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How Sweet It Is: Sugars Versus Artificial Sweeteners

By H.K. Jones

It's a manmade world we live in. Artificial sweeteners are everywhere from sodas, cereals, and yogurt to ice cream, cookies, and cake mixes. And supermarket shelves are crammed with diet products labeled “reduced sugar” this and “no added sugar” that. So what's a health-conscious but sweets-craving guy to do? Is there such a thing as an ideal artificial sweetener? Educate yourself about the basics of sugars and sugar substitutes before you hit the stores in search of something sweet to eat.

The Real Deal—Sugar Defined
Regular sweeteners, such as white and brown table sugar, molasses, honey, and syrup, provide about four calories per gram—similar to any other carbohydrate you obtain from food. Sugar itself is not a "bad" substance; it's a fast-acting energy source that the body can quickly use to fuel its tissues. That explains why you see so many Gatorade bottles out on the playing fields and power gels on the marathon course. So why do nutritionists and health advocates make such a big deal about consuming sugars? Two primary reasons:

  1. Overconsumption: Consumption of sugars has skyrocketed in the past century. Americans (and increasingly the rest of the world) eat way too much sugar, most of it hidden as corn syrup in the foods we buy at the supermarket. From sodas (the worst) to salad dressings, sugars lurk just about everywhere. The end result? The body converts all of those excess sugar calories to a storable energy source—that's right, fat. A lot of fat, as the growing obesity epidemic shows.
  2. So-called "empty" calories: Sugars provide few additional nutrients such as vitamins and minerals (molasses and honey provide small levels of some nutrients). The more of these "empty" calories people eat, the fewer complex carbohydrates—fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and legumes—they tend to ingest. That means less essential vitamins, minerals, and fiber in their diets.
Sugar Alcohols—Less Calories, More Bloating
Low-calorie sweeteners or sugar alcohols—such as sorbitol, xylitol, mannitol, maltitol, lactitol, isomalt, and erythritol—contain fewer calories per gram than real sugars. You’ll find sugar alcohols in packaged foods (look for them in the ingredient list), but the body digests them poorly and they may cause a laxative effect, not to mention gas and bloating (fun!), if consumed in large amounts. This helps explain why you don't hear about them much in commercials.

Artificial Sweeteners—No Calories, Potential Safety Concerns
No-calorie sweeteners are the true "artificial" sweeteners. These substances share two primary characteristics that enable them to provide sweetness without calories: First, they are so sweet (160 to 13,000 times sweeter than table sugar—yikes!) that you need only a tiny bit to get the equivalent taste; second, because the body doesn’t fully absorb them, it also doesn’t fully absorb the few calories they do contain. A win-win? Well, the devil is in the details. Below, a brief rundown of some of the most popular artificial sweeteners on the market and what scientific studies have concluded to date:
  1. Sucralose (Splenda) is sucrose (sugar) chemically combined with chlorine. It is approximately 600 times sweeter than table sugar. Sucralose has passed all major safety tests to date and, at least based on current scientific research, these studies have shown no reason to think it causes the body harm in moderate amounts. Splenda has been gaining a lot of market share in the artificial sweetener market and is now the dominant artificial sweetener in the U.S. Note that long-term health studies of Sucralose have not yet been completed.
  2. Aspartame (Equal or NutraSweet) is a synthetic sweetener made from aspartic acid and phenylalanine; it is approximately 180 times sweeter than sugar. Aspartame has passed all government safety tests to date and is approved in the U.S. and Europe. That said, some health advocates have tried to link it to an increased likelihood of brain cancer and brain lesions. Additional studies have also shown that a small amount of people may develop headaches after ingesting it, and people with the rare disorder phenylketonuria (PKU) should avoid it.
  3. Acesulfame (Sweet One, Sunett) is a synthetic chemical that is approximately 180 times sweeter than sugar. It has not yet been adequately tested, and critics have suggested it may be carcinogenic. More conclusive studies are needed to verify its safety.
  4. Saccharin (Sweet ‘N Low) is a synthetic chemical that is approximately 300 times sweeter than table sugar. In the only human study of saccarin conducted to date, it was shown to cause an increased risk of bladder cancer when consumed in very large amounts. Studies of mice and rats showed an increased risk of bladder cancer, particularly in males, and concluded that the substance is most likely carcinogenic for humans too (and male humans in particular). More testing is needed before this study can be called conclusive, but hey, do you really want to risk bladder cancer?
  5. Stevia (Sweet Leaf, Honey Leaf) is an extract from a shrub that grows in South America and has been used extensively as a sweetener in other countries such as Japan for many years. It is approximately 250 to 300 times sweeter than table sugar. The FDA banned Stevia as an ingredient in food in the early 1990s, citing safety concerns about toxicity (although some Stevia proponents suggested it caved to pressure from the artificial sweetener market to limit competition). Stevia can be sold as a supplement—the rules for supplements in the U.S. are not as stringent as those for food. Stevia makers market the substance as a natural alternative to synthetic sweeteners, and numerous people in other countries have been using it for years with no ill effects reported. While a 2006 World Health Organization report found the substance to be safe, the U.S. and several other countries have not yet lifted their food ban.
The Bottom Line—Don't Panic; Moderate
Leaving aside some potential fear mongering from health advocates on one side and marketing hype from the food industry on the other, a small amount of most artificial sweeteners probably won't do you either harm or good, as current research suggests they pose little or no risk when used in moderation.

That said, remember that packaged food products that contain artificial sweeteners are often packed with other heavily processed ingredients and chemical preservatives, and tend to contain fewer vitamins, minerals, and other healthy nutrients. If you do choose to use artificial sweeteners, limit your intake and carefully read labels and ingredient lists of products to make sure you're not reducing your intake of sugar at the expense of a well-balanced, nutrient-rich diet.

Of course, here at, we generally like to stick with whole foods and natural substances whenever possible (call us wannabe purists). If you want to play it safe like us, you should carefully read the ingredient list of any product before you stick it in your mouth, and try to eat foods that have been processed as little as possible.

Also, keep in mind that there’s nothing wrong with good old-fashioned natural sugar; just limit yourself to around ten teaspoons (40 grams) of real sugar per day maximum. And hey, maybe have a piece of fruit for a snack next time instead of a cookie (OK, that's probably too much to ask—munch!).

About H.K. Jones: H. K. Jones is a registered dietitian, freelance writer, and nutrition professional based in Washington, D.C