Sugar Substitutes and Artificial Sweeteners

Key Facts
  • Sugar substitutes are used to sweeten food and drinks without adding sugar.
  • Sugar alcohols, stevia, monk fruit extract, and artificial sweeteners are all types of sugar substitutes.
  • Most sugar substitutes are considered safe if used in moderation.7
  • Young men's version of this guide

artificial sweeteners

Sugar substitutes (sometimes called low-calorie or artificial sweeteners) are ingredients used to sweeten foods and beverages instead of sugar. There are a variety of foods on the market that contain sugar substitutes. Some food companies advertise this on food labels such as claiming they are “sugar free”. For other foods, you may need to look closely at the ingredient list to find out if a food contains a sugar substitute. Common products that contain sugar substitutes are diet soda, sugar-free syrup, gum, low-fat or sugar free ice cream, fruit cups, yogurt, and pudding. If a food tastes sweet but is very low in calories or has “no added sugars”, chances are it contains sugar substitutes. There are different kinds of sugar substitutes including artificial sweeteners (such as Splenda®, Sweet n’ Low®, Equal® etc.), plant-derived sweeteners (such as stevia), and sugar alcohols (such as erythritol, sorbitol and mannitol). There are both benefits and possible downsides to using sugar substitutes.

Benefits of sugar substitutes:

  • Have few or no calories
  • Causes a slow rise in blood sugar compared to a quick spike caused by natural sugars
  • Do not cause tooth decay or cavities

 Potential downsides of sugar substitutes:

  • Little to no nutritional value- no fiber, vitamins or minerals
  • May alter taste buds to make naturally sweet foods (like fruit) less appealing
  • May cause upset stomach (cramps, diarrhea etc.)

What are artificial sweeteners?

Artificial sweeteners are chemicals that are sweeter than sugar, so a much smaller amount is needed to have the same sweetness as sugar. Some artificial sweeteners are up to 700 times sweeter than sugar! Artificial sweeteners provide zero to very few calories and contain no nutrients.

Examples of artificial sweeteners include:

  • Saccharin (Sweet’N Low®, SugarTwin®)
  • Acesulfame K (Sunett®, Sweet One®)
  • Sucralose (Splenda®)
  • Aspartame (NutraSweet®, Equal®)

Products containing aspartame have a warning label on their package because they are NOT safe for use by people that have the hereditary disease Phenylketonuria (PKU). Pregnant women may be advised by their health care provider to avoid saccharin due to the unknown long-term effects. The long term effects of high consumption of foods/drinks with artificial sweeteners in young people is also unknown.

What is stevia?

Stevia is the common name for sweeteners such as PureVia® and Truvia® that are found naturally in the stevia rebaudiana plant. Unlike other sugar substitutes, stevia originates from a plant rather than being a manmade chemical, however, chemicals are still used in the processing of stevia. Stevia sweeteners provide no calories and can be found in packets and in a variety of drinks and foods. If you are trying to avoid sugar substitutes, it is important to note that stevia sweetened products may say “naturally sweetened” so it’s always a good idea to check out the ingredient list too!

What is monk fruit extract?

Monk fruit extract, or norbu, is the main ingredient in the sweeteners of PureLo®, Monk Fruit in the Raw®, and Nectresse®. It can be found in foods such as Artic Zero® frozen desserts and Capri Sun® beverages. Monk fruit extract is made from the monk fruit, a fruit regional to Southeast Asia. The liquid from the seeds and the pulp of the monk fruit plant are squeezed out to obtain the juice. The juices of this fruit are extremely sweet, so can be used in very small quantities to sweeten foods and beverages. Monk fruit extract contains no calories. Just like stevia, products that say “naturally sweetened” may contain monk fruit extract so be sure to check the ingredient list.

What are sugar alcohols?

Sugar alcohols are carbohydrates found in plant products. In order to use sugar alcohols as a sweetener, they are altered in a laboratory environment to make them usable in sugar-free and reduced-sugar foods. Sugar alcohols are typically slightly less sweet than sugar and provide less calories per gram than sugar. Sugar alcohols can be tough on the stomach and can cause irritation such as gas and diarrhea because they are not completely digested by the body. Foods that contain sugar alcohols often include the label “excess consumption may have a laxative effect” on the packaging. It is also important to note that sugar alcohols are carbohydrates so still have an impact on blood sugar levels. Sugar alcohols are used in sugar-free candy and gum, low-calorie baked goods, ice cream and soft drinks.

Examples of sugar alcohols include:

  • Sorbitol
  • Mannitol
  • Zylitol
  • Isomalt
  • Lactitol
  • Maltitol
  • Erythritol

Are sugar substitutes safe?

There are eight sugar substitutes that have been proven to be safe (GRAS) by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA): saccharin, aspartame, acesulfame-K, sucralose, neotame, advantame, stevoil glycosides (stevia), and luo han guo fruit extracts (monk fruit). The FDA has also set an “acceptable daily intake” (ADI) for each sweetener, which is an amount they feel is safe to have each day, and is backed by research. ADIs are calculated per kg of body weight. Like most foods and nutrients, each individual person has unique nutrition needs based on their body weight. Calculating the ADIs for yourself is not important but you may want to stick to having less than 5 packets per day of any artificial sweetener

Sugar substitutes have not been shown to increase the risk of chronic diseases. Even though these substitutes are generally recognized as safe, they do not provide any nutritional benefits. The healthiest, most nutrient dense foods and drinks (such as fruits, vegetables, milk and water) do not contain sugar substitutes.

Sweetener ADI* In milligrams (mg) per pound (lb) of body weight Average sweetness compared to sugar
(NutraSweet®, Equal®)
22.7 mg per lb 200 times sweeter
(Sweet’N Low®, SugarTwin®)
2.3 mg per lb 200-700 times sweeter
Acesulfame K
(Sunett®, Sweet One®)
6.8 mg per lb 200 times sweeter
2.3 mg per lb 600 times sweeter
(Good & Sweet®, PureVia®, Truvia®)
1.8 mg per lb** 200-300 times sweeter
Monk Fruit Extract
(Monk Fruit in the Raw® and Nectresse®)
Not yet established 200 times sweeter
*FDA-established acceptable daily intake (ADI) limit per pound of body weight

**Joint FAO-WHO Expert Committee on Food Additives – established ADI limit per pound of body weight

Information adapted from United States Food & Drug Administration

Are there any other sugar-free ways to make my food taste sweet (without adding sugar substitutes)?

Yes! There are plenty of other sugar-free ways to make your foods more flavorful without adding sugar substitutes. Experiment with adding spices such as nutmeg and cinnamon to yogurt, cooked cereals, cookies, or coffee. You can also consider adding flavors such as vanilla and cocoa powder to puddings and baked goods.

There are also many options for natural sugar-free sweeteners that you may want to give a try. These include things like maple syrup, honey, agave, coconut sugar and beet sugar. All of these sweeteners will still turn into sugar in the body so if you are told to limit sugar for certain medical conditions, these should be limited as well.

The majority of foods that you eat daily should come from nutrient-dense foods and drinks like fruits, vegetables, whole grains, lean protein, dairy, and water. Eating foods from a variety of food groups in a balanced way, similar to MyPlate, will ensure your body is getting the nutrition it needs.

Sugar substitutes can be used as a safe alternative to sugar, however, it is important that we use them in moderation and eat mostly foods without added sugar or sugar substitutes.