National Geographic Daily News
A photograph of cakes baked with sugar alternatives, with superimposed text labeling each sweetener.

Here are the cakes we baked with sugar substitutes. The name of each sweetener is superimposed on the cake that included it.

Photograph and text by Maggy Keet

Pam Anderson

for National Geographic

Published July 17, 2013

There are plenty of reasons to avoid fructose (a.k.a. sugar, the subject of the cover story in this month's issue of National Geographic magazine) and its even more vilified twin, high-fructose corn syrup.

For athletes, these sweeteners provide much-needed energy. For the rest of us, they're high-calorie, zero-nutrition temptations that can lead to obesity and a host of related conditions—diabetes, high cholesterol, heart disease.

When sugar has a rap sheet like this, alternative sweeteners start to look appealing. For diabetics, most of these substitutes don't cause the dramatic blood sugar spikes associated with the real thing. For weight watchers, zero (or dramatically reduced) calories are a dieter's boon.

But which to choose? There are scores of sugar substitutes; most fall into one of four categories: natural sweeteners, artificial sweeteners, dietary supplements, and sugar alcohols. And there's a new hybrid sweetener—tagatose—that is natural and has fewer calories than sugar.

Natural Sweeteners

As a category, natural sweeteners are a less processed, better-for-you-option than fructose. Like sugar, they produce energy when metabolized by the body. Unlike sugar, they have some nutritional value in the form of trace vitamins and minerals.

There's agave from the eponymous plant, honey (actually sweeter than sugar, so you don't need as much), molasses, and the syrup family (barley, malt, brown rice, cane, corn, golden, maple). Over the years I've performed enough tests to know that while there are taste and textural differences, most of these more distinctive sweeteners are fine stand-ins for sugar.

Dieters take note: This category of sweeteners is not low-cal. For diabetics, however, many of these sweeteners have a low glycemic index, which means they don't cause the highs and lows that come with sugar and high-fructose corn syrup.

Artificial Sweeteners

Artificial sweeteners (or zero-calorie sweeteners) include the big three: Sweet'N Low, Nutrasweet, and Splenda. These synthetically produced food additives offer sweetness without calories—but having no calories means they give your body no energy. These sweeteners pass through the body undigested. And they're so intensely sweet that they must be diluted with fillers like dextrose or maltodextrin to approximate the sweetness—and bulk—of sugar.

Almost all artificial sweeteners have a distinct aftertaste, but regular users find them to be good sugar substitutes in drinks and tend to be passionate about their favorite.

But do these sweeteners bake up well? To test their performance, I made simple yellow cakes from a standard 1-2-3-4 cake formula (1 cup butter, 2 cups sugar, 3 cups self-rising flour, 4 eggs).

As a category, artificial sweeteners did not impress in the oven. They may mimic the taste of sugar in a latte, but they don't perform like sugar in a cake. There are two issues. Artificial sweeteners lack sugar's bulk. Compared with sugar-sweetened cakes, artificially sweetened ones are dense and squat. You could solve the volume problem by increasing the batter, but that means more flour and butter (carbs and calories). Artificial sweeteners don't melt like sugar, so the cake's texture is often dense, dry, and lumpy—more like a biscuit than a cake.

Here's how the artificial sweeteners stack up in baking.

Acesulfame potassium (or acesulfame K or ace-K) is about 200 times sweeter than sugar and has no calories.

Brand names: Sunett, Sweet One (very limited retail distribution, available only in small packets)

Used for baking: Yes, at temperatures below 400°F. (Because Sweet One is not available in my area and comes only in small retail packets, I did not test this brand.)

Aspartame is also about 200 times sweeter than sugar and is completely broken down by the body into its two component amino acids—aspartic acid and phenylalanine (and a small amount of methanol or wood alcohol). It actually contains 4 calories per gram, but since so little is used there are only trace calories per serving.

Aspartame is not safe for those with the rare but serious metabolic disorder phenylketonuria (PKU). Those with PKU cannot process the amino acid phenylalanine, and too much of it in the body's system can lead to mental retardation, low IQ, and behavioral problems.

Brand names: NutraSweet, Equal, Sugar Twin, and the lesser-known brands Spoonful and Equal-Measure

Used for baking: Some sources said yes; others said heat caused it to lose its sweetness. The latter, in fact, is true. The cake I baked was not sweet.

