Craving something sweet, but shouldn’t have sugar? Thinking a sugar-free dessert or soda will hit the spot?
Maybe. Here’s the skinny on artificial sweeteners (aka sugar substitutes or non-nutritive sweeteners). And, what you should know about them before you indulge your sweet tooth in sugar-free treats.
Artificial sweeteners, or non-nutritive sweeteners, often replace sugar to sweeten foods, beverages, dental care products, and medications.
The first artificial sweetener, saccharin, was invented in 1879 by scientist Constantin Fahlberg at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, Maryland. (1) The invention was really an accident. Saccharin had a controversial beginning in part because, in 1906, Upton Sinclair wrote the book The Jungle. The book discusses the negative side of food additives and the manufacturing process of food in the U.S. (The book is an interesting read to this day if you have not read it.) (2)
Non-nutritive sweeteners have few or no calories or nutrients and come from plants, herbs, and/or even sugar itself. Something they have in common: their great intensity of sweetness (especially when compared to sugar). This means that manufacturers need smaller quantities to sweeten foods and beverages. Our bodies cannot metabolize some non-nutritive sweeteners and will pass through the digestive tract unchanged. Possible health benefits of using non-nutritive sweeteners are: 1) they don’t contribute to tooth decay, 2) and they don’t raise your blood sugar. (3) You should ask your doctor before using any sugar substitutes if you have diabetes. “Your body responds to artificial sweeteners differently than it does regular sugar.” (4) So, your doctor may want to follow your weight and blood sugar more closely.
The problem with artificial sweeteners is they can trick your brain into craving more, continuing to fuel your sugar addiction. They can be as addictive as sugar, as they overstimulate your sugar receptors and worsen the urge to eat sweets. And, the weight loss associated with using these sweeteners is not what you might think.
“In the report, published in the Canadian Medical Association Journal, researchers analyzed 37 studies on artificial sweeteners to see if they were successful for weight management. The studies followed more than 400,000 people for about 10 years. Seven of the studies were randomized controlled trials, a type considered to be the gold standard in scientific research. Artificial sweeteners did not appear to help people lose weight. Instead, observational studies that looked at consumption over time suggested that people who regularly consumed them—by drinking one or more artificially-sweetened beverages a day—had a higher risk for health issues like weight gain, obesity, diabetes, and heart disease.” (5)
So, while artificial sweeteners may keep your A1C down, please use them with caution and in moderation.
The U.S. Food and Drug Administration has approved 8 artificial sweeteners. They are: acesulfame potassium, advantame, aspartame, Luo Han Guo (monk) fruit extract, neotame, saccharin, stevia, and sucralose.
Acesulfame Potassium, aka Ace-K (marketed under name brands Sunnett® and Sweet One®). Ace-K, by itself, has a slightly bitter taste so is used in combination with other non-nutritive sweeteners. It is often found in sugar-free sodas, like Coke Zero Sugar, protein shakes, frozen desserts, candy, baked goods, etc. It is 200 times sweeter than sugar. (6) Ace-K often replaces sugar in baked goods as it is heat stable.
Safety tests began in the 1970s and the FDA approved acesulfame potassium in 1988. According to the FDA, more than 90 studies support its safety. (7) But in 1996, the Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI) urged the FDA to do more testing. They believed the initial tests in the 1970s were flawed and that there could be a link to cancer. The CSPI also claims that the breakdown of Ace-K in the body can result in changes to brain function. (8) However, the FDA’s research does not support these claims and it currently remains FDA approved.
Advantame is the newest FDA-approved non-nutritive sweetener (approved by the FDA in 2013). It is a whopping 20,000 times sweeter than sugar. (8) A Japanese company called Ajinomoto, which also makes the food additive MSG, created Advantame. (8) Advantame has no calories, no carbohydrates, and has no bitter after taste making it supposedly taste exactly like sugar. You can find it in certain gums, flavored drinks, milk products, and jams. Advantame is also a food flavoring because it is made with aspartame and vanillin, an artificial version of vanilla extract. As expected, there is some controversy. In June 2014, the CSPI objected to Advantame’s approval after some lab animals died. (8) It is currently still FDA approved.
