Until recently, low-calorie sweeteners - those familiar pink, blue or yellow packets we take with our coffee - were mainly limited to artificial forms.

Now a wave of new low- to no-calorie natural sweeteners is poised to fill America's sugar bowls,

at a time of increasing consumer concern about artificial food products.

The new products, now available at supermarkets, are made with natural ingredients that have been around for generations - such as the stevia plant and erythritol, a sugar alcohol - repackaged for wider distribution.

These natural sweeteners may signal a major shift in the industry, as also evidenced by Coca Cola's application for 24 stevia-related patents.

"There is a huge group out there, the organic/natural food group, that don't want artificial sweeteners but need to cut back on calories," said Lisa Hart, a dietitian from the University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine.

She recommends the new natural sweeteners as "an excellent option" for people looking for low-calorie sweets and for people with diabetes.

"They don't seem to have the gastrointestinal side effects," such as gas and diarrhea, that some people experience with artificial sweeteners. "They don't cause tooth decay. . . . They taste good. They dissolve well and you can bake with them," she said. The samples she put out at her office have received good reviews.

Yet, Marian Nestle, food studies and public health professor at New York University, is cautious about any type of sugar substitute.

"Sugar is not a poison," she says. "It's an issue of quantity. I like sugar."

While she is not convinced there is a health concern with the artificial sweeteners, she doesn't think they taste good, and she says that studies have shown there is no evidence that they help people lose weight.

"There's an almost one-to-one correlation between use of artificial sweeteners and obesity. They don't prevent obesity," Nestle said. "People just eat more."

Still, with Americans consuming an average of 20 teaspoons of sugar a day (the amount in two 12-ounce sodas) by USDA estimates, and many consuming far more, manufacturers have found there is a market for a natural, low-calorie sugar substitute.

"We're seeing an incredibly dynamic set of circumstances in the market," Steven Silbert, of Sunwin Stevia, which produces OnlySweet, said in an interview last year. "Sales of diet sodas are down because people are concerned about things like aspartame and sucralose," he said. "They're looking for something more natural."

SweetFiber president Scott Taylor says more people are becoming "sensitized to the value of natural foods."

But manufacturers are divided, he says, on whether consumers will pay more for all-natural sweeteners or opt for the cheaper synthetics.

That was not an issue when White Dog Cafe began using stevia for coffee and tea service five years ago.

"We stopped carrying the synthetic/chemical sweeteners," said owner Judy Wicks.

"Stevia is all-natural and actually good for you because it has vitamins and minerals."

More incentive for change: Refined white sugar has no nutritive value beyond energy and has been linked to some degenerative diseases.

The new sweeteners create a new color palette of packets, including orange (Z Sweet), brown (Sweet Simplicity), purple (NuStevia), green (SweetFiber), and bigger yellow (Organic Zero).

Among the new offerings, several use sugar alcohols or extracts from fruits and other foods that the FDA qualifies as GRAS ("generally recognized as safe"). They include:

Erythritol

A natural sugar alcohol, erythritol (ee-RITH-ri-tol) is found in fruits and fermented foods. It is 60 to 70 percent as sweet as sugar, with a lighter, cooler taste and almost no calories. Absorbed mostly in the small intestine, it rarely causes gastric distress (laxative effect, gas or bloating) as noted with other sugar alcohols such as xylitol, maltitol or sorbitol, unless used in excess.

For baking, erythritol has some of sugar's tenderizing effect and can partially replace sugar for most uses, especially in combination with chocolate, where artificial sweeteners don't cut it.

It is used in several new sweeteners, among them:

Z Sweet

. A blend of erythritol and natural flavors in orange packets (zero calories and kosher parve). A near-perfect match for sugar's sweetness and mouthfeel. The fine crystals have a pleasant, faintly fruity undertone.

An 8.8-ounce canister is $9.49; a 1.5-pound pouch, $13.39, at Whole Foods. Boxes of 100 packets are 3 for $25 at

.

Organic Zero.

Organic erythritol produced by fermenting organic sugar-cane juice puts this close to sugar, but the slightly larger crystals have a lighter (less sweet), "cool" taste. For some that's fine; others may want to use 25 to 30 percent more.

Organic Zero comes in a 35-packet (6.2-ounce) box, $8.69, or 12-ounce pouch, $12.49, at Whole Foods.

Sweet Simplicity™.

An all-natural blend of about five parts erythritol (derived from corn) to one part fructose with a proprietary blend of natural flavors. Legally labeled "zero calorie" (fewer than five calories per serving), the fructose in the mix gives Sweet Simplicity™ an actual count just over four calories per serving. It can substitute one-to-one for sugar in baking. (Kosher parve.) In packets (brown), a 6.4-ounce, 30-count box is $8.69; a 1.75-pound (28-ounce) canister, $12.99, at Whole Foods.

