In our world, sugar is practically a dirty word.
Maybe you’ve seen all the bad press about the sweet stuff and decided to make the switch to sugar substitutes. Are those sugar-free foods and artificial sweeteners really all that much better for you?
Turns out the answer is just like your favorite celebrity’s relationship status: complicated.
“Sugar-free foods with artificial sweeteners are typically lower in calories than foods containing added sugars,” explains Diane Javelli, a registered dietitian at the Nutrition Clinic at UW Medical Center – Montlake. “This can be helpful in curbing calories, but there is debate about their role in long-term weight loss.”
To help you separate your sucrose from your saccharin, Javelli weighs the pros and cons of sugar substitutes and how you can choose the right option for you.
What’s the difference between sugar, added sugar and sugar substitutes?
There are three overarching categories for the various types of sugar you can find in food and drinks. It’s important to know the difference because, contrary to popular belief, not all sugar deserves scorn.
Naturally occurring sugars are the ones you find in fresh fruit (fructose), milk (lactose) and grains (maltose and dextrose). Just like their name implies, they occur naturally and are considered perfectly fine to include in a well-balanced diet, Javelli says.
Added sugars, on the other hand, are things like high-fructose corn syrup, sugar cane (sucrose) and honey that are added during processing or packaging. These are less-than-ideal sugars because they’re for flavoring alone, contribute no nutrients and add a ton of calories.
Take a can of regular soda, for example. A 12-ounce serving contains eight teaspoons of added sugar, or the equivalent of 130 calories. If you look at it in terms of healthy eating guidelines, in which no more than 10% of your daily calories — or 200 calories in a 2,000-calorie diet — should be from added sugars, that’s a lot of empty calories to consume in one go.
What about those “diet” soda options that contain zero calories? Well, that’s where the third category of sugar — sugar substitutes — comes into play.
Sugar substitutes, also known as artificial sweeteners or non-nutritive sweeteners, are manufactured or processed sweeteners that don’t contain any calories. Popular ones include aspartame (Equal), sucralose (Splenda), acesulfame K (Ace-K) and stevia-based extracts (Truvia and Stevia in the Raw), which can be anywhere from 200 to 20,000 times sweeter than regular old table sugar.
(It's worth noting that raw stevia leaf and crude stevia extracts do not have FDA approval for use in food, so stevia-based sweeteners on the market are still considered high-intensity sweeteners.)
As for how sugar substitutes fare in the healthy or not healthy debate, Javelli says it’s all about knowing what’s appropriate for you.
What are the health benefits of sugar substitutes?
“Probably the best use for sugar substitutes is in reducing overall carbohydrate intake for those with diabetes,” Javelli explains. “Enjoying an artificially sweetened food may help satisfy some taste cravings without causing a rapid rise in blood sugar.”
What she means is that artificial sweeteners found in sugar-free foods are a good alternative for those looking to eat something that tastes sweet without having to worry about their glucose levels.
As for whether sugar substitutes are a healthy choice if you’re just trying to eat healthier or lose weight, she says it depends on your eating habits. If you’re someone who has difficulty with portion control or controlling your cravings, artificially sweetened foods might be the way to go to avoid extra calories.
If you’re good at knowing your limits, however, Javelli says it might actually be better to just go for the real stuff.
“There is some research that sugar substitutes may not satisfy cravings as well as a little bit of the real thing,” she explains. “I’m a big proponent of eating small amounts of the real thing as long as it doesn’t trigger overindulging.”
Why are artificial sweeteners unhealthy?
While artificial sweeteners may seem like a sweet deal — um, hello, no calories? — they’re not without their sour notes.
“Usually the more processing a food goes through, the less nutrient value it has,” Javelli says. “That includes sugar-free foods that use these artificial sweeteners, so typically, these should be consumed in moderation because they don’t add significant vitamins, minerals, protein or fiber.”
Another thing to keep in mind is that just because a food or beverage is labeled as free of sugar doesn’t mean it’s necessarily healthy.
“Foods with sugar substitutes may still be high in fat, calories and carbohydrates, so portion size and frequency of consumption are key to both weight and blood sugar control,” Javelli notes.
Aside from their tricky ingredient lists, foods sweetened with sugar substitutes can also lead to what’s called compensatory consumption. Basically, if you know that your diet soda doesn’t contain any calories, you might be more inclined to reward yourself with a dessert or snack later on in the day. In the end, it all adds up to an equally unhealthy result.
The bottom line
Whether it’s naturally occurring sugars, added sugars or sugar substitutes, the right type of sweetener for you depends largely on your nutritional and health needs.
The most important thing is to make sure you look into the fat, calorie and nutritional content of your food and beverages so you know exactly what you’re getting. If you’re not sure, opt for less processed foods or ask your doctor to refer you to a registered dietitian.
“People who have questions about the best diet for their health or who have diabetes can work with their registered dietitians to determine the best alternatives and amounts to meet their individual needs,” Javelli says.