Guide to sugar substitutes

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There’s no denying that the typical American diet is packed with too much sugar. On average, we consume about 17 teaspoons of added sugar every day — a lot more than the American Heart Association’s recommendation of no more than 6 teaspoons per day for women or 9 for men.

For people trying to cut back on sugar, replacing it with sugar substitutes may seem like a wise choice. But simply replacing sugar with a different sweetener isn’t always the healthier option.

The problem with sugar — and sugar substitutes

Getting too much added sugar in your diet (versus sugar that occurs naturally in fruit and dairy) is bad for your health. Added sugars — especially in processed foods, sodas and other sugary drinks — increase your risk of obesity, diabetes and heart disease.

Sugar substitutes, which typically add sweetness without adding calories, seem like an obvious solution. But are sugar substitutes bad for you, too? Research suggests that using sugar substitutes may cause some of the same problems. The sweetness of sugar substitutes can lead to continued cravings for sweet foods. This may be why some evidence shows that replacing real sugar with fake ones doesn’t lead to long-term weight loss or reduce the risk of diabetes and obesity.

Some evidence over the years has linked consumption of artificial sweeteners to an increased risk of heart disease and cancer. Research is ongoing, but for now, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) still considers these additives safe for use.

Types of artificial sweeteners

Artificial sweeteners are manufactured chemical compounds designed to mimic the sweetness of sugar. Most are much sweeter than real sugar — with some substitutes adding 200 to 700 times the sweetness.

Examples of artificial sweeteners that are FDA-approved and commonly found in diet sodas and other foods include:

  • Acesulfame potassium (Sunett®, Sweet One®)
  • Aspartame (Equal®, Nutrasweet®)
  • Neotame (Newtame®)
  • Saccharin (Sweet ‘N Low®)
  • Sucralose (Splenda®)

Types of plant-based sweeteners

Artificial sweeteners have been around for decades, but plant-based sugar substitutes are a newer option. Unlike artificial sweeteners, these natural sweeteners come from food sources. Some argue that makes them a healthier alternative to artificial sweeteners. Like artificial sweeteners, natural sweeteners are also typically many times sweeter than real sugar.

Commonly used plant-based sweeteners that are generally recognized as safe (GRAS) by the FDA include:

  • Monk fruit: This sugar substitute is made from an extract of the monk fruit, native to Southern China.
  • Stevia: This sweetener comes from steviol glycosides that are found in the leaves of the stevia rebodiana, a shrub native to South America. It’s important to note that raw stevia leaf and crude stevia extract are not permitted as sweeteners in the U.S.

Types of sugar alcohols

Sugar alcohols are typically less sweet than other artificially produced sugar substitutes. They are often used in snack foods, sugar-free candies and gum. One downside of sugar alcohols is that consuming too much can cause bloating, gas or diarrhea.

There are several different types of sugar alcohols you might see on a food label, including:

  • Erythritol
  • Isomalt
  • Lactitol
  • Maltitol
  • Sorbitol
  • Xylitol

Tips for enjoying a less sweet diet

The healthiest approach is to limit your intake of both real sugar and its substitutes. Start paying close attention to nutrition labels and ingredient lists on the products you buy. Look for ones that are low in added sugars, then scan the ingredients list to make sure they aren’t replacing sugar with a substitute.

Buying unsweetened varieties of products such as yogurt, oatmeal and cereal is another good place to start. Add fresh, frozen or dried fruit to give you that hint of sweetness without the health risks. You’ll get less sugar — and more good-for-you nutrients — in each bite.

Take the Next Step

To learn more about sugar substitutes, reach out to your primary care physician.

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