Neotame is made by Nutrasweet. The newest of the artificial sweeteners, it is about 40 times sweeter than aspartame (making it 8,000 times sweeter than sugar) and is metabolized like aspartame.

Brand name: Neotame (not available to consumers)

Used for baking: It is said to be much more stable than aspartame for baking and cooking. (Since it is not available in retail outlets, I did not test it.)

Saccharin (or benzoic sulfimide), the oldest of the artificial sweeteners, was accidentally discovered by a chemist working on coal tar derivatives more than 100 years ago. Depending on its use, it can be 200 to 700 times sweeter than sugar.

Brand names: Sweet'N Low, Sweet Twin, and Necta Sweet

Used for baking: Yes. Although the cake I baked was dense and lumpy, it was surprisingly tender and very sweet, with that unmistakable metallic Sweet'N Low aftertaste.

Sucralose (or chlorinated sugar) was accidentally discovered in 1976 by a researcher and was approved for use in the U.S. in 1998. It is 600 times sweeter than regular sugar and is marketed as a sugar substitute that can fill in for the real thing in any capacity, including cake baking.

Brand name: Splenda

Used for baking: Splenda is popular because it can retain its natural sweetness when heated to high temperatures. The cake I baked had a biscuit-like texture, consistent with that of cakes baked with the other artificial sweeteners. The aftertaste is not as strong as Sweet'N Low's but is noticeable.

Dietary Supplements

Stevia is a virtually calorie-free sweetener that is 200 times sweeter than sugar; it has been used for centuries as a sweetener in South America. In the 1980s, tests on stevia had problematic results: Animal studies linked stevia to a negative impact on fertility and possible genetic mutations. As a result, pure stevia is categorized as a dietary supplement not approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. In 2008, however, the makers of Truvia and PureVia petitioned the FDA, which ultimately granted GRAS (generally recognized as safe) status to the highly purified extract of stevia called rebaudioside A (also known reb A or Rebiana).

Even though it is derived from a plant, some consider it artificial because it is so highly refined. For now, FDA-approved stevia products like Truvia and PureVia are widely available. For pure stevia, head to a health-food store or vitamin shop.

Brand names: Truvia, PureVia, SweetLeaf, Rebiana, Sun Crystals (a stevia-sugar blend)

Used for baking: Yes, but like many of the artificial sweeteners, pure stevia doesn't have the bulk to deliver appealing baked goods. The cake made with Truvia was acceptable, but there was a mild vanilla aftertaste that is apparently added to disguise the more obvious licorice finish.

Lo Han Kuo (or monk fruit) is an ancient Chinese fruit about 200 times sweeter than sugar; it received FDA GRAS status in 2009. Stirred into a drink, the Nectresse brand blend most closely approximates sugar and was one of my favorite no-calorie sweeteners.

Brand name: Nectresse (actually a blend of monk fruit, erythritol, sugar, and molasses)

Used for baking: Yes. Nectresse performed similarly to the other no-cal sweeteners, producing a cake that was tender but lumpy, dry, and biscuit-like.

Sugar Alcohols

Not all non-nutritive sweeteners are artificial. Sugar alcohols, or sugar/alcohol hybrids, are natural, not chemically derived. Since they are not completely absorbed by the body, these plant-based sweeteners have fewer calories than sugar does. The body absorbs sugar alcohols more slowly than it absorbs sugars, so these products are lower on the glycemic index.

It's easy to identify sugar alcohols on packaging labels because most of them end in "ol"—glucitol, sorbitol, maltitol, mannitol, glycerol, lactitol. Many of them have a cool, fresh finish associated with mints, gum, and cough syrups, so it's no surprise that these are the sugars used to sweeten those products.

Products containing sugar alcohols can be labeled "sugar free" or "reduced calorie," so be aware that sugar free does not necessarily mean calorie free. Consuming excessive amounts of sugar alcohol can cause gas and/or diarrhea, which I have confirmed with regular users.

The two most common sugar alcohols available to consumers are no-calorie erythritol and reduced-calorie xylitol, both of which baked up into very respectable cakes. Although there was some criticism that sugar alcohols don't brown when heated, I didn't find it to be true. Perhaps it was from the butter and milk, but both the erythritol and the xylitol cakes were golden brown.

Erythritol has the calorie advantage over xylitol—zero calories compared with xylitol's nine calories per teaspoon. Of all the zero-calorie sweeteners, erythritol was my overall favorite in its baking performance and clean flavor.

