What Are Low-Glycemic Sweeteners?

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Added sugar contributes about 16 percent of the total calories in a typical American diet, reports the “Dietary Guidelines for Americans 2010.” When any type of sugar is added to food during preparation, processing or at the table, it adds empty calories, spikes blood sugar and may promote weight gain. Low-glycemic sweeteners provide a low- or no-calorie alternative that does not affect blood sugar.

The Glycemic Index

The glycemic index rates carbohydrate-containing foods according to how much they boost blood sugar. Foods are scored on a scale of zero to 100, where glucose is ranked at 100. Scores of 55 or less are low-glycemic foods, meaning they have a minimal effect on blood sugar. The index provides a tool for choosing foods that keep your blood sugar balanced. This is essential for managing diabetes, but maintaining a steady level of blood sugar helps everyone manage their weight and may lower the risk of cardiovascular disease, according to the Harvard Medical School.

Artificial Sweeteners

Sugar substitutes carry several different names, including artificial sweeteners, low-calorie sweeteners and non-nutritive sweeteners. Most artificial sweeteners are 200 to 700 times sweeter than table sugar and must be approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. The six currently approved sweeteners come from varied sources. Aspartame and neotame are produced from amino acids. Acesulfame-K comes from potassium. Saccharin is made from benzoic sulfimide, sucralose is produced from sugar and stevia is made from plant leaves.

Glycemic Value of Artificial Sweeteners

Artificial sweeteners do not contain carbohydrates and most of them have no calories. As a result, they don't affect blood sugar, and they aren't even assigned a glycemic score. Only one of them -- aspartame -- contains any calories. It has the same calories as table sugar, 4 calories per gram, but it’s 200 times sweeter than sugar, so you use such a small amount that you don’t consume measurable calories.

Sugar Alcohols

Sugar alcohols, also called polyols, do not actually contain alcohol. They’re modified molecules of sugar that taste less sweet than table sugar, yet contain fewer calories. Sugar alcohols do affect blood sugar, but they’re still low-glycemic sweeteners. For example, the sugar alcohol lactilol has a glycemic index score of 2, and xylitol carries a score of 8.

Nutritive Sweeteners

Nutritive sweeteners contain carbohydrates, provide calories and affect blood sugar. Sugar alcohols, table sugar, agave, fructose, honey and other sugars are nutritive sweeteners, but their glycemic scores range from the low to moderate glycemic range. Fructose and agave are low-glycemic, with scores of 11 and 19 respectively. Table sugar, or sucrose, and honey fall in the moderate range with glycemic index scores of 60 and 61. For comparison, a score of 70 or higher indicates a high-glycemic food.