We all know that sugar intake leads to cavities. But most of us aren't so sure when it comes to sugar substitutes, which are common additions to coffee, cereal and soft drinks. According to dietitian Frances Largeman-Roth, Americans eat as many as 165 pounds of added sugar each year.
Today there is a growing list of sugar substitutes that vary in chemical structures. These compounds offer the sweetness of sugar - in fact, they're often anywhere from 30 to 8,000 times sweeter - with much fewer calories than foods containing table sugar, or sucrose. Each gram of refined sucrose consists of four calories, while many artificial sweeteners have zero calories per gram.
The tricky part is that sugar substitutes are often loosely labeled, with some manufacturers calling their sweeteners "natural" even though they're processed or refined. Other artificial sweeteners are derived from naturally occurring substances. In spite of marketing labels, sugar substitutes can be split into four categories: artificial sweeteners, sugar alcohols, novel sweeteners and natural sweeteners. Artificial products include aspartame, which is found in Equal and Nutrasweet?, while agave nectar is a popular natural sweetener. Unlike table sugar, these substitutes are not considered a carbohydrate.
You can find artificial sweeteners and sugar substitutes in a variety of foods and beverages, usually advertised as "diet" or "sugar-free," including fruit juices, soft drinks, chewing gum, candy, jellies, baked goods, and ice cream and yogurt.
Sugar and your teeth
Sugar substitutes, according to The New York Times, do not pose the same risk to teeth that sugar does. They don't contribute to tooth decay, sizeable build-up of dental plaque or cavities.
It is important to highlight that sugar itself does not corrode the enamel on teeth. Rather, the bacteria in dental plaque metabolize sugar, releasing an acid that wears down the enamel.
Many people on diets opt for sugar alternatives because of their low caloric content.
"Artificial sweeteners can serve a definite purpose in weight loss and diabetes control," New York City-based nutritionist Phyllis Roxland explained to WebMD. "It enables people that are either carb-, sugar-, or calorie-conscious to take in a wider range of foods that they would either not be allowed to eat or could only eat in such teeny amounts that they were not satisfying."
Some believe artificial sweeteners make a good choice for individuals with diabetes. Because they're not carbohydrates, they generally don't raise blood sugar levels. However, due to concerns about how sugar subs are labeled, be sure to check with your doctor.