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Ingredient Articles

Sweetener Comparisons

There’s a lot of misleading information out there about sweeteners.   Whether your goal is cutting calories or eating healthier, there are several sugar substitutes to choose from.  This short sweetener comparison will help you understand the pros and cons so you can make an informed choice.

Today artificial sweeteners and other sugar substitutes are found in a variety of food and beverages marketed as sugar-free or diet, including soft drinks, jellies, baked goods, candy, fruit juice, and ice cream and yogurt. So let’s take a look at these sweeteners and their role in your diet.

Understanding artificial sweeteners and other sugar substitutes

Sugar substitutes are loosely considered any sweetener that you use instead of regular table sugar (sucrose).  Artificial sweeteners are just one type of sugar substitute.  For reference, the following chart lists some popular sugar substitutes and how they're commonly categorized.

Artificial sweeteners

Sugar alcohols

Novel sweeteners

Natural sweeteners

Acesulfame potassium (Sunett, Sweet One)


Stevia extracts                      (Pure Via, Truvia)

Agave nectar

Aspartame (Equal, NutraSweet)

Hydrogenated starch




Date sugar




Fruit juice concentrate

Saccharin                     (SugarTwin, Sweet' N Low)




Sucralose (Splenda)






Maple syrup


Researching sugar substitutes can be confusing.  One problem is that the terminology is often open to interpretation.  Some manufacturers call their sweeteners natural even though they're processed or refined, as is the case with stevia preparations.  And some artificial sweeteners are derived from naturally occurring substances… for example, sucralose comes from sugar.  Yet regardless of how they're classified, sugar substitutes are only one factor in weight loss.  Let’s take a closer look at some of these.

Artificial sweeteners

Artificial sweeteners are synthetic sugar substitutes but may be derived from naturally occurring substances, including herbs or sugar itself.  Artificial sweeteners are also known as intense sweeteners because they are many times sweeter than regular sugar.

Uses for artificial sweeteners

Artificial sweeteners are attractive alternatives to sugar because they add virtually no calories to your diet.  In addition, you need only a fraction compared with the amount of sugar you would normally use for sweetness.

In addition to commercial processing applications, artificial sweeteners are popular for home use. Some can even be used in baking or cooking.  Certain recipes may need modification, though, because artificial sweeteners provide no bulk or volume, as does sugar.  Check the labels on artificial sweeteners for appropriate home use.  Some artificial sweeteners also leave an aftertaste so you may need to experiment with artificial sweeteners to find one or a combination that you enjoy most.

Possible health benefits of artificial sweeteners

One benefit of artificial sweeteners is that they don't contribute to tooth decay and cavities. They may also help with the following:

Weight control: One of the most appealing aspects of artificial sweeteners is that they are non-nutritive — they have virtually no calories.  In contrast, each gram of regular table sugar contains 4 calories.  A teaspoon of sugar is about 4 grams. For perspective, consider that one 12-ounce can of a sweetened cola contains 8 teaspoons of added sugar, or about 130 calories. If you're trying to lose weight or prevent weight gain, products sweetened with artificial sweeteners rather than with higher calorie table sugar may be an attractive option. On the other hand, some research has suggested that consuming artificial sweeteners may be associated with increased weight, but the cause is not yet known.  We have our own theories on this yet we won’t go into that in this article.

Diabetes:  Artificial sweeteners may be a good alternative to sugar if you have diabetes. Unlike sugar, artificial sweeteners generally don't raise blood sugar levels because they are not carbohydrates.  But because of concerns about how sugar substitutes are labeled and categorized, always check with your doctor or dietitian about using any sugar substitutes if you have diabetes.

Possible health concerns with artificial sweeteners

Artificial sweeteners have been the subject of intense scrutiny for decades. Critics of artificial sweeteners say that they cause a variety of health problems, including cancer.  That's largely because of studies dating to the 1970s that linked saccharin to bladder cancer in laboratory rats. Because of those studies, saccharin once carried a warning label that it may be hazardous to your health.

