An asterisk (*) indicates a natural product, i.e., one derived principally from a plant or other natural product.
ACESULFAME-K or ACE-K (Sunett, Sweet One)
Acesulfame-K, measure for measure 200 times sweeter than table sugar, is, along with sucralose, one of the more recently approved sugar substitutes. Ace-K was approved for use in soft drinks in 1998, and as a flavor enhancer in 2003. It contains no calories. It is often combined with other sweeteners to intensify the sweet taste and reduce any bitterness. The sucralose (Splenda)/Ace-K blend has become a popular ingredient in baked goods because of the natural taste and its ability to retain sweetness when heated to high temperatures. Humans cannot digest acesulfame-K so no calories are absorbed. It can withstand high temperatures and thus can be used in cooking and baking. It has been tested less thoroughly than aspartame, so researchers tend to know less about it. It is O.K. for cooking. The FDA Acceptable Daily Intake is 15 mg per kg, or 25 cans of diet soda.† Critics claim that approval of Ace-K was based on poorly designed studies, flawed data and questionable interpretation of statistics. the FDA has turned down proposals to further test Ace-K, as well as aspartame, and other sweeteners.
†FDA-established acceptable daily intake (ADI) limit per kilogram (2.2 pounds) of body weight. Product consumption equivalent for a 150-pound person.
AGAVE NECTAR or AGAVE SYRUP Agave (pronounced uh-GAH-vay) is a botanical family of succulent plants, Agavaceae, with more than 400 species, that grow chiefly in Mexico and the southwestern U.S. The sap of one species, Agave tequilana Weber, known as the blue agave or tequila agave, is used to make tequila. fermented and distilled into mezcal and tequila. Agave is produced commercially in Mexico from several species of agave, including blue agave, green agave, grey agave, rainbow agave, salmiana agave and thorny agave.
The sap or juice of the leaves is about 90% fructose. Unlike the crystalline form of fructose, which is refined primarily from corn, agave syrup is fructose in its natural form, i.e. unprocessed. Agave’s naturally-occurring fructose is an alternative for people on low-glycemic diets. Agave nectar can be purchased in any health food store. It’s less viscous than honey so it’s easy to pour. Unlike honey, it doesn’t crystallize. It’s also sweeter than honey and sugar, so less is required—important to note when using agave in recipes.
The sap from the leaves, called agave syrup or agave nectar, is a very pleasant sweetener which tastes a bit like light honey; a darker version of the nectar has a deeper flavor, more like brown sugar or maple syrup.
Agave nectar is the lowest qualified sweetener on the glycemic index.* Agave nectar has a glycemic index (GI) of 32, half that of sugar. Honey has a GI of 58, due to its higher ratio of glucose to fructose (agave is about 90% fructose; note that some honeys are lower glycemic than others). Table sugar has a GI value of 60-65. Pure maple syrup maple syrup has a GI of 54. A teaspoon of agave is 20 calories, and table sugar is 16 calories (honey has 22 calories). But since agave is 1.4 to 1.5 times sweeter than sugar, you don’t need as much. See also fructose.
The blue agave plant, from which both tequila and agave nectar are made. Photo by Stacie Andrea | SXC.
*Although brown rice syrup has a GI of 20, it is not recommended for diabetics, since its sweetness comes from maltose, which causes spikes in blood sugar. While the calories of brown rice syrup are similar to agave syrup, agave is almost three times as sweet, so one can use far less agave to achieve the same level of sweetness as with brown rice syrup.
Approved in 1981 by the FDA, aspartame is measure for measure 160 to 200 times sweeter than sugar. It contains the two amino acids, phenylalanine and aspartic acid, and is an excellent sweetener with no aftertaste. It has about 4 calories per gram, but because of its intense sweetness, very little is used so the amount of calories it provides is negligible. Aspartame is heat-stable and suitable for cooking and baking. While the product claims to have a shelf life of three years or longer, our anecdotal experience is that its sweetness will denature (break down), which is why a can of diet soda that’s a year old can taste undrinkable while its high fructose corn syrup counterpart is fine. Aspartame contains phenylalanine, an amino acid, which some people with a very rare condition called phenylketonuria (PKU) are unable to metabolize; so all food products containing aspartame carry a warning about its phenylalanine content. Aspartame breaks down under heat so cannot be used in cooking. The FDA Acceptable Daily Intake is 50 mg per kg of body weight, or 15-20 cans of diet soda, or 97 packets of Equal, for a 150-pound person.†† It is deemed safe by the World Health Organization and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.