Companies are in an endless race to find the “perfect” sweetener that will be everything we want sugar to be (taste great, perform well in recipes and be safe) without any of the potential dangers or unwanted side effects of the other sugar free alternatives. We want to be able to have our cake and eat it, too. Welcome the newest addition to the sugar free sweetener line-up: Swerve. This product is now being found on the shelves of health food stores and grocery stores alike. The label says “0 Calories, 0 Grams of sugar.” And what’s got people excited is that there are no artificial ingredients. In fact the natural ingredients it does contain seem to taste better, function better and have minimal unpleasant features compared the natural sugar free alternatives we’re used to such as stevia and sugar alcohols like sorbitol.
How natural is Swerve?
When you look at the ingredient list, it contains “erythritol, oligosaccharides and natural flavors” Wait? What? What happened to avoiding foods with ingredients you can’t pronounce? Interestingly, these two ingredients are actually found in nature. Erythritol is a sugar alcohol. You may be familiar with other sugar alcohols, sorbitol, mannitol and xylitol. These are typically less sweet than regular sugar, but are lower in calories because they are well absorbed by the body. Traditional sugar free chocolates and candies use sugar alcohols to add low glycemic sweetness, but they often came with an unpleasant side effect: gas, bloating and diarrhea if you consumed more than your body could handle. No one enjoys the aftermath of a sugar free chocolate binge. Otherwise, the sugar alcohols have been used for decades as a sugar free alternative because they are lower in calories, have a minimal impact on blood sugar and are relatively safe when used in small amounts.
How safe are sugar alcohols?
Did you know that sorbitol is naturally found in prunes? Xylitol has been popular in the past decade for its health benefits. Studies have shown that xylitol is also antibacterial and can help reduce cavities. It’s often found as an ingredient in sugar free gum. Aside from it’s preferred taste and health benefits, xylitol still caused side effects of indigestion, gas and bloating, so the search continued for a better alternative. Enter erythritol. According to Swerve’s website: “Erythritol is made by fermenting glucose with Moniliella pollinis (a natural microorganism found in honeycomb) which breaks down the glucose and yields erythritol.” This sugar alcohol appears to be much better tolerated in humans compared to all of the other sugar alcohols. It’s also the sugar alcohol that has the least impact on blood sugar with the least amount of intestinal distress. It contains zero calories and is also an antioxidant. It seems to be the golden child of sugar alcohols. In fact, it’s already being used in other sugar free sweeteners such as Truvia and Suncrystals. The other benefit of erythritol, is that it has considerable “bulk” and can be used in place of sugar in recipes for baked goods and can have a tenderizing effect. However, it’s not exactly the same, so it’s recommended to use it as a partial replacement for sugar.
What about the other ingredient: Oligosaccharide?
It’s a big name with a simple explanation. “Oligo” means many. “Sacchar” means sugar. So it’s a molecule that is a short chain of sugars. These are the molecule in-between a sugar and a starch. They have special roles in the body, such as with cell to cell signalling and food for healthy gut bacteria (because they are similar to fiber and non-digestible by humans.) One example of an oligosaccharide is inulin which is found in Fiber One bars & yogurt. Oligosaccharides are used to help add bulk without adding calories, which permits Swerve to be a good replacement for sugar in baking by allowing for the cup for cup measurement use. The other benefit of oligosaccharide as an ingredient is that it it can exhibit the effect of “carmelization” or browning when heated, so your cookies can get that toasted, crispy texture & taste.
Looking at the Swerve nutrition facts panel demonstrates an important distinction for calories and carbohydrates. Per 1 teaspoon serving, the product contains no calories, but it does contain 5 grams of carbohydrate. How can this be?
This is based on the fact that these molecules are not well absorbed by the body. Also for a diabetic, these carbs would not impact blood glucose, so they should not be counted in total carbohydrate counts when adjusting for insulin or other carbohydrate counting adjustments.
What about those “Natural Flavors?
According to Swerve’s website: “The natural flavors in Swerve are derived from food sources. For those concerned about MSG being labeled as a natural flavor, you can be assured that MSG is not contained in Swerve.” In my opinion, these flavors likely help with the perceived sweetness of the product. Most products that use sugar free sweeteners use a combination of them in order to improve the taste and reduce any unpleasant aftertastes. Likely, these natural flavors are doing this without the need to blend in any other sugar alcohols or artificial ones.
In my professional opinion, I would say that this sugar free alternative sweetener is a good choice as a substitute for sugar as well as a great substitute for sugar in baking. It’s derived from natural ingredients that demonstrate safety and are well tolerated by the body. The taste is agreeable and has the versatility to be used in baking.
The only caution I have is to limit your use to occasional use only. Although Swerve seems to not have any of the undesirable characteristics of sugar free sweeteners, it’s still a non-nutritive food. Meaning, there are no vitamins or nutrients that come from consuming it. Research has demonstrated that when artificial sweeteners were consumed, it did stimulate the production of insulin by the body, which is not a favorable response if we are not eating. Swerve has not been extensively studied, so it’s hard to say how insulin levels are impacted when using it.
Secondly, even though Swerve is non-caloric per serving, it still imparts a sweet taste that stimulates the opioid centers of the brain. This reinforces a reward response for eating sweets, that seems to be stronger if people are obese. If you are trying to break a sweet tooth habit, eating Swerve instead of sugar is not likely going to help you get rid of a sugar habit.
And lastly, consider the types of foods you may use Swerve in. Although the sweetener itself is calorie free, the foods you will be eating that contain Swerve will not be. You may choose to use Swerve for sweetening coffee or tea, but baking sugar cookies, spice cake and lemon bars encourages the intake of additional flour, fat and calories. If your goal is lower blood sugar, weight loss or cholesterol improvement, consuming more of these foods (even if sugar is removed) does not make these choices “health foods.” Extra calories in the form of refined carbohydrates and unhealthy fats & oils put a burden on our bodies and place a strain our achievement of good health.