Sugar Substitutes Guide
Want sweet without the sugar? Here’s an all encompassing guide to sugar alternatives.
There are three main categories of sugar substitutes: non-nutritive sweeteners, alcohol sugars, and allulose.
Non-nutritive sweeteners either do not contain calories or are so much sweeter than sucrose (table sugar which has a 50/50 ratio of glucose and fructose) that the dose we use them in is too small to count as a source of calories.
Ace-K (acesulfame potassium), approved by the FDA in 1988, is an artificial sweetener that is 200 times sweeter than table sugar and used to be found in Tab soda. There have been no reports of significant concerns over using Ace-K and it has been proven in studies to be safe to use.
Aspartame was approved by the FDA in 1981 and is sold under the brand names NutraSweet, Equal, and Sugar Twin. It’s equally as caloric as table sugar, but since it’s 180 times sweeter the dose we use is so low that aspartame is effectively calorie-free.
Aspartame has been one of the most scrutinized products by the FDA which means there has been substantial work performed to determine its safety profile. There is no evidence supporting negative impacts from exposure to aspartame over the long term. The main downside of aspartame is its artificial taste.
Saccharin has also been approved by the FDA and is often found in a pink packet with the brand name Sweet’n Low. It has 4 calories per gram but since it’s 300 times sweeter than table sugar, the dose we consume is too small to contain caloric content.
There is zero evidence of saccharin causing harm at the dose we consume.
Sucralose was approved by the FDA and is sold, often in a yellow pack, under the brand name Splenda. Similar to aspartame, it’s just as caloric as table sugar but since it’s 600 times sweeter we can consume it at much lower doses making it non-caloric.
Studies have reported mixed evidence on sucralose’s impact on glucose tolerance (our body’s ability to dispose of consumed glucose) after consumption of sucralose.
Some evidence suggests consuming sucralose may be more harmful to someone who is already metabolically ill (such as someone with type 2 diabetes). For example, someone who is obese may be less efficient at disposing of glucose after consuming sucralose.
Stevia, also approved by the FDA, is naturally occurring in a plant called Stevia rebaudiana, or Candyleaf, and is 200-300 times sweeter than table sugar. Sales of Stevia have largely been driven by marketing pointing out that it’s “naturally occurring.” This means nothing.
There are plenty of naturally occurring things that are harmless, just as there are many that are harmful. Similarly, synthetic products can be both harmless and harmful. Do not let this marketing trick fool you. Do your own due diligence on packaging that claims “naturally occurring.”
A major downside of Stevia is its taste, which many agree to be unwelcome. However, of the limited evidence on Stevia, it is regarded as reasonable to use for those who are limiting or eliminating sugar consumption.
Monk fruit is sourced from the Luo Han Guo plant and is about 250 times sweeter than table sugar. The FDA has stamped monk fruit as Generally Recognized as Safe (GRAS), however, there is limited evidence on its use. A big upside of monk fruit is its taste as it’s recognized as one of the best tasting sweeteners.
Sugar alcohol is not actually derived from alcohol nor does it contain ethanol which is the intoxicating ingredient in alcoholic beverages. The name stems from their structure which resembles alcohol.
All three alcohol sugars introduced here have been approved by the FDA and, since they are naturally occurring, are likely marketed as such. Beware of marketing ploys.
Xylitol is similar to table sugar in sweetness but only contains 2.4 calories per gram compared to table sugar’s 4 calories per gram. Effects of xylitol are highly individual and wide-ranging from zero symptoms to GI (gastrointestinal) distress and laxative effects.
Consuming xylitol will result in smaller spikes of insulin and glucose than when we consume table sugar or glucose on its own which, in comparison, makes xylitol potentially less harmful to our metabolic health.
TIP: Xylitol may help to prevent dental cavities. After you eat something, chew a piece of xylitol-sweetened gum for 10 minutes and then spit it out. You may also consider using xylitol-based toothpaste.
Erythritol contains 0.2 calories per gram and is 60-80% as sweet as table sugar making it a very low-calorie sweetener. It emerged as a better alternative to sorbitol (below) although individuals have experienced nausea, bloating, and diarrhea.
However, to experience these side effects you would have to consume massive doses of up to 75 grams, making it safe to consume in the quantities we’re likely to use it in.
Sorbitol, like xylitol, is also caloric containing 2.6 calories per gram but is only ½ – ⅔ as sweet as table sugar. Although it has fewer calories per gram, its inferior sweetness makes sorbitol just as calorically dense as table sugar since you need to use a higher quantity to achieve the same sweetness.
This is countered as sorbitol is very poorly absorbed which means it can pass through your system without you actually getting the calories. However, doses as small as 10 grams can cause GI (gastrointestinal) distress and diarrhea. Packaging often even has a warning that it may have a laxative effect.
Unlike non-nutritive sweeteners and alcohol sugars, allulose is actually a sugar that is around 70% as sweet as table sugar and contains 0.4 calories per gram. Since it’s fully absorbed by the intestines it does not cause any GI distress and is completely excreted by the kidneys.
Data collected from animal studies suggests that in comparison to glucose and fructose, allulose may lower blood glucose, decrease insulin resistance, reduce abdominal fat, decrease fat accumulation in the liver, and prevent or delay the onset of type two diabetes.
A meta-analysis (a statistical analysis that combines the results of multiple scientific studies) of human studies demonstrated that allulose may haul glucose along with it. If true, this means that when you consume allulose with food, it lowers your post-meal blood glucose by an average of 10%. This is fantastic news! Consistently elevated blood glucose can lead to metabolic issues such as insulin resistance and type two diabetes.
In addition to the potential health benefits, it also has a taste and mouthfeel that is difficult to tell apart from sugar. Keep in mind that since it’s less sweet than table sugar you need to increase the dose by 30-50% to achieve the same sweetness.
Some products that contain allulose may have an “added sugar” warning label. But, we know better than to let that fool us. Whether something is naturally occurring or added to a product doesn’t automatically determine its health status. Always read the nutrition label and check the ingredients to uncover the truth.
TIP: Cooking with allulose…
Since allulose has a similar taste profile to sugar and also browns when heated, it’s great to bake with (along with monk fruit).
Use allulose next time you’re making cranberry sauce for Thanksgiving and Christmas.
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For context, one stick of chewing gum would have 1-2 grams of sorbitol.