Brand names: ZSweet, Sweet Simplicity, Zero

Used for baking: Yes—the erythritol-sweetened cake was a runner-up in my personal baking contest. Though not as good as the xylitol-sweetened cake, it was far superior in taste and texture to the cakes made with other zero-calorie sweeteners.

Xylitol is five percent less sweet than sugar, but it has 40 percent fewer calories (9 calories versus sugar's 16) and a low glycemic index. It can be made from many different things, but it's primarily extracted from corncobs and hardwoods. It is increasingly difficult to find the better-for-you xylitol made from hardwoods. The bulk of xylitol is made from corn and imported from China.

Brand names: XyloSweet, XyloPure, Miracle Sweet, Nature's Provision

Used in baking: Yes. Xylitol looks like sugar, tastes like sugar, and responds like sugar in baking. Among the sugar substitutes, xylitol is my favorite. Though it was not as sweet as the cake sweetened with sugar, the xylitol cake's texture was tender and cake-like and the flavor was pure.

The New Hybrid

Tagatose is a new naturally occurring sweetener found in milk. It's 92 percent as sweet with only a third of the calories of sugar. Like yogurt, it contains probiotics, which means it helps the good bacteria in the digestive system multiply. It has a clean neutral taste, and it browns very well in baked goods.

Brand name: PreSweet

Used in baking: Yes. Although the tagatose-sweetened cake was very tender, the crumb was gummy with a slightly sour finish. A xylitol-tagatose blend could be a winning combination.

Conclusion: Weighing Risks and Benefits

Although no hard link between artificial sweeteners and cancer has been established, suspicions linger from the famous 1970s experiment showing that lab animals given extremely high doses of a cyclamate-saccharine combination were prone to bladder cancer. Subsequent studies seemed to limit the artificial sweetener/cancer connection to lab animals only, and to date no direct correlation between artificial sweeteners and cancer in humans has been shown.

An interesting link, however, has been reported between artificial sweeteners and weight gain. Despite the apparent logic, research and repeated studies point to artificial and no- and low-calorie sweeteners actually causing weight gain. It appears that once we get a hit of sweet taste without the calories, it increases our food cravings, and we eat more.

For diabetics, sugar substitutes are a necessary and pleasurable alternative. For those trying to shave a few calories out of their daily diet, the occasional diet soft drink or artificially sweetened cup of coffee is fine, and lower-calorie xylitol is a great option for baking.

As for those who habitually use artificial sweeteners to lose weight—yet without success—the path to actual weight loss may be the counterintuitive one: making peace with sugar.

Pam Anderson is a New York Times best-selling author. Her most recent book is Cook Without a Book: Meatless Meals. She's working on a new volume with her two daughters. The three of them blog at threemanycooks.com.

19 comments
Jon Jacobs
Jon Jacobs

Please note that Xylitol has been widely reported as toxic to dogs and cats, causing the rapid onset of hypoglycemia.

I have not seen reports of the other sugar alcohols having the same effect.

Martin Sinner
Martin Sinner

twitter - @YetiCarDesing

Alcohol best cure for cancer and destroys free radicals from the ground seeds fruit juices, alcohol cleanses the body

Janis Monroe
Janis Monroe

I noticed you did not test one of the more popular sweeteners which is coconut sugar, or palm sugar. I would have liked to see the comparison. The sugar gives deep flavor to any baked good, but because it is dark in color your "white" and "yellow" cakes will be more tan in color. Just a suggestion. Great article!

K Norman
K Norman

I agree with the posters suggesting that fewer sweet foods are generally better.  None of these artificial sweeteners are particularly good for us plus there is that interesting research showing that artificial sweeteners actually contribute more to obesity than actual sugar (http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/18535548). Meanwhile, actual sugar isn't too great for us either--especially in the amounts we tend to see in the American food supply.

If you look at human evolution, there weren't a lot of sweet foods out there for our ancestors to eat.  There wasn't a lot of what we would recognize as modern fruit on the trees and vines.  What fruit-like items were out there were highly desirable by all the other animals in the forest and jungle.  The bees made honey but the problem is the bees live near the honey too and they don't tend to share that stuff too readily.

Seems the bottom line is we're not really geared to consume much sweet-flavored food.  Whether the sweetness comes from a "natural" source, a high-fructose source or whatever.