Aspartame (marketed as Equal® or NutraSweet®) is approximately 200 times sweeter than table sugar. (9) Aspartame is a tabletop sweetener and in cereals, yogurt, frozen and gelatin desserts, candy, sugar-free gum, juices, diet sodas, etc. It too is often paired with other non-nutritive sweeteners to reduce the slightly bitter after taste. Aspartame is also in drugs such as vitamin supplements and laxatives. It has made itself recognizable in blue packets in restaurants and on coffee house condiment bars. Note: Those who have the genetic disorder Phenylketonuria (PKU) cannot consume Aspartame. Aspartame contains an amino acid (phenylalanine), which cannot be metabolized in people with PKU; therefore it builds up in the body and causes toxicity. PKU is often diagnosed at birth; so if you’ve never heard of this before, you likely don’t have to worry about it.
Lou Han Guo
Luo Han Guo, aka Monk Fruit Extract (marketed as the brand Monk Fruit in the Raw®), is a natural sweetener made from a small green melon native to China. China has used it as a sweetener for almost 1,000 years. It has no calories or carbohydrates and is about 150-250 times sweeter than sugar. (10) Monk Fruit also pairs well with other non-nutritive sweeteners.
The FDA approved monk fruit as generally recognized as safe (GRAS). But, it is relatively new to the mass market. Therefore, there are not many studies on any possible long-term effects. Monk fruit does have some anti-inflammatory properties according to Chinese researchers.(11) The Cons of monk fruit: its flavor and after taste is a bit of a turn-off; and it’s relatively untested. I have been baking with monk fruit lately and found that it performs almost like sugar. The measurements are not 1:1. So you will have to experiment with the right amount to sweeten your product properly.
Neotame is in low-calorie foods and beverages, but to a lesser extent than other sweeteners. It is about 8,000 to 13,000 times sweeter than sugar. (12) Neotame comes from aspartame and by the same company. Neotame extends the flavoring and sweetness of some flavors like mint. Neotame has a clean taste with a pleasant licorice after taste.
Saccharin (marketed as Sweet ‘N Low®, Sweet Twin®, and Sugar Twin®) is the oldest artificial sweetener on the market. Discovered in the late 1800s, it is 300 to 400 times sweeter than table sugar. (12) You can find it in the pink packet in restaurants and coffee houses.
Recent studies show no clear link to the development of cancer with long-term use; but in the 1970s, scientists thought there could be a correlation to the development of bladder cancer in lab animals. Because of this, saccharin was banned and soft drink manufacturers switched to aspartame. (12) Today saccharin is in gum, canned fruit, dessert toppings, toothpaste, mouthwash, jams, medications, and vitamins. The FDA states people can consume up to 2.3 mg of saccharin per pound of bodyweight without risk. (12) One packet of saccharin has 36 milligrams. So, if you weigh 154 pounds, you can safely consume almost 10 packets a day.
Stevia (brands Truvia®, Stevia in the Raw®, SweetLeaf® Sweet Drops™, Sun Crystals®, and PureVia®) comes from from the leaves of the stevia plant, native to South America. It is 100 to 300 sweeter than sugar and has no calories, carbohydrates, or artificial ingredients. (12) Stevia is in a wide range of foods and beverages, including teas and juices, and as a tabletop sweetener. Since it does have a slightly bitter taste, many choose to pair it with another artificial sweetener as well. Look for the green packets, and you’ll find them in more and more places.
Not everyone likes the way stevia tastes. The most common complaint is that it’s bitter. It is popular in soft drinks and flavored waters and as a tabletop sweetener. The FDA only approved the purified form of Stevia known as stevioside. So, if you see whole or crude stevia leaves as an ingredient, don’t buy them. The FDA has not studied the effects on the kidneys or the heart. Look for purified stevia or stevioside on your ingredient label. I cannot recommend cooking with stevia. Stevia has different chemical properties than sugar and produces a weird texture. Try it yourself and see what you think.