But according to the National Cancer Institute and other health agencies, there's no sound scientific evidence that any of the artificial sweeteners approved for use in the U.S. cause cancer or other serious health problems.  And numerous research studies confirm that artificial sweeteners are generally safe in limited quantities, even for pregnant women.  As a result of the newer studies, the warning label for saccharin was dropped.  Yet those warnings still ring in our memories…

Artificial sweeteners are regulated by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) as food additives.  They must be reviewed and approved by the FDA before being made available for sale.  The FDA has also established an acceptable daily intake for each artificial sweetener.  This is the maximum amount considered safe to consume each day over the course of your lifetime.

Sugar alcohols and novel sweeteners

Sugar alcohols (polyols) are carbohydrates that occur naturally in certain fruits and vegetables, but they also can be manufactured.  They're not considered intense sweeteners, because they aren't sweeter than sugar.  In fact, some are less sweet than sugar.  As with artificial sweeteners, the FDA regulates the use of sugar alcohols.

Sugar alcohols aren't considered non-caloric or non-nutritive sweeteners because they contain calories.  But they're lower in calories than is regular sugar, making them an attractive alternative.  Despite their name, sugar alcohols aren't alcoholic.  They don't contain ethanol, which is found in alcoholic beverages.

Novel sweeteners are combinations of various types of sweeteners.  Novel sweeteners, such as stevia, are hard to fit into one particular category because of what they're made from and how they're made.  Note that although the FDA has approved highly refined stevia preparations as a novel sweetener, it has not approved whole-leaf stevia or crude stevia extracts for this use.

Tagatose and trehalose are considered novel sweeteners because of their chemical structure. Tagatose is a low-carbohydrate sweetener similar to fructose that occurs naturally but is also manufactured from lactose in dairy products.  Foods containing tagatose can't be labeled as sugar-free.  A fun fact is that Trehalose is found naturally in mushrooms.

Uses for sugar alcohols

Sugar alcohols generally aren't used when you prepare food at home.  Rather, they are found in many processed foods and other products, including chocolate, candy, frozen desserts, toothpaste, mouthwash, baked goods and fruit spreads, usually replacing sugar on an equal basis.

When added to foods, sugar alcohols add sweetness, bulk and texture. They also help food stay moist, prevent browning when heated and add a cooling sensation to products.  Sugar alcohols are often combined with artificial sweeteners to enhance sweetness.  Check the food label to see if a product contains sugar alcohols.  Food labels may list the specific name, such as xylitol, or simply use the general term sugar alcohol.

There are so many artificial sweeteners out there that it's difficult to keep them straight.  And with all the information swirling around about the safety of each one, some of which are pure myths, it can be hard to know which to choose. If you're a fan of sugar substitutes, here's a list of the artificial sweeteners and the big pros and cons of each.

Acesulfame Potassium (Sunett and Sweet One)

Calories: 0

History: Was approved by the FDA as a general-purpose sweetener in 2002

General Info: 200 times sweeter than regular sugar; the body can't break it down, so it's excreted from the body unchanged,

Pros: No evidence of its connection to an increase in cancer risk or affect to blood-sugar levels; approved for consumption by pregnant women in moderation

Cons: Has a bitter taste on its own; the consumer group Center for Science in the Public Interest believes that studies on this sweetener were poorly done and that they didn't test its potential cancer-causing risks

Used for baking? Yes

Aspartame (NutraSweet and Equal)

Calories: 4 calories per gram

History: In 1996, the FDA approved its use in foods and beverages

General Info: 80 to 200 times sweeter than regular sugar; 70 percent of all aspartame is used in diet sodas; The FDA has set the acceptable daily intake (ADI) at 50 mg per kilogram of body weight which translates to about four (12-oz.) cans of diet soda per day;

