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Sugar Substitutes: Are they safe?

posted Dec 6, 2017, 6:40 AM by Tracy Ducker, MS, RDN

Sugar substitutes are one of the most widely tested food additive. But are they safe? We’ll discuss some of the concerns along with some of the benefits. Sugar substitutes are any sweetener used instead of table sugar.  There are many types of sugar substitutes including artificial sweeteners, sugar alcohols, novel sweeteners and natural sweeteners. Each have pros and cons and a variety of uses.

Artificial sweeteners – are synthetic and made from naturally occurring substances or chemicals. They are calorie free and many times sweeter than table sugar, so only a little is needed. They are mainly used in the diet beverage industry, and to sweeten foods and drinks at home.

Pros: Calorie free which may help in weight loss, don’t typically rise blood sugar because they aren’t carbohydrates (check with your doctor or  dietitian before using artificial sweeteners if you have diabetes)

Cons: A study from the 1970’s involving saccharin showed it caused cancer in rats, and a warning label was required. Since then studies have shown no links to cancer in humans and the warning            label was removed. Some artificial sweeteners leave an aftertaste.

           Examples: Sucralose (Splenda), Aspartame (Nutrasweet), Saccharin (Sweet n Low).

Natural Sweeteners – are promoted as being healthier than table sugar and other sugar substitutes however these often are processed and refined. Typically they are used at home as a sweetener, and also used in processed foods.

Pros: Generally safe, some studies have shown that honey has antioxidant, antimicrobial, and anti-inflammatory properties.

        Cons: Can cause cavities, contain calories and carbohydrates so those with diabetes need to plan accordingly.

Examples: honey, agave nectar, molasses, fruit juice, maple syrup

Sugar Alcohols-  are commonly found in processed foods like chocolate, frozen desserts, candy and baked goods. They are about the same sweetness as table sugar and can occur naturally in some fruits and vegetables but are also manufactured.

       Pros: typically less sweet than sugar and therefore less calories (unless you use more to achieve the same taste. Don’t contribute to tooth decay and have less effect on blood sugars because             They aren’t absorbed completely.

       Cons: can cause diarrhea, gas and bloating in higher amounts

       Examples: Xylitol, Mannitol, Sorbitol

Novel Sweeteners - are relatively new to the market and are combinations of a variety of sweeteners. They typically contain some carbohydrate.

Pros: many are low in calories

     Cons: not tightly regulated- one stevia compound may be 100% stevia but         

another may not.

Examples: Stevia, Tagatos and Trehalose

So, are they safe? The FDA regulates artificial sweeteners, sugar alcohols and novel sweeteners and studies have shown that in small reasonable amounts they are safe. However, just because they are ‘natural’ or calorie free doesn’t mean you can eat the entire bag of sugar free cookies. Many of the foods containing these products contain empty calories, with little or no nutritional value and are highly processed.

If you are looking to cut back on your sugar intake, try choosing smaller portions, look for lower sugar alternatives like graham crackers instead of chocolate chip cookies, or plain yogurt with fruit.

For more information on sugar substitutes click here.