We dig through troves of research and decades of legislative battle to find the best nonnutritive sugar substitute, taking into account taste, safety