Luo han guo

A fruit extract from southern China, luo han guo has a long history of use in Chinese herbal medicine for teas to treat coughs and sore throat and to aid longevity. Though too perishable to transport fresh, the dried fruit has been used here for much of the past century. In 1995, Procter & Gamble patented a process to isolate its sweet flavors as a sugar substitute for manufacturing and home kitchens.

Sweet Fiber.

This powdery addition to the sweet sweeps pairs luo han guo with inulin, a mildly sweet natural vegetable fiber from chicory root, to add bulk and dietary fiber. It tends to clump when moistened and is slightly slower to dissolve. A rare sugar substitute with added benefit, it offers 10 percent of the recommended daily 25 to 30 grams fiber.

A 1.75-ounce, 50-packet box is $7.79 at Martindale's Natural Market, 1172 Baltimore Pike, Springfield, Delaware County (610-543-4946) Also at

.

Stevia

Derived from the shrub

Stevia rebaudiana

, stevia has been used as a sweetener by natives in Paraguy and Brazil for centuries and has been the chief noncaloric sweetener in Japan for more than 30 years. The refined extract (a white powder called steviosides) is 200 to 300 times sweeter than sugar, with a slightly bitter aftertaste similar to licorice that is masked by blending.

Though FDA guidelines allow GRAS status to any natural substance used prior to 1958 with no reported adverse effects, the agency has denied that status to stevia, even though there have been no negative reports.

By public demand, the Dietary Supplement Health and Education Act (DSHEA) passed in 1994 allowing use of some natural products, including stevia, as dietary supplements. Now, under FDA guidelines, stevia can be sold as a "dietary supplement," but call it a sweetener or flavoring and it becomes an "unsafe food additive" subject to confiscation and destruction. Absent such labeling, stevia is available in drinks and as an ingredient such as:

NuStevia.

A naturally debittered white stevia powder mixed with maltodextrin, a food-grade carbohydrate derived from corn, and natural flavors. In purple packets, it has been the sweetener of choice at White Dog Cafe for about nine months, replacing an earlier version used for four years. It is sold in 50-, 100- and 1000-packet boxes at health food stores and online. A 100-packet box runs from $5.99 to $9.99 depending on the source.

OnlySweet.

A stevia blend with maltodextrin and a proprietary flavoring agent to mask any aftertaste. It is sold in Albertsons, Kroger and other mainstream markets. A 100-packet box is $8.59; 200-count box, $14.95.

Five artificial sweeteners have FDA approval

Five artificial sweeteners are approved by the FDA as food additives: sucralose, saccharin, aspartame, acesulfame potassium (Ace-K), and neotame.

Each has faced concerns about potential health risks, yet extensive research and peer-reviewed studies have consistently failed to show clear evidence of adverse effects.

Those low- to no-cal sweeteners are the most thoroughly tested ingredients in our food supply, and hundreds of studies show them to be safe, says dietitian Beth Hubrich, associate director and spokesperson for the Calorie Control Council, a trade group.

Still, many believe that artificial sweeteners, especially if blended together, contribute to a growing pattern of obesity, sleep disorders, sexual dysfunction, diabetes, multiple sclerosis, lupus, and other epidemic degenerative diseases in the United States.

Also, sugar substitutes do not offer the bulk, tenderness and browning properties of sugar, although some blends perform better than others.

Here's an overview:

Sucralose.

Sold by McNeil Nutritionals in Fort Washington as Splenda, this is a compound synthesized by adding three chlorine atoms found naturally in foods to a molecule of sucrose (cane sugar). It is 600 times sweeter than the starter sugar, which is vaporized in the process. The change in structure makes it an organochloride, some of which have adverse health effects in small doses. That led critics to call for more testing and left some with lingering doubts about its safety.

Blended with dextrose and maltodextrin for bulk (at 1.66 calories per teaspoon), it was introduced as Splenda in 1999 and by 2006 had garnered a 62 percent market share due in part to advertising it as "made from sugar, so it tastes like sugar." Though technically and grammatically correct, the arguably misleading statement ticked off competitors and brought lawsuits from both sides: Merisant (makers of Equal) and the Sugar Association.

The McNeil-Merisant dispute peaked last year in U.S. District Court here, when the firms reached an undisclosed settlement. It was not their first, nor their last, legal wrangle.

Meanwhile, the public loves Splenda, which is heat-stable and can be used in baking. It's widely available in granulated, minis (tablets), flavors, and, for baking, in a 50/50 blend of sucralose and sugar (white or brown). A 9.7-ounce pouch of granulated Splenda, (comparable to five pounds of sugar), costs about $7.50.

