It is common knowledge artificial sweeteners are under suspicion for possible negative side effects, but how many of us still reach for diet soda and sugar substitutes as a low-calorie option? Sugar is often painted as the enemy in diets and weight loss regimes; however, you may be putting yourself at more risk by consuming large amounts of artificial sweeteners. There are other sugar alternatives, including natural sweeteners and sugar alcohols, which may pose fewer risks than artificial sweeteners, but provide no benefits when compared to sugar. If you are trying to lose weight, control your blood sugar, or just simply lower your sugar intake, it is healthier and safer to simply cut down the amount of sugar in your diet rather than replace it with sugar substitutes.
Sugar Substitute: Artificial Sweeteners
Artificial sweeteners are food additives that are non-caloric or non-nutritive, meaning they have almost no calories and no nutritional value. They are much sweeter than sugar, so much less of the product needs to be used to achieve the same sweetness. FDA approval is needed for sale in the U.S. Artificial sweeteners are generally used in processed products and some of them can be used for baking. Refer to ingredient labels to see if a product contains an artificial sweetener. Although artificial sweeteners are no- or low- cal, diets are easily blown when people overlook the calories contained in the other ingredients of a food or beverage.
Types of Artificial Sweeteners:
Sucralose (Splenda ®)
• 600 times sweeter than sugar.
• Contains maltodextrin.
• Nutritional info for Splenda ® lists zero calories, but after the bulking agents are added, there are actually 12 calories per tablespoon.
• Can be used for baking but leaves an artificial taste.
Saccharin (Sweet ‘N Low ®)
• 300 times sweeter than sugar.
• Made from petroleum.
• Zero calories.
• 1977: FDA proposed a ban when saccharin was linked with bladder cancer in rats. This ban was not enacted and the warning label was removed from saccharin in 2000.
• 1981: Listed as an “anticipated human carcinogen” by government reports.
o Could put male smokers at risk for cancer if they consume large amounts.
o Not many studies have been done with children, so it is recommended children consume little or no saccharin.
o Recommended that pregnant women consume it in very small amounts.
Aspartame (NutraSweet ® and Equal ®)
• Between 180 and 200 times sweeter than sugar.
• 4 calories to every gram.
• The majority of aspartame is used in soda (70%).
• Approved by the FDA in 1996
o FDA acceptable daily intake of aspartame works out to a lot of soda – 50 mg per kilogram of body weight (about 4, 12 oz. cans of soda per day).
o Approved for pregnant women if they stay within these guidelines.
• Some individuals may be sensitive to aspartame. Symptoms of aspartame sensitivity include headaches, dizziness, mood changes or skin reactions.
Acesulfame-K (Sunnette or Sweet One)
• 200 times sweeter than sugar.
• Zero calories.
• The body is unable to break down acesulfame-K, excreting it unaltered.
• Approved by the FDA.
o Other groups claim the studies were poorly done and didn’t test for cancer-causing agents!
• 30 times sweeter than sugar.
• Banned from the U.S. in the 1970’s because they were shown to cause bladder cancer in animals.
Sugar Substitute: Sugar Alcohols
Sugar alcohols are not alcoholic. They are naturally occurring carbohydrates found in fruits and vegetables. Sugar alcohols differ from artificial sweeteners in that they do have calories and are about equal to sugar in sweetness. They do; however, contain fewer calories than sugar, which makes them a desirable substitute. Sugar alcohols are not used for cooking, they can be found in processed food, and add bulk and texture. Sugar alcohols also increase moisture, prevent browning, work as cooling agents, and of course, increase sweetness. But be aware! Consuming too many sugar alcohols can result in diarrhea.
Types of Sugar Alcohols:
Sorbitol & Mannitol
• Sugar alcohols naturally found in fruit.
• The FDA has deemed them “GRAS” (Generally Recognized as Safe).
• Your body cannot use all the parts of these sugar alcohols. If consumed in large quantities (more than 49 grams of sorbitol or 19 grams of manitol), this can result in a laxative effect and cause diarrhea.
Natural sweeteners are ingredients found in nature that can be used instead of sugar. Generally endorsed as a better option than table sugar, many natural sweeteners are also processed and refined and do not necessarily offer any additional health or nutritional benefits. Your body processes natural sweeteners in practically the same way as sugar. Like sugar, natural sweeteners can still cause weight gain, blood sugar increases, and cavities. Use natural sweeteners if you like the taste better and in moderation, but ignore the hype about how great they are for you.
Sugar Substitute: Natural Sweeteners
Honey, Agave Nectar, Molasses, Raw and Brown Sugar (unprocessed), Maple Syrup, Fructose (sugar found in fruits), Glucose (found in some fruits), Lactose (milk sugar), Maltose (malt sugar), etc.
Novel Sweeteners are a combination of different types of sweeteners. Basically, this is the category for sweeteners that do not fall into any of the above categories.
Type of Novel Sweetener:
• Found in the Stevia plant.
• Hundreds of times sweeter than sugar.
• Virtually calorie-free.
• Is not yet FDA approved because there has not been sufficient evidence to ensure that stevia is safe.
o Can be bought as a dietary supplement, which requires almost no proof of safety.
• Has been linked with reduced sperm production and increased infertility in rats and fewer and smaller offspring in hamsters.
What do you think?
When it comes to sugar versus sugar substitutes, you should use them at your own risk. The National Cancer Institute’s stand on artificial sweeteners is that there is not sufficient evidence to link any of the FDA approved sweeteners to cancer (besides cyclamates which were banned in the 1970’s). However, with time and more studies, we will have a better idea of which sweeteners are cancer-causing, and at what quantities they are safe to consume. If you decide to opt for sugar alternatives, our recommendation is to consume them in moderation.
Be careful to pay attention to which alternatives have calories, and take note of the many other ingredients in “diet” or “low-calorie” products. Unless you are using sugar alternatives to control your blood sugar, you may want to stick with real sugar and just keep an eye on your intake. The only way to completely avoid any of the risks associated with artificial sweeteners is to avoid them. Everyone wants a quick-fix, guilt-free sugar substitute. But for now, it may just be too good to be true.
Visit these websites for more information:
National Cancer Institute: