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updated: 3/3/2011 5:31 PM

Readers weigh in on natural sweeteners, sugar substitute debate

Lean and Lovin' It

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The high level of reader interest in sugar substitutes certainly surprised me. After my July column on the topic appeared my e-mail box filled up quickly.

We seem to share a concern about sugars (the all-inclusive term for all sweeteners) found in so many processed foods. If you want to cut your sugar intake there are three ways to do it: buy foods with low or no added sugars, look for prepared foods that use sugar substitutes, or use sugar substitutes in at-home food preparation.

Let's open my mailbox and take a look at some readers had to say on the subject.

Several readers, like Betty Stein from Arlington Heights, wrote that they found stevia to be an excellent natural sugar substitute. Betty wrote that she switched to a natural stevia brand: "- some time ago and love it." Betty indicated stevia has become her only sweetener.

I haven't tried baking with stevia, nor has Betty. In my experience, baking with artificial sweetener never works as well as baking with real sugar. The reason: sugar does more than sweeten; its part of a chemical balance that produces and maintains air bubbles in batters and adds flavor through caramelization.

My experience and intuition tells me that stevia used at levels that equal the sweetness of sugar would also carry stevia's unappealing, almost impossible to mask herbal flavor notes.

Mark Mammen, who works in McHenry, is another stevia devotee. "I like Truvia," he wrote. "One packet on sugarless (or very low sugar) cereal with skim milk and it tastes great!!"

Stevia wasn't the only sugar substitute shared by readers. H.R. Kaiser likes xylitol. Xylitol is a sugar alcohol, similar to the organic erythritol I tried and wrote about in July. Xylitol (often an ingredient in sugarless gum) and erythritol are sugar alcohols with fewer calories than sugar.

One gram of erythritol delivers a minuscule 0.2 calories, while the same amount of xylitol has 2.4 calories. By comparison 1 gram of granulated cane sugar delivers 4 calories.

Xylitol, measure-for-measure, has the same sweetening power as granulated sugar and just slightly more than half the calories - a moderate trade-off. Erythritol has about 60-percent of sugar's sweetness and even if you use more of it to equal granulated sugar's sweetness, you're still getting significantly fewer calories.

Agave syrup was another sweetener mentioned by Karen Jones of Palatine. "I only use agave. I can't believe you didn't mention this natural sugar substitute," she wrote. "I think it tastes great and I haven't found anything better."

There's certainly a lot to be said for agave, especially organic agave. But, agave is a sweetener in the same way that high fructose corn syrup's a sweetener (a blend of sucrose and fructose) and just like granulated sugar and HFCS, delivers 4 calories per gram.

For now I'll stick with flavored stevia and other natural, noncaloric sweeteners to help me keep my weight under control. Thanks to all who e-mailed.

Try this recipe: A classic three-bean salad calls for a 1/2 cup oil (964 calories and 109 fat grams) and 3/4 cup sugar (581 calories); totaling 1,545 calories. Using thickened chicken broth for most of the oil and a noncaloric sugar substitute, I've cut nearly 1,500 calories. Yet, my three bean salad still tastes great. Give it a try this coming Labor Day weekend.

• Don Mauer welcomes comments, questions and recipe makeover requests. Write him at don@theleanwizard.com.

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