Sucralose (brands Splenda® and Equal Sucralose®) is 600 times sweeter than sugar. (12) Sucralose is very versatile and can replace sugar in cooking and baking. It is in many low-calorie foods and beverages, like baked goods, desserts, canned fruits, dairy products, syrups, and tabletop sweeteners. Look for the yellow packet to find sucralose. Sucralose is made from sugar, so its taste is closer to sugar than most other non-nutritive sweeteners. It does not have an aftertaste. One interesting characteristic about sucralose is that we cannot digest it. So, it passes through the GI tract without breaking down. Some studies have shown that sucralose can alter the biome of the gut and kill beneficial bacteria. (7) These good bacteria help us maintain a healthy immune system. Studies have also shown that sucralose can increase our body’s inflammation. (12) But overall, it is one of the safest non-nutritive sweeteners.
- Hicks, Jesse. “The Pursuit of Sweet.” Distillations,” Science History Institute, May 2, 2010, https://www.sciencehistory.org/distillations/the-pursuit-of-sweet.
- Mayo Clinic Staff. “Artificial Sweeteners and Other Sugar Substitutes.” “Healthy Lifestyle; Nutrition and Healthy Eating.” Mayo Clinic.org, October 8, 2020, https://www.mayoclinic.org/healthy-lifestyle/nutrition-and-healthy-eating/in-depth/artificial-sweeteners/art-20046936
- Healthline Editorial Team. “The Best Sugar Substitutes for People with Diabetes.” “Should you use artificial sweeteners?” Healthline.com, April 13, 2020, https://www.healthline.com/health/type-2-diabetes/diabetes-stevia
- Sifferlin, Alexandra. “Artificial Sweeteners are Linked to Weight Gain-Not Weight Loss.” Time-Time Guide to Weight Loss,” Time USA, LLC, 2021, https://time.com/collection/guide-to-weight-loss/4859012/artificial-sweeteners-weight-loss/
- “What is Acesulfame Potassium.” “Nourish by WebMD,” WebMD LLC, https://www.webmd.com/diet/what-is-acesulfame-potassium#1
- Schaefer, Anna. “Is Acesulfame Potassium Bad for Me?” “Healthline Nutrition,” Healthline Media, November 10, 2017, https://www.healthline.com/health/type-2-diabetes/diabetes-stevia#tagatose
- “Sugar and Sweetener Guide.” “Sugar and Sweetener Guide,” Gingerbread Lane, http://www.sugar-and-sweetener-guide.com/advantame.html
- “Aspartame.” European Food Safety Authority,” European Food Safety Authority an agency of the European Union, June 29, 2011, https://www.efsa.europa.eu/en/topics/topic/aspartame
- McDermott, Annette. “Monk Fruit vs. Stevia: Which Sweetener Should You Use?” “Healthline,” April 15, 2019, https://www.healthline.com/health/food-nutrition/monk-fruit-vs-stevia
- Yaping Zhou, Zuomin Hu, Fan Ye, Tianyi Guo, Yi Luo, Wenshen Zhou, Dandan Qin, Yiping Tang, Fuliang Cao, Feijun Luo, Qinlu Lin. Mogroside V exerts anti-inflammatory effect via MAPK-NF-κB/AP-1 and AMPK-PI3K/Akt/mTOR pathways in ulcerative colitis. Journal of Functional Foods 2021, 87, 104807. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jff.2021.104807
- “Additional Information about High Intensity Sweeteners Permitted for Use in Food in the United States.” “US Food And Drug Administration,” FDA.gov, https://www.fda.gov/food/food-additives-petitions/additional-information-about-high-intensity-sweeteners-permitted-use-food-united-states