What are sugar substitutes?
Sugar substitutes are chemical or plant-based substances used to sweeten or enhance the flavor of foods and drinks. You may also have heard them called “artificial sweeteners” or “non-caloric sweeteners.” They can be used as a tabletop sweetener (for example, to sweeten a glass of iced tea) or as an ingredient in processed foods and drinks.
Most sugar substitutes are many times sweeter than sugar. It takes a smaller amount of these sugar substitutes to provide the same level of sweetness. Some sugar substitutes are low in calories, while others have no calories.
Sugar substitutes are regulated as food additives by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA). This means that the FDA reviews scientific evidence to be sure that a sugar substitute is safe before it can be used in foods and drinks.
Why are sugar substitutes added to foods and drinks?
Sugar substitutes provide sweetness and enhance the flavor of food without adding the calories of sugar. Most of them do not raise blood sugar levels. This may be helpful if you have diabetes and have to be careful about how much sugar you consume.
Sugar substitutes may also be helpful if you are trying to control the amount of calories you consume. They are found in most of the “light,” “reduced calorie,” and “sugar-free” foods and drinks available today. Although sugar substitutes have fewer calories than sugar, it’s best to limit them and focus on healthy food choices. Fruits, vegetables, lean meats, and whole grains are the best sources of nutrition for your body.
What sugar substitutes/artificial sweeteners are approved by the FDA?
The following sugar substitutes are FDA-approved as food additives in the United States:
- Acesulfame K (brand names: Sunett and Sweet One)
- Aspartame (two brand names: Equal and Nutrasweet)
- Neotame (brand name: Newtame)
- Saccharin (two brand names: Sweet ‘N Low and Sweet Twin)
- Sucralose (brand name: Splenda)
According to the FDA, highly purified stevia extracts called “steviol glycosides” (two brand names: Pure Via and Truvia) and monk fruit extracts (two brand names: Monk Fruit in the Raw and PureLo) are sugar substitutes that are “generally recognized as safe” (GRAS). This means that qualified experts agree the available scientific evidence about these products shows they are safe for use in foods and drinks.
Sugar alcohols are another class of sweeteners that can be used as sugar substitutes. Examples include mannitol, sorbitol, and xylitol. The FDA has determined that sugar alcohols are generally recognized as safe for use in foods and drinks.
I’ve heard that sugar substitutes can cause cancer or other serious health problems. Is that true?
According to the National Cancer Institute, there is no evidence that the sugar substitutes approved for use in the United States cause cancer or other serious health problems. Medical research studies have shown that these sweeteners are safe for most people when used in moderation.
One exception is for people who have phenylketonuria (PKU). People who have PKU cannot have the sugar substitute aspartame because they are unable to metabolize phenylalanine, which is one of its components.
How can I tell if a food or drink contains a sugar substitute?
Sugar substitutes are used in many processed foods and drinks, including baked goods, soft drinks, powdered drink mixes, candy, puddings, canned foods, jellies, and dairy products. Check the ingredient list on the Nutrition Facts Label for the names of the sugar substitutes listed above. This list gives ingredients in descending order by weight. Unless you add a sugar substitute yourself, it is often hard to know exactly how much a food or drink contains.
I’m pregnant. Are sugar substitutes/artificial sweeteners safe for me?
Based on the available scientific evidence, sugar substitutes that are FDA-approved as food additives are safe for most people when used in moderation.
Written by familydoctor.org editorial staff