It is common to crave suga​r, particularly after a meal rich in simple carbohydrates, or when you need comfort foods to get through a stressful day. "Not only are sugary snacks and desserts highly pleasing to the palate, they also stimulate the release of brain chemicals such as endorphins and serotonin, which relax us and give us a momentary ‘high’," said dietitians from the Dietetic & Food Services​, Changi General Hospital​ (CGH), a member of the SingHealth​ group.

The associations we make with sugary foods can lead to cravings and over-consumption and thus, to a host of health problems such as obesity, tooth decay and diabetes.

One common way to satisfy a sugar craving while controlling your weight and blood sugar is to use artificial sweeteners, sugar substitutes that are made from chemical and natural substances. One gram of sugar (about one-fifth teaspoon as 1 teaspoon = 5g sugar) has four calories while most artificial sweeteners have virtually no calories except for those using sorbitol which still contain 4 calories per gram.

Artificial sweeteners are found in ready-to-eat foods and drinks, including soft drinks, candy, fruit juice, ice cream and diabetic food products, but just how safe are they? Is it a good idea to replace sugar in our daily diet with them?

Sweeteners are acceptable in small doses

Sweeteners are acceptable if taken in small amounts and occasionally. Excessive intake is not advisable because some sweeteners, based on certain forms of carbohydrate source, still contain calories.

Sugar substitutes that are commonly available in Singapore include:

  1. Aspartame (found in Equal)
  2. Saccharin (Hermestas)
  3. Sucralose (Splenda)
  4. Stevia, a herbal product (Equal Stevia, Jovia)
  5. Xylitol, a plant-based sugar alcohol (XyloSweet)

Other sugar substitutes include acesulfame potassium, found in carbonated drinks and protein shakes in Singapore.

Lose that sweet tooth

Dieticians say that sweeteners with little or no calories, such as aspartame, can help with weight management. Similarly, in the case of diabetes management, sweeteners that do not contain glucose can help with blood sugar control.

But they emphasise that it is best to try to do without sweeteners and to acquire a less sweet taste. Besides, sweeteners have not been found to help in reducing sugar cravings. Like sugar, they only provide temporary satisfaction.

You will find that sweeteners work best if you use only the recommended amount or even less than that. Most of the sweeteners are many times sweeter than sugar but because of the way they are packaged (tablet or powder form), most people tend to use more, based on the false assumption that the suggested amount will not sweeten the food.

The special case of aspartame

While studies carried out in the early 1970s found a link between saccharin and bladder cancer in laboratory rats, subsequent studies have failed to confirm this link with humans. Saccharin has thus been declared safe for consumption. In fact there is no scientific evidence that any of the artificial sweeteners approved for consumption pose any serious health risks.

However, people who have the inherited disorder phenylketonuria (PKU) cannot safely consume the amino acid phenylalanine. They are cautioned to avoid foods and drinks sweetened with aspartame, as this particular compound contains this amino acid.

Dieticians also warn that spartame should not be used in cooking or baking as the heating process denatures the protein and can cause a bitter aftertaste.

Ref. N18