Sugar Substitutes: The Sweet Truth

Are your snacks, desserts, medicines, and even toiletries made with the healthiest sweeteners? From aspartame to stevia, we take a close look at popular sugar substitutes. By: Maureen Callahan, M.S., R.D.

  • Get the facts about artificial sweeteners.
    Photo: Brit Huckaby; Styling: Mindi Shapiro

    (Un)Sweet Truth

    For most of us, a typical day includes roughly 355 calories (22 teaspoons) of extra sugar a day, from what we stir into our coffee, to lunch condiments, to soda and dessert. Speculation is that this sugary habit is fueling growing waistlines and growing an epidemic of Type 2 Diabetes. There are stand ins for sugar but are these artificial sweeteners healthier? We take a quick look at the most popular options and how they stack up.
  • Facts about aspartame.
    Photo: Brit Huckaby; Styling: Mindi Shapiro


    Unlike most substitutes, this one is metabolized by the body. Equal carries 4 calories per gram, but is so intensely sweet that the calories it contributes to foods are miniscule.

    Sweetening Power: 200 times sweeter than table sugar.

    Precautions: Under fire from critics since it’s introduction in 1981, animal studies link this sweetener to cancer and consumers have complained of everything from headaches to depression. But the government considers it safe except for people with phenylketonuria, a rare disorder.

    The Sweet Truth: Recently renamed Amino Sweet, the new moniker is unlikely to squash the long time controversy surrounding this sweetener.


  • Facts about saccharin.
    Photo: Brit Huckaby; Styling: Mindi Shapiro


    Discovered in 1879 and the oldest of artificial sugar substitutes, saccharin has taken a roller coaster ride into and out of public favor. Nearly banned by the government in 1977, the little pink packages (Sweet’N Low) have branched out to include liquid formulas and a brown sugar blend.

    Sweetening Power: 300 times sweeter than sugar.

    Precautions: Remember those warning labels on foods sweetened with saccharin? Not to worry. In 2000, scientists realized that while saccharin may cause bladder cancer in rats, it doesn’t cause it in humans.

    The Sweet Truth: Because of its bitter aftertaste, saccharin is often used with other sweeteners.


  • Facts about sucralose.
    Photo: Brit Huckaby; Styling: Mindi Shapiro


    Real sugar gets a low-cal makeover with some chemical manipulation plugging chlorine into three of sugar’s hydroxyl groups. If the chemistry sounds Greek, know that the end result, called Splenda, is way sweeter and lower in calories than sugar.

    Sweetening Power: 600 times the sweetness of sugar.

    Precautions: This sweetener is probably the least controversial with no documented adverse side effects. You can bake with it, but it can't compare to using real sugar.

    The Sweet Truth: An ingredient in 1500 products, Consumer Reports says 65 percent of American households bought at least one sucralose-containing product in 2008.



  • Facts about acesulfame K.
    Photo: Brit Huckaby; Styling: Mindi Shapiro

    Acesulfame K

    This substitute is an intense calorie-free sweetener not metabolized by the body. Available since 1988 under the brand Sunett™, this mineral combo of potassium and acetoacetic acid has little impact on blood sugar. It can withstand high temperatures of baking and pasteurization so can be used in numerous food products and cough drops.

    Sweetening Power:  About 200 times sweeter than table sugar.

    Precautions:  Since it does resemble saccharin in taste, this sweetener is typically paired with others. While recognized by the government as safe, some critics remain skeptical.

    The Sweet Truth: The World Health Organization suggests limiting daily intake to 15mg per kilogram of body weight.


  • Facts about sugar alcohols.
    Photo: Brit Huckaby; Styling: Mindi Shapiro

    Sugar Alcohols

    Made up of carbs the body can’t digest, these low calorie sweeteners are similar in structure to sugar and alcohol. Names typically end in “ol,” including sorbitol, mannitol, and xylitol. The impact on blood sugar varies but is typically less than for sugars or starches.

    Sweetening Power: Varies.

    Precautions: Bacteria in the gut can ferment these undigestible carbs resulting in gas, bloating and diarrhea.

    The Sweet Truth: With anywhere from 0.2 to 3 calories per gram (sugar contains 4 calories per gram) sugar-free doesn’t mean calorie-free.




  • Facts about stevia.
    Photo: Brit Huckaby; Styling: Mindi Shapiro


    Made from the leaves of a South American plant, stevia is the new darling of the sweetener world. Big soft drink companies rushed to put it in their lines with the brand Truvia (Coke) and Pure Via (Pepsi.)

    Sweetening Power: About 200 to 300 times sweeter than table sugar.

    Precautions: Experts at the Mayo Clinic suggest caution for pregnant women, women who are breast-feeding, and anyone taking medication for hypertension or diabetes. For the latter group, the concern is hypoglycemia or hypotension (low blood pressure).

    The Sweet Truth: While leaves of the stevia plant have been used for years, the new extracts haven't so the jury is still out on its safety.


  • Moderation is always key when consuming sugar or its sweet substitutes.
    Getty Images

    Artificial Sugar in Moderation

    Like many ingredients, sugar substitutes have a good side and a bad. With little or no calories, they are a great alternative to real sugar, especially for diabetics trying to control their blood sugar levels.

    But it's also true that these sweeteners are found in foods that have little nutritional value, like diet soda and frozen meals. Several studies have also found a link between sugar substitutes and weight gain. In order to maintain a healthy body, treat sugar substitutes just like sugar, and only consume in moderation.


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