Pros: Approved for consumption by pregnant women, as long as they follow the FDA's guidelines; FDA sees no connection between aspartame and cancer

Cons: Some people may have a sensitivity to aspartame and may experience headaches, dizziness, mood changes, or skin reactions after consuming it

Used for baking? No


Calories: 0

History: Approved by the FDA in 2002

General Info: 8,000 times sweeter than regular sugar; it's a chemical derivative of aspartame

Pros:Approved for pregnant women; safe for diabetics since it doesn't affect insulin levels; no evidence of its connection to an increase cancer risk

Cons: Consumer groups contend that neotame may be as toxic (or more) as aspartame, since both sweeteners contain a compound that breaks down to methanol

Used for baking? Yes

Saccharin (Sweet'N Low)

Calories: 0

History: The FDA proposed a ban on it in 1977 when lab rats that were fed huge amounts contracted bladder cancer. The ban was never enacted though, and the warning label was dropped in 2000

General Info: 300 times sweeter than regular sugar; it's a molecule made from petroleum

Pros: Since 1981 government reports had listed it as an "anticipated human carcinogen," but it was removed from the list in 2000

Cons: Few studies have been done regarding its effects on infants and children, although its use in formula may cause irritability and muscle dysfunction, so they should consume it in small quantities or not at all; although the FDA has not imposed any limitations, studies show saccharin crosses the placenta and may remain in fetal tissue, so pregnant women are advised to use saccharin sparingly or not at all

Used for baking? Yes

Sorbitol and Mannitol

Calories: 2.6 calories per gram

History: The FDA approved them in 1971 and designates them as "Generally Recognized as Safe" (GRAS)

General Info: Both are sugar alcohols that occur naturally in fruits but are usually derived from corn syrup

Pros: Absorbed by the body slowly; combines well with other ingredients; no evidence that it has adverse health effects on humans

Cons: May cause digestive upset or have laxative effect when consumed in large quantities

Used for baking? Yes

Stevia (Pure Via, Nutria)

Calories: 0

History: Stevia leaves are not yet approved by the FDA, but highly purified Rebaudioside A (derived from Stevia leaves) is considered GRAS

General Info: Stevia extract is made from the Stevia plant, which is native to South America; has been used in South America for centuries and in Japan for the past 30 years

Pros: It's naturally derived although some argue that it is an artificial sweetener since commercially made Stevia extract involves a refining process; some research shows it can lower blood pressure and blood sugar levels; safe for pregnant women

Cons: Since Stevia is sold as a dietary supplement, the FDA does not regulate it

Used for baking? Yes

Sucralose (Splenda)

Calories: 0

History: Approved by the FDA in 1999

General Info: Contains maltodextrin to bulk it up, is 600 times sweeter than regular sugar

Pros: After 110 studies and over 20 years of research, the FDA concluded that sucralose has nontoxic or carcinogenic effects and poses no reproductive or neurological risks to people

Cons: Bulking agents add about 12 calories per tablespoon of Splenda (although the nutritional info doesn't list these calories)

Used for baking? Yes


Calories: 2.4 calories per gram

History: Approved by the FDA in 1963 as a food additive

General Info: Can be derived from various berries, oats, and mushrooms, as well as corn husks, but commercially is made from xylan, which is extracted from hardwoods or corncobs; used as a diabetic sweetener

Pros: It can actually benefit the teeth; doesn't affect insulin levels; has been shown to reduce the incidence of acute middle ear infection

Cons: May have a laxative effect; is a life-threatening toxin to dogs; consuming extremely high doses for long periods (over three years) may cause tumors, safety for pregnant and nursing moms is unknown

Used for baking? Yes

Approved sugar substitutes have gone through extensive studies to get the okay from the FDA, and there have been no widespread claims of health issues regarding any of these sweeteners.  Experiment with them to find out which best fit your goals, lifestyle and tastes.


By Mike Beatty

30 October 2013


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