The Sweet Truth on Sugar Substitutes
To fuel your body during tough workouts, you need sustained energy in the form of sugar and complex carbohydrates. However, the media headlines are filled with advice about controlling our sugar intake, yet also warn us about the dangers of sugar substitutes. Should you believe the news, or are these just over-sensationalized media sound bites?
There are two types of sweeteners: those that contain calories—such as syrups, agave and honey—and those that contain few or no calories and therefore have a negligible impact on blood sugar levels. Examples of no-calorie sugar substitutes include aspartame, sucralose, saccharin, and sugar alcohols. Sugar substitutes vary in sweetness but all are at least 160 times sweeter than sugar, which means that only tiny quantities are needed to sweeten food.
All sugar substitutes used in the U.S. are generally recognized as safe by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA). However, athletes looking to energize their bodies during workouts need carbohydrates in the form of sugar and complex carbohydrates. When working out, your body uses sugar rapidly as a quick source of energy, and if your protein bar is sweetened with no-calorie sugar substitutes, your body has no immediate source of energy to draw from.
Some common sugar substitutes are aspartame (also known by the brand name NutraSweet), sucralose (Splenda), acesulfame potassium (Ace-K), and saccharin. Stevia is a sugar substitute with increasing popularity because it is sourced from a leaf, although it has a licorice-like aftertaste that might need to be masked with other flavors or sweeteners. Sugar alcohols are also considered natural sweeteners and are commonly found in energy and protein bars. You’ll find these listed on the label as sorbitol, maltitol, mannitol, and other names ending in “-tol.”
Sugar alcohols are technically carbohydrates that are not completely absorbed in the gut and provide about half the calories of regular sugar. Incomplete absorption doesn’t come without a price, however. Excessive consumption of certain sugar alcohols, particularly sorbitol and mannitol, can cause gas, bloating, cramping, and diarrhea. Not something you want to deal with during a workout! Steer clear of sugar substitutes that your body doesn’t use or need. Zero calories mean they provide zero energy.