Saccharin.

(Sweet'N Low, SugarTwin)

Synthesized in 1879, saccharin was the first artificial sweetener. It is used in diet foods and beverages and in products such as toothpaste. A bitter aftertaste is masked by blending other sweeteners.

Concerns about its safety grew after a study found an increased rate of bladder cancer in laboratory rats fed doses comparable to hundreds of diet sodas a day. The FDA nearly banned it in 1977, but public demand led to congressional intervention, a warning label and more tests.

In 2000, the warning was lifted, saccharin was taken off the carcinogen list, and its use in beverages and some processed foods was reapproved. Some view saccharin, initially developed from a complex plant sugar extract, as the safest artificial sweetener. Widely available, a box of 400 packets is $5.37 at Sams Club or samsclub.com.

Aspartame.

(Equal, NutraSweet, Sugar Twin) Contains two amino acids, phenylalanine and aspartic acid, found in protein foods. (Not for use by those with the rare metabolic disease phenylketonuria or PKU, which limits consumption of protein foods.)

Approved in 1981, it is metabolized to fewer than three calories per packet with the sweetening effect of two teaspoons sugar. It is affected by heat, thus not recommended for cooking. Available plain or flavored (also blended as Equal Sugar Lite), it is priced from less than $4 per 100 single-serving packets to about $10 for a 1-pound bag.

Acesulfame potassium (Ace-K).

(Sunett, Sweet One)

Approved for use in 90 countries and included in more than 4000 foods and beverages, notably carbonated drinks. It is often blended with sucralose or aspartame for a sweeter, a more sugarlike taste (each masks the other's aftertaste). Unlike aspartame, acesulfame potassium is stable to 400 degrees, even under acidic or basic conditions. It is not metabolized, adds no calories, and is excreted unchanged.

Neotame.

A super-sweetener (8,000 times sweeter than sugar), this aspartame sibling also contains aspartic acid and phenylalanine, but is metabolized differently - thus no PKU warning is required. Approved in 2002, it has yet to come into use. As only trace amounts are needed, manufacturers' costs could be cut nearly in half. Use as a tabletop product and packaged food ingredient is expected.

- Marilynn Marter

Easy Strawberry "Cheesecake"

Makes 4 servings (1 graham cracker, 2 ounces topping)

2 teaspoons Zsweet ® all- natural sweetener

4 ounces part skim milk ricotta cheese

4 ounces whipped cream cheese

1 graham cracker sheet

4 small strawberries

1.

At least 2 hours before serving, put Zsweet, ricotta and cream cheese in a food processor; blend until smooth.

2.

Cover and refrigerate until well-chilled.

3.

To serve, cut the graham cracker sheet into 4 pieces at the seam. Top each piece with 1/4 of the cheese topping.

4.

Garnish with a strawberry and serve.

Per serving: 151 calories, 6 grams protein, 14 grams carbohydrates, ??? grams sugar, 9 grams fat, 29 milligrams cholesterol, ??? milligrams sodium, 3 grams dietary fiber.

Shrimp and Corn Salad With Basil

Makes 6 servings

7 tablespoons olive oil,

divided use

4 cups corn kernels, fresh or frozen (thawed)

3/4 cup minced red onion

1 pint cherry tomatoes, halved

6 tablespoons lime juice

4 tablespoons granulated Splenda sweetener

21/2 teaspoons kosher salt, divided use

3 tablespoons fresh basil, cut into thin strips

24 extra-large shrimp, peeled and deveined

2 teaspoons red pepper flakes

1/4 teaspoon black pepper

1.

Heat 2 tablespoons of the oil in a medium saute pan and cook corn and red onions until tender.

2.

Transfer corn mixture to a stainless bowl. Add the tomatoes and set aside.

3.

Mix 4 tablespoons of the oil, the lime juice, sweetener, 2 teaspoons of the salt, and the basil in a small bowl. Add to the corn mixture, tossing to combine.

4.

Toss the shrimp with the last tablespoon of oil, the red pepper flakes, remaining 1/2 teaspoon salt and pepper. Grill the shrimp for 2 minutes on one side, turn and grill 1 minute more or as desired. Add to the corn salad.

- From Splenda Sweetener Products.

Per serving: 352 calories, 26 grams protein, 30 grams carbohydrates, 9 grams sugar, 16 grams fat, 161 milligrams cholesterol, 807 milligrams sodium, 3 grams dietary fiber.

Exchanges per serving:

11/2 starches, 1 medium-fat meat.

Contact food writer Marilynn Marter at 215-854-5743 or mmarter@phillynews.com.