As a baking related-article this might be useful.  If we're looking for better health though, I'd minimize the use of just about all the stuff mentioned here.

iam he
iam he

I have live my life free of all sweetners. NO SUGAR, no honey, no substitutes..

There is enough natural energy delivering molecules in natural foods.

Give up on all sweetners, live smarter, live longer, live healthy.

Bill Minas
Bill Minas

"And they're so intensely sweet that they must be diluted with fillers like dextrose..."

Dextrose is glucose.  Really should get a science editor.  Or skip the science and post a chart and pictures on your baking experience.

Ella Kay
Ella Kay

Basically the entire article is a mass of errors. Is this typical of National Geographic now? Tagatose is NOT a probiotic. Monk fruit is NOT a dietary supplement. The list goes on. The biochemist poster below is exactly spot on in his critique also.

Roger Bird
Roger Bird

All artificial sweeteners are BAD for you.  Anything short of that, anything that hems and haws about the evils of artificial sweeteners, is a lie.  Anyone who tells you that some artificial sweetener is not so bad is lying.  If NatGeo is saying that diabetics need artificial sweeteners, then NatGeo is lying.  Stevia is just fine for diabetics.

Among the natural sweeteners, you have to pick.  Check out their glycemic load.  Check out how unprocessed they are.  Then you decide what is best for you.

Speedwell Colliberry
Speedwell Colliberry

A couple of weeks ago, I made my husband's birthday cake with a 60/40 blend of xylitol/tagatose, with 100 percent tagatose in the whipped cream cheese frosting. The cake baked perfectly with a tender crumb and no over/underbrowning, and the frosting was glossy and smooth. He said he couldn't tell the difference between it and sugar. We detected none of the "sourness" you mentioned. The leftovers held well in the refrigerator (I've had trouble with erythritol-sweetened recipes in which the erythritol crystallized out of the solution--crunchy lemon curd, anyone?).

Michael Waldyke
Michael Waldyke

I would echo H. Danielson's comment, "...wow on making all that cake and taking the time to review it!" And I really appreciate this work for people who need to watch their sugar intake due to diabetes. That being said, there are some weaknesses in the science--common misconceptions that should be addressed. I teach biochemistry at a 2-year college, so I feel qualified to address them.

First, as a natural alternative to sugar, syrups (including honey) are not really a better alternative. Syrups are just concentrated sugar solutions in water, and they consist mostly of simple sugars such as glucose and fructose, as well as the disaccharide, sucrose. Metabolically, they are substantially identical to sugar. Their glycemic index is not significantly different that of from pure sugar, and they are just as problematic to diabetics as crystalline sugar. Honey, in particular, is nature's high-fructose sweetener, compliments of bees and flowers.

Second, there is no stated reason why xylitol derived from hardwoods is any better for you than xylitol derived from corn--could this be the result of painting it with the same brush as high-fructose corn sweetener? Chemically, xylitol is xylitol regardless of its origin.

I also would like to address the assertion given in the comments that fructose is converted directly to triglycerides in the liver, and is not used by any other cells. This, too, is a common misconception. That is one metabolic pathway that can use fructose, but it is not the only one. In fact, it is biologically very simple and to convert fructose into glucose (and vice versa, one of the reasons for the popularity of high-fructose sweetener). Glucose can also be converted to triglycerides, and this pathway is used more when blood sugar is high (following ingestion of foods with a high glycemic index). Increased blood triglycerides is more a result of high blood sugar in general, not specifically from ingesting fructose.

On the whole, though, this article is useful and balanced, and I applaud the author.

Health Wealth
Health Wealth

It seems you need more information on Aspartame.

There is strong confirmation of the dangers of Aspartame from many researchers. The following quote is from Dr. John Fagan, a Cornell-trained molecular biologist who spent twenty years conducting research on gene regulation and carcinogenesis and seven years at National Institutes of  Health (NIH). Dr. Fagan is the researcher who in 1994 returned $613,882 of federal grant money (and withdrew his application for $1 million in further funding) to the NIH on the grounds that his DNA research might have led to dangerous applications in genetic engineering with extremely damaging consequences for humanity. 

