Sweeteners Decoded: The Truth about Sugar Substitutes

artificial sweetenersTo make healthier versions of your favorite foods, many companies swap out real sugar for sugar substitutes. These sweeteners often contain fewer calories than plain old sugar, and thanks to their concentrated taste, require lower amounts to achieve the same sweetness. But that doesn’t necessarily mean that these products are healthier than the original.

There continues to be some debate on the potential health implications of consuming sugar substitutes, whether artificial or natural (don’t be fooled, some naturally occurring products can be highly processed). One potential risk comes from the fact that artificially sweetened food and drinks, with their reduced calorie counts, might encourage overconsumption. Studies have also linked these sweeteners with high blood pressure and increased risk for obesity, among other conditions.

So before you reach for another diet soda, sugar-free pudding or sports drink, be sure you know what you’re putting into your body (and remember, all sweet treats should be enjoyed in moderation):

Artificial Sweeteners

  • Aspartame (Equal and NutraSweet): Available in many food and beverage products – like yogurt, soft drinks and chewing gum – aspartame is about 220 times sweeter than sugar. While its health effects are often researched, there has been no conclusive evidence of adverse impact.
  • Saccharin (Sweet ‘N Low): One of the oldest sugar substitutes on the market, Saccharin is between 200 and 700 times sweeter than sugar. Like aspartame, it is used as a sweetener in products like soda and gum. In 2000, the U.S. repealed a bill requiring labels on products containing saccharin.
  • Sucralose (Splenda): As it’s actually made with sugar molecules, sucralose tastes similar to sugar. It is, however, about 600 times sweeter, and is one of the most common sweeteners used in soft drinks, juices and sauces, as well as nutritional supplements.

Natural Sweeteners

  • Honey: Containing vitamins and minerals, there is some added nutritional value to substituting honey for sugar. And some studies show it may help lower cholesterol. It has its own flavor, so it’s a good sweetener for items like tea and baked goods.
  • Agave Nectar: While it contains more calories than sugar, agave nectar, extracted from the agave plant, can be used as a natural substitute since it is about one and a half times sweeter. However, it’s one of the more highly processed natural sweeteners. And the added fructose from this processing could raise blood pressure.
  • Maple Syrup: The common flapjack topper can also be used to sweeten a host of your favorite food and drinks, including baked goods. Like honey, it has a strong flavor, contains fewer calories than sugar and has antioxidants that can help boost immune health.
  • Stevia: Extracted from the Stevia rebaudiana plant, stevia sweeteners contain no calories and are about 250 times sweeter than sugar. In addition to its use in food and drinks, stevia can be used as an alternative sweetener in baked goods, as it doesn’t break down in heat as quickly as more processed alternatives.


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Photo credit: Roey Ahram

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Read 3 Comments

  1. This is a good article. Recent research has determined the clinical pathways by which artificial sweeteners lead to weight gain, type 2 diabetes, and metabolic syndrome. The research determined that artificial sweeteners destroy good bacteria in people’s intestines. Further research needs to confirm this.

    Processed stevia is not the only option. Stevia leaf is a good sweetener for teas. Ground stevia leaf can be used in cooking dishes, such as custards and puddings. I grow stevia in my garden.

  2. I think you make very good points in your article. I do not consume artificial sweeteners, they give me headaches. I get frustrated when I order a beverage at a coffee shop and artificial sweeteners are used. It is so mainstream now.

    It is very true. I agree that these sweeteners are linked to obesity. People feel if they consume a food or beverage with an artificial sweetener, they can eat or drink more of this product, but they are not taking into account the grams of fat or salt in the product.

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