Green Sweet, always 100% natural
Green Sweet's sugar substitutes are made from pure erythritol and pure steviol glycosides. As a result, they are always of high quality and 100% natural, without the addition of artificial sweeteners or flavourings.
Steviol glycosides are found in the leaves of the stevia plant and are 100 to 500 times sweeter than sugar. Green Sweet mainly uses Rebaudioside A, the purest form of steviol glycosides. By using small amounts of this steviol glycoside, Green Sweet’s liquid stevia drops, sweetener tablets and syrups get a delicious, sweet taste. Steviol glycosides are also mixed with other sugar substitutes. Green Sweet uses pure erythritol for this, which is obtained from corn. Erythritol has a sweetening power of 75% compared to sugar and it is the only polyol that contains no calories. By adding a very small amount (0.2%) of steviol glycoside to erythritol, a perfect substitute for sugar is created with exactly the same structure and sweetness as regular sugar.
Since the various Green Sweet sugar substitutes contain little to no calories or (absorbable) carbohydrates, they are perfectly suitable for diabetics, people who follow a low-carbohydrate diet or just anyone who wants to live a healthier life. In addition, almost all Green Sweet products are free of allergens. Only the syrups are not gluten-free.
What is erythritol?
Erythritol belongs to the group of polyols and is a 100% natural sugar substitute obtained from corn through natural fermentation. The non-GMO* corn is converted into starch by enzymes and then broken down further into glucose. After the starch is completely converted, the glucose is fermented and purified. Crystallising the remaining mixture eventually produces pure erythritol. The white crystalline granules are similar to those of sugar, but just slightly less sweet.
* non-GMO = not a genetically modified organism
What makes erythritol a good alternative to sugar?
Erythritol has a slightly lower sweetening power than sugar (70% to 80%), but, unlike the other polyols, contains no calories or absorbable carbohydrates. The human digestive tract cannot break down the structure of erythritol. A fraction of it is absorbed in the small intestine, but most of it leaves our body unchanged through urine. Because erythritol cannot be absorbed, it has no effects on blood sugar levels. This makes it perfectly suitable for diabetics, people following a special diet or just anyone who wants to live a healthier life.
Moreover, unlike sugar, erythritol does not contribute to tooth decay. Every time you eat or drink sugar, it is converted into acid by bacteria in the mouth. This acid affects the tooth enamel, eventually causing cavities (caries). But because erythritol neutralises the acidity and cannot be broken down in the mouth, it does not affect the tooth enamel and therefore does not increase the risk of cavities.
What can erythritol be used for?
Erythritol has the same taste and crystalline structure as sugar, but is slightly less sweet. Sugar can be replaced by erythritol for all applications. For example to sweeten coffee, tea or yoghurt, but also for baking and warm preparations, given its reliable quality up to 200 °C.
What is stevia?
Stevia is a natural sugar substitute originating from the stevia plant. The leaves of the stevia plant contain a number of very sweet particles, called steviol glycosides. The stevia leaf itself is 15 to 20 times sweeter than regular sugar and the steviol glycosides, extracted from the leaves through an extraction process, are even 100 to 500 times sweeter than sugar. Extracting the leaves produces a white powder. The sweetening power of this powder depends on the substance and purity the process was carried out with. Reb. A is the purest steviol glycoside found in the leaves. Then followed by Reb. B, Reb. C and Reb. D, respectively. Moreover, all steviol glycosides are listed with a percentage of purity. So there is Reb. A 90%, Reb. A 94%, Reb. A 98% etc. The higher the purity percentage, the purer and the sweeter the substance is. In addition to the purity percentages, the purity of all steviol glycosides together is also determined. From a legal point of view, this may not be lower than 95%.
What makes stevia a good alternative to sugar?
The steviol glycosides from the stevia plant have a high sweetening power, which means that it is only used in small quantities. And since this natural sugar substitute contains no calories or carbohydrates, it has no effect on blood sugar levels. The steviol glycosides consist of one steviol unit and one or more sugar units. The bond with the latter compound makes the molecule too large to be broken down in the digestive tract. The steviol glycosides arrive unchanged in the large intestine where the molecule is broken down by the intestinal flora. The steviol is then absorbed and eventually exits the body through urine. The sugar units leave the body through the stool.
In addition, stevia, like erythritol, does not contribute to tooth decay. Every time you eat or drink sugar, it is converted into acid by bacteria in the mouth. This acid affects the tooth enamel, eventually causing cavities (caries). Because stevia neutralises the acidity and cannot be broken down in the mouth, it does not affect the tooth enamel and therefore does not increase the risk of cavities.
What can stevia be used for?
Since the steviol glycosides from the stevia plant are 100 to 500 times sweeter than regular sugar, stevia is not consumed pure, but mixed or diluted with other products first. By adding a small amount of steviol glycoside to erythritol, for example, which has a lower sweetening power, an ideal substitute for sugar is created.
Apart from the sugar substitutes mentioned above, Green Sweet offers 100% natural syrups, sweetener tablets and liquid stevia. Under the heading “Products” on the Home page, you can find Green Sweet’s entire product range.
Sanne van Erp, dietitian at Green Sweet