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Sweeter than Sweet

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February is officially the month of two things, flowers and sweets! Table sugar or sucrose consumption in the first quarter of the year is usually centered around this month. Good news for billions of sweet lovers globally, bad news for millions of people worldwide with diabetes.

According to an official at the World Health Organization, 171 million or approximately 2.8% of the global population had diabetes in the year 2000. That number is expected to more than double in the next 30 years. But there’s hope for the more than 3 million Filipinos with diabetes: sugar substitutes.

Sugar substitutes work by fooling the nerves of our mouth into feeling the sensation of sweetness, similar to what sucrose does. Many confuse the terms sugar substitutes and artificial sweeteners. It is best to use the term sugar substitutes because not all sugar substitutes are made from an artificial or chemical process. Some are derived from naturally-occurring substances or food.

Some sweeteners are literally sweeter than sweet: as much as 13,000 times sweeter! At two-times the strength, you will need only 50 grams of the sweetener for every 100 grams of sugar in the original recipe. This is usually very attractive to many industries because they can usually use very small amounts of it to replace a huge amount of sugar.

There are between 35 to 40 commercially used, artificial sweeteners worldwide. Not all of them are used in the same manner. Some of them are used as they are, but many are used in conjunction with each other and even with sugar. In baking, some sweeteners need to be used in conjunction with other additives because of the bitter aftertaste and the lack of color.

Aspartame, for instance, is not used in baking as it will usually degrade due to the temperature in the oven. Another sweetener, Isomalt, used in conjunction with another sweetener, Potassium Acesulfame, for a good taste, is used instead. But this does not produce the caramel color and flavor we associate with baked goodies. So bakers still resort to using fructose or honey.


For the past two decades, sugar substitutes have been under fire due to its effects on humans. It has been shown that many of the naturally-occurring substitutes, such as Xylitol and Sorbitol (mostly found in sugar-free chewing gum), have been linked to flatulence and diarrhea. These ingredients are actually used as laxatives in stronger doses.

Aspartame, as well as several other sweeteners, received lots of bad publicity because of health concerns ranging from cancer in mice to kidney dysfunction in humans. One particular sweetener Lead Acetate, used since biblical times, is banned worldwide because of the toxic effects of lead on the brain.

New Sweeteners

One of the most controversial sweeteners, Stevia, was recently awarded by the US Food and Drug Administration (US FDA) approval for use as a food additive. Stevia is one of the sweeteners that provide the most intense sweetness among natural sweeteners. It is suitable for just about all applications of sugar (including baking) and has a potential to be marketed as “organic.” Health and political controversies arose in the USA, mostly fueled by pressure from the sugar industry against Stevia. After conclusive studies on its health effects were finished, the US FDA had no other recourse but to approve it.

One of the more promising new “old sweets” is coco sugar, which could make the Philippines a player in the multi-million-dollar sugar-substitute industry. [The Wall Street Journal reported in 2007 that Splenda (Sucralose, see table) sold US$212 million in America in 2006. Rival Equal sold US$48.7 million—Ed.]

Preliminary studies have proven that it can be used without significantly making blood sugar level rise. Coco sugar is made from coconut sap, the same stuff Lambanog is made from. Demand for this sweetener has steadily risen in the last few years. Scientists suspect that the sweetening effect is mostly sucrose, but the fact that it turns readily into Lambanog makes it possible that there are also some natural alcohols that may be involved in the sweetening process.

Print ed: 02/09


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