Dr. Fagan on Aspartame:

"It is a real issue. Aspartame is a di-peptide. As such it has a structure similar to the structure of nuero-peptides  and it is not unlikely that it crosses the blood brain barrier and may bind to receptors for nuero-peptides. This may  be an important component of its negative effect. Another problem is that in even slightly acidic environments such  as in soft drinks, it breaks down to formaldehyde which is definitely toxic, even in small amounts. Soft drink cans  sitting in warm room will definitely have breakdown product.

Here are two articles on artificial sweeteners that will open your eyes even wider....

http://www.anh-usa.org/how-sweet-it-isnt-cutting-through-the-hype-and-deception/

http://tinyurl.com/qbfyzx9


H. Danielson
H. Danielson

Since the point of this article isn't so much to talk biology as it is to talk baking, I will give it credit where it's due: Just wow on making all that cake and taking the time to review it! That being said, however, on basic sugar science, the article was a little lacking, starting with the first sentence (which is surprising given that the science is correct in the article the first sentence links to).

Sugar is NOT fructose. Sugar is sucrose - a disaccharide made up of one glucose molecule and one fructose molecule (so it's 50% fructose/50% glucose).

Your body burns glucose, so eating foods that have lots of glucose in them will cause your blood sugar to rise. Practically every cell in your body is capable of burning glucose for energy.

Not so with fructose. Only the liver is capable of using fructose, and the first thing it does is convert a small amount into your body's back-up energy source (glycogen). Any further fructose is then converted into triglycerides for storage. In other words, excess fructose is converted straight into fat by your liver and sent off to various parts of your body to be stored. This not only can cause weight gain, but elevated the level of free-floating triglycerides in your blood - which are associated with heart disease, stroke, high blood pressure, and high cholesterol. Diets high in fructose are also associated with insulin resistance, obesity, diabetes, and fatty liver disease that can eventually become cirrhosis.

Sugar, even though it's digested quickly and is not a low-glycemic index food (GI 65), has a lower glycemic index than many other natural sweeteners because its fructose content mitigates the effect of the glucose. Corn syrup (NOT the same as high-fructose corn syrup) has no fructose, and will spike blood sugar much faster with its glycemic index of 100.

Natural sweeteners have different glucose/fructose contents. Agave, for example, has had varying ranges of fructose content measured - between 56% to 92% fructose - but all measurements point to a fructose content greater than high-fructose corn syrup. Honey has differing glucose/fructose amounts; you can tell by how fast it crystallizes - the quicker it crystallizes, the more glucose it has in it. Brown rice syrup has almost no fructose in it. Molasses - from cane sugar - is about 50% fructose. Maple syrup is about 50% fructose.

Ultimately, the best thing for people seeking to ameliorate and/or avoid health problems associated with fructose - unfortunately - is to kick the sweet addiction. Artificial sweeteners might be able to help with that, but the more science weighs in, the less it looks like we can have our cake and eat it, too. :(

 

Mike Germaine
Mike Germaine

You're making statements about what is and what is not better for you from a health standpoint. The "better-for-you xylitol made from hardwoods?" Really? People are going to read this assuming these claims are based on some conclusive medical evidence, when it's really just all conjecture.

Charles Grosvenor
Charles Grosvenor

Great article, disappointing picture.  There is no cake baked with sugar to demonstrate what the control looked like. 

Jonathan Krailller
Jonathan Krailller

I greatly enjoyed this article because I have seen the influx of different artificial sweeteners and didn't know what the different aspects of them were.  I actually prefer honey over sugar and would have enjoyed if you had used those some of the other natural sweeteners also, but very well written.

Roger Bird
Roger Bird

@iam he  you are becoming unbalanced Ayurvedically speaking.  You need all 6 tastes: sweet, sour, salty, spicy-pungent-hot, astringent, and bitter.

Ian Wilson
Ian Wilson

@Health Wealth your chair is breaking down into formaldehyde, it's not tangible.  Let's look at diabetes and heart conditions which are definitely going to kill us and choose the lesser evil.  It's like E cigs.  Sure in this country nicotine is linked so inhibiting cancer destruction pathways, but the 1000's of carcinogens in tobacco smoke are clearly worse.  But also seeing as we are doing most of our work sleeping, who's to say it matters at all.


Ian Wilson
Ian Wilson

@H. Danielson too true.  I noticed that too. That's why lemonade is so sweet, all it takes is acid to break down sucrose to glucose and fructose.  Honestly, I think table sugar is gross, I'd rather have the glucose/fructose mix.



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