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Selection of different sugars in different bowls, a slab of honey on a plate and prunes in a bowl on a grey table

Sugar vs. non-nutritive sweeteners

04/01/2024 By Ben Eastick in Food technology Sugar chemistry

Sugar, whether derived from sugarcane, sugar beet or fruit, is a nutritive sweetener. Nutritive sweeteners give us energy in the form of carbohydrate and contain some calories. When consumed in moderation, nutritive sweeteners can form part of a healthy, balanced diet. Non-nutritive sweeteners (NNS) however, are a type of sugar substitute or alternative substance that contain little to no calories and have a higher sweetness intensity compared to nutritive sweeteners. It is important consumers understand the difference between nutritive (sugar) and non-nutritive sweeteners so they can make more informed choices.

In this blog, we explore the difference between sugar and non-nutritive sweeteners and why the sugar versus sweetener debate continues unabated.

Sugar, a nutritive sweetener

As nutritive sweeteners are carbohydrates, they provide us with energy and calories. Every gram of carbohydrate contains four calories, and one teaspoon of sugar has around 5g of carbohydrate and 16 calories. But these sugars, or nutritive sweeteners, also offer some nutritional value. For example, cane molasses is vitamin-rich, containing magnesium, iron, calcium, potassium and vitamin B6.

Naturally occurring sugars like fructose in fruit and vegetables and lactose in milk are also examples of nutritive sweeteners. Sucrose, another nutritive sweetener, is found in beet and cane sugar and molasses, as well as other sugars like maltose, which is present in beer. Other examples of nutritive sweeteners include honey, corn syrup, agave nectar and fruit juice from concentrate.

When it comes to food, these sugars do more than just sweeten what we consume. Sugar can add bulk or volume, change texture and mouthfeel, colour or flavour, and act as a humectant or preservative.

Woman adding a teaspoon of sugar to a glass cup of tea or similar Man adding artificial sweetener into his yellow cup

The contrast in bulk between natural crystalline pure sugar, in this case sucrose or table sugar left, and an artificial non-nutritive sweetener right. Sugar does more than sweeten, it provides volume and mouthfeel.

Non-nutritive sweeteners

By contrast, non-nutritive sweeteners or NNS are not derived from sugarcane, sugar beet or fruit. Technically, the NNS term should be used rather than the more commonly used artificial sweetener, as NNS can be plant-based.

NNS that are not plant-based are artificial sweeteners, food additives or sugar substitutes that contain no carbohydrate and therefore have low energy value, little to no nutritional value depending on the type, and no calories. They are simply added for sweetness. Artificial sweeteners start life in a laboratory and are designed to reproduce the taste of sugar.

Person in a lab wearing a white coat and testing samples in glass tubes

Replacing sugar with an NNS requires reformulation of the original food or beverage product, because sugar does much more than just sweeten.

NNS may often be present in low-fat products like yoghurt. In such a product, where the aim is to reduce calories but retain sweetness, a NNS is ideal. And as NNS are much sweeter than nutritive sweeteners, smaller quantities are added to food and beverages.

Types of non-nutritive sweeteners and sugar alternatives in the food industry

There are many types of NNS that are reasonably well-known. Saccharin is one. It is about 300 times sweeter than sucrose. It may be found in bought salad dressings, pre-made baked goods and some jams. Other examples include:
* Aspartame – this is 200 times sweeter than sucrose and is typically found in diet drinks, some ice creams, dairy products and breakfast cereals
* Sucralose – this is 600 times sweeter than sucrose. It is a non-caloric sweetener commonly used in some dairy products and beverages like soda drinks
* Acesulfame-k – this is 200 times sweeter than sucrose, and may be found in bought dairy products, some jams, jellies, marinades, sauces and baked goods

Though most NNS are artificial, some are plant-based and are therefore considered natural alternatives, such as monk fruit or stevia, with the latter belonging to the sunflower family of plants.

For many years, sugar alternatives or NNS have been used in place of sugars like sucrose to add sweetness and enhance flavour while not increasing calories.

A hand touching some green leaves on a plant outdoors

Some NNS are plant-based, such as those based on the Stevia plant.

The health effects of sugar substitutes

Some studies link consumption of calorie-containing sugars like sucrose, produced from either sugarcane or sugar beet, with higher rates of obesity. As a result, consumers are increasingly open to sugar substitutes, whether they be natural or artificial sweeteners.

However, other studies find the consumption of artificial sweeteners concerning, while the World Health Organization has evidence that artificial sweeteners do not improve health or support weight loss. In fact, there is evidence that suggests long-term consumption of artificial sweeteners can increase the risk of developing chronic conditions such as type 2 diabetes and cardiovascular disease.

