What are sugar substitutes?
Sugar substitutes are chemical or natural substances that sweeten food and drinks without adding as many calories as sugar. Sugar substitutes are many times sweeter than sugar, so it takes less to provide the same level of sweetness. Some sugar substitutes are low in calories, while others have no calories. You may have also heard them called artificial sweeteners or non-caloric sweeteners.
Why are sugar substitutes added to food and drinks?
Sugar substitutes provide sweetness to food without the calories of sugar. This can be helpful if you are trying to control the amount of calories you eat or if you have diabetes and have to be careful about the sugar found in foods and drinks. Sugar substitutes are found in most of the “light,” “reduced calorie” or “sugar-free” foods and drinks available today.
It’s important to remember that simply eliminating sugar from your diet is not a perfect solution to your dieting needs. You should still focus on getting the majority of your calories through healthy food choices, such as fruits, vegetables, lean meats and whole grains.
What sugar substitutes are available in the United States?
The following sugar substitutes are available in the United States:
- Aspartame, which is also known by the brand names Equal and Nutrasweet
- Acesulfame K, which is also known as Sunett and Sweet One
- Saccharin, which is also known as Sweet ‘N Low and Sweet Twin
- Sucralose, which is also known as Splenda
- Stevia, which is also known as PureVia, Truvia and SweetLeaf Sweetener
- Sugar alcohols, which include sorbitol, xylitol and maltitol
I’ve heard that sugar substitutes can cause cancer or other health problems. Is that true?
According to the National Cancer Institute, there is no proof that sugar substitutes cause cancer. There have also been many medical research studies on the sugar substitutes that are approved for use in the United States, and they have shown the sweeteners to be safe when used in moderation.
One exception is for people who have phenylketonuria (PKU). People who have PKU cannot have the sugar substitute called aspartame because they are unable to metabolize it.
How can I tell if a food or drink contains a sugar substitute?
Check the ingredient list for the names of sugar substitutes listed above. This list gives ingredients in descending order by weight.
How much sugar substitutes should be in my diet?
Unless you add it yourself, it is often hard to know exactly how much of a sugar substitute is in a food or drink. Although sugar substitutes have fewer calories than sugar, it’s best to limit them and focus on healthy food choices, such as fruits, vegetables, lean meats and whole grains. These foods are the best sources of nutrition for your body.
I’m pregnant. Are sugar substitutes safe for me?
According to the American Academy of Pediatrics, aspartame is safe for pregnant women and their developing babies. There is also good evidence that acesulfame K, sugar alcohols and sucralose are safe for pregnant women when used in small amounts. Some doctors recommend avoiding saccharin and stevia because there isn’t enough medical research to say whether or not these sugar substitutes are safe during pregnancy.
This content was developed with general underwriting support from The Coca-Cola Company.
See a list of resources used in the development of this information.
Written by familydoctor.org editorial staff