Sugar Substitutes/Artificial Sweeteners

By: Kim Beavers Email
By: Kim Beavers Email

Nutritive sweeteners are sweeteners that contain calories; non-nutritive are sweeteners that contain no calories. There is always a little controversy over artificial sweeteners, and these days there is also controversy revolving around sugar and other caloric sweeteners.

As a result of a recently published large-scale study that suggested sugar-sweetened beverages may raise the risk of heart disease in women, the American Heart Association stated that we need to reduce our sugar intake. Guidelines are for women to cut intake to 100 calories a day of added sugar (5 teaspoons), and men to 150 calories a day (9 teaspoons). That may seem drastic. However, when you consider that a significant portion of the added sugar in our diet comes from sodas and other sugar sweetened beverages it is easier to understand the rationale for the restriction.

Basically, when the number of calories in our diet from added sugar goes up, the quality of our diet goes down. Cutting back on the intake of sugared beverages is a great place to start in reducing overall sugar intake.

A good rule of thumb for using sugar

Use sugar to enhance the flavor of nutrient-rich foods. For example, add a little sugar to a bowl of berries or add a bit of honey to your morning oatmeal to increase consumption of those nutritious foods.

What about artificial sweeteners?

Artificial sweeteners have a place in the healthy diet, and having more to choose from is always nice. Artificial sweeteners are particularly helpful for someone following a diabetes diet or someone trying to cut calories. Recently several new sweeteners have hit the supermarket shelf, partially due to the FDA approval of Stevia for use in food and beverages.

Common sugar substitutes are:

  • Saccharine (Sweet-n-Low, Sweet Twin, Sugar Twin): Heat stable; suitable for cooking and baking. Can be found in beverages, processed food and as a table sweetener.

  • Aspartame (NutraSweet, Equal): Not heat stable or suitable for baking. Can be found in beverages, processed food and as a table top sweetener. The American Dietetic Association Evidence Review Library recently reviewed the scientific evidence on aspartame and declared that aspartame was "not associated with adverse effects in the general population”.

    • Special note: People with phenylketonuria (PKU) can not break down phenylalanine (a component of aspartame), so aspartame sweetened products should be avoided by people with PKU.

  • Acesulfmae Poatssium (Sunett, Sweet One): Heat stable and is often blended with other low calorie sweeteners for use in foods and beverages.

  • Sucrolose: (Splenda): Heat stable. Can be found in beverages, processed foods and as a tabletop sweetener. Comes in a baking mix to achieve baking success. Keep in mind the baking mix is mixed with sugar, so it is therefore not calorie free. Also be sure to read the label to determine the amount of baking mix to substitute in your recipe.

  • Stevia/Rebiana or Reb A: (PureVIa, Truvia, Sun Crystals*): Reb A is derived from the leaf of the stevia plant. Stevia is combined with the sugar alcohol erythritol in some of the new products. Erythritol is used as a bulking agent in the sweetener and does not provide any calories because it can not be broken down by the body.

    • *Special Note: Sun Crystals is Reb A combined with cane sugar. It contains 5 calories and 1g carbohydrate per serving from sugar. If multiple servings of this product are consumed in one sitting, the carbohydrate may need to be counted in a diabetes diet.

Which sugar substitute is best?

That really depends on your taste buds. Many commercially-developed products using sugar substitutes combine sweeteners, which can help to mask the differing aftertastes. Another factor that may make your decision is price. The newer the sweetener is, the higher the cost of the product. Many of the older sweeteners are available as generic versions that offer tremendous cost savings.

Are sugar substitutes safe?

This question comes up quite frequently. The first thing to remember is that sugar and sugar substitutes should NOT comprise a significant portion of any diet. A healthy diet should follow the dietary guidelines: be rich in fruit, vegetables, and whole grains and low in saturated fat. According to the American Dietetic Association, sugar substitutes can safely be consumed with in the context of a healthy diet.

Good reasons to use sugar substitutes:

  • May assist with weight management by replacing more calorie-rich sweeteners

  • May help with blood glucose control, allowing for consumption of sweetened foods with little glycemic affect

  • May help to prevent cavities

The choice to use sugar substitutes is highly personal and may be based on individual medical conditions. Whether you are a straight “natural” sugar user or like to go the route of sugar substitutes, remember to focus on healthful whole foods first and save the sweets for special occasions.


American Dietetic Association. Position of the American Dietetic Association: Use of nutritive and nonnutritive sweeteners. J Am Diet Assoc. 2004; 104(2): 255-275.

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