There is much debate surrounding natural sweeteners versus artificial sweeteners. Natural sweeteners, as already highlighted in this blog, are plant-based, contain few calories and taste like sugar. As natural sweeteners can contain some nutrients, they can be considered better for your health than their artificial counterparts. However, consuming too much sugar, even from natural sweeteners, can be harmful to health.

Though sugar substitutes are approved for use by health regulatory bodies, considered a safe alternative to sugar and can be helpful in lowering sugar intake and calories, it is ultimately important that consumers are educated about sugar and all sugar substitutes so they can make the best decisions for their health.

The science behind sweeteners and how they affect taste

We perceive five tastes through our taste receptors in the oral cavity, with sweet being one of them. Generally, the higher the sugar content, the sweeter something will taste. But this also depends on what type of sweetening agent is present and its concentration. For example, fructose is naturally sweeter than sucrose. When we consume something sugary, the sugar molecules are detected by the taste receptors, producing the protein TAS1R2. The protein sends a signal to the brain which tells us we have encountered something sweet.

As humans, we’ve naturally evolved to find sweet food and drinks pleasing to consume. Eating foods or drinking beverages that contain sugar stimulates production of the ‘feel good’ chemical in the brain, dopamine, as well as the hormone insulin. Our physiology plays a role in taste perception and may contribute to excessive cravings for sugar-enhanced food and drinks.

Though our sweet taste receptors identify sweetness in products that contain NNS, studies show that artificial sweeteners may not give us the same feelings of satisfaction as natural sugar. At the same time, regularly consuming food and drinks that contain artificial sweeteners may increase our yearning for sugary foods, which can have negative health implications. Research, however, is ongoing.

Coca-cola light drinks lined up on a shop or supermarket shelf

Light and low-calorie drinks use NNS, which require reformulation to retain the original mouthfeel.

The sugar vs. artificial sweeteners debate

In an increasingly globalised world, consumers have access to a greater range of food and drinks. Food labelling regulation means the items we buy must, by law, detail a product’s ingredients and, with the expansion of the internet, it’s easier than ever to source information about each itemised ingredient.

This has made consumers more savvy and quicker to question why certain products contain certain ingredients. This, fuelled by regulatory changes to sugar and health policy and the occasional demonisation of sugar in the media, has shifted the consumer’s perception of sugar and impacted consumer choices. At this point, there are those who advocate for sugar like sucrose over sweeteners of any kind, and there are those who are proponents of sweeteners, at least natural sweeteners.

Entities like the EU and the World Health Organization have also been instrumental in shaping the debate around sugar versus artificial sweeteners. The World Health Organization has singled out artificial sweeteners in this debate, as already highlighted in this blog, while national governments in countries like the UK and Ireland have introduced a sugar tax on soft drinks in a bid to fight childhood obesity. All this impacts consumer opinion.

However, though the demand for natural sweeteners in food and beverage products has increased in recent years, as many as 75% of consumers globally say they prefer honey, stevia, sucrose and fructose to anything artificial. It seems, therefore, that sugar and natural sweeteners may be winning the sugar versus artificial sweeteners debate.

Different types of sugar and honey in separate containers on a wooden surface

Sweeteners come in many forms, but none deliver the range of functional properties that pure sugars do, such as adding flavour, colour, texture, mouthfeel, bulk, acting as a preservative, reducing crystal size and freezing points, and as a fermentable.

In summary, nutritive sweeteners can be naturally occurring or added sugars. They are carbohydrates that provide us with energy and calories. Non-nutritive sweeteners are not carbohydrates and are generally calorie-free but bring a higher sweetness intensity.

It is important for consumers to be aware of the health benefits and challenges associated with both nutritive sweeteners and NNS so they can make the most informed decisions for their specific health needs and preferences. In this, food and beverage manufacturers, and sugar manufacturers specifically, have a role to play in the debate and in providing accurate, trustworthy information to consumers.

Ragus manufactures natural, plant-based pure sugars for industry that enhance the taste of food and beverages and are functional ingredients which provide foundational properties to food and pharmaceutical products. To learn more about our pure sugar products, contact our Customer Services Team. For more sugar news and Ragus updates, keep browsing SUGARTALK and follow Ragus on LinkedIn.

Ben Eastick

A board member and co-leader of the business, Ben is responsible for our marketing strategy and its execution by the agency team he leads and is the guardian of our corporate brand vision. He also manages key customers and distributors.

In 2005, he took on the role of globally sourcing our ‘speciality sugars’. With his background in laboratory product testing and following three decades of supplier visits, his expertise means we get high quality, consistent and reliable raw materials from ethical sources.

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