A package screams at you – LOW GI or SUGAR FREE! Brilliant! That makes life way easier – pick up the packet and into the trolley it goes.
But what does sugar free mean, and are the replacement sweeteners any good for us?
Usually this means free from cane sugar. If a claim states ‘added sugar free’ it should technically not contain cane sugar, syrups, fruit juice, honey, or any other sweeteners, like those listed here.
The supposed benefits of being sugar free are the reduced impact on blood glucose levels. However, at closer look we made still need to remain wary of what has been lumped in place of sugar, as there are some alternatives that are better for us than others, despite the supposed health claims made.
Food Standards Australia and New Zealand have a two levels – General and High – for health claims touting the benefits of a food or nutrient, being:
“General level health claims refer to a nutrient or substance in a food, or the food itself, and its effect on health. For example: calcium for healthy bones and teeth. They must not refer to a serious disease or to a biomarker of a serious disease.
High level health claims refer to a nutrient or substance in a food and its relationship to a serious disease or to a biomarker of a serious disease. For example: Diets high in calcium may reduce the risk of osteoporosis in people 65 years and over. An example of a biomarker health claim is: Phytosterols may reduce blood cholesterol.“2
If they do make a health claim, in Australia and New Zealand the product will need to comply with the nutrition content and health claims outlined by Food Standards Australia and New Zealand, and have sufficient evidence to support the statement.2
In Europe, from 20 June food manufacturers will be able to claim for the natural sweetener chicory root as a replacement sweetener ingredient that is friendly for diabetics, as they will cause a ‘lower blood glucose rise’.
This claim follows submission of evidence following a privately funded human trial of the impact of chicory root on blood glucose levels to the European Food Safety Authority.5
The official claim is:
“Consumption of foods/drinks containing <name of all used non-digestible carbohydrates> instead of sugars induces a lower blood glucose rise after their consumption compared to sugar-containing foods/drinks.”5
Basically, it is saying when you use this ingredient instead of sugar, you are sweet for sweetness as it will not impact blood glucose. It is low GI, low GL and therefore, better for health.
Of course the use of such a claim is primarily of benefit to the manufacturer who funded the trial and submitted the application for use of the claim. However, consumers are pushing for healthier sweetener alternatives as awareness grows around the benefits of reducing the amount of added sugar in their daily diet.
But being naturally occurring non-digestible carbohydrate, could it also be a better alternative to other sugar replacements, such as artificial sweeteners?
Artificial intense sweeteners
Within the EU, ‘intense sweeteners’ are permitted to state their lack of impact on blood glucose levels. Such ingredients include:
Acesulfame K; aspartame; cyclamic acid and its sodium and calcium salts; saccharin and its sodium, potassium and calcium salts; sucralose; neohesperidine DC and thaumatin.1
These are not Mother Nature’s sweeteners, instead whizzed up in a lab by food manufacturers. Whilst the International Sweeteners Association will tell you how amazing these ingredients are,3 the jury is out as to whether they do more harm than good when weaning off a super sweet diet altogether.
On the other hand, the use of non-digestible fibres as sweeteners in products to claim minimal impact to blood glucose levels may be preferred by many, as this at least is a natural fibre. And it may have added health benefits!
Oligosaccharides and inulin are the non-digestible carbohydrates from chicory root that offer sweetness but are not absorbed into the blood stream.4
Chicory root fibre isn’t digested in the upper intestinal tract like most carbohydrates, and instead fermented by intestinal bacteria, used as fuel for these gut bugs acting as a prebiotic.
Prebiotics can stimulate the growth of helpful intestinal bacteria such as Lactobacilli and Bifidobacteria; and the fermentation results in the production of short chain fatty acids that have countless benefits for the gut, behaviour, brain and immune system.4
However! Chicory root fibre is not for those undertaking a low FODMAP diet, and we would recommend you speak with your healthcare practitioner in looking for sugar alternatives.
Not all sweeteners alternatives are created equal
So whilst there are claims for sugar replacements minimising impact on blood glucose, we must continue to scour the ingredients list for anything fake. A little may be tolerated by some, but ultimately we want to attempt to keep a majority of the diet as close to real food as possible.
But perhaps the ultimate goal is to reduce the desire for so much sweetness, and focus our eating energy on real, whole foods?
By finding sugary sweet satisfaction in, say, a handful of berries, we may not even need to worry about whether an alternative sweetener is fake or not, because we won’t be eating a processed, packaged food with added sweetener in the first place.
By Angela Johnson (BHSc Nut. Med.)
- European Food Safety Authority 2011, ‘Scientific Opinion on the substantiation of health claims related to intense sweeteners and contribution to the maintenance or achievement of a normal body weight (ID 1136, 1444, 4299), reduction of post-prandial glycaemic responses (ID 4298), maintenance of normal blood glucose concentrations (ID 1221, 4298), and maintenance of tooth mineralisation by decreasing tooth demineralisation (ID 1134, 1167, 1283) pursuant to Article 13(1) of Regulation (EC) No 1924/20061’, EFSA Journal, vol 9., no. 6.
- FSANZ 2016, Nutrition content claims and health claims, Food Standards Australia and New Zealand, viewed 5 July 2016, <http://www.foodstandards.gov.au/consumer/labelling/nutrition/Pages/default.aspx>
- Gibson, S, Drewnowski, A, Hill, J, Raben, AB, Tuorila, H, & Widström, E 2014, ‘Consensus statement on benefits of low-calorie sweeteners’, Nutrition Bulletin, vol. 39, no. 4, pp. 386-389 4p
- Gropper, SS & Smith, JL 2013, Advanced Nutrition and Human Metabolism, 6th, Wadsworth, Cengage Learning, Belmont CA.
- Official Journal of the European Union 2016, ‘Commission Implementing Regulation (EU) 2016/854 of 30 May 2016 authorising certain health claims made on foods, other than those referring to the reduction of disease risk and to children’s development and health and amending Regulation (EU) No 432/2012’, viewed 11 July 2016, <http://eur-lex.europa.eu/legal-content/EN/TXT/HTML/?uri=CELEX:32016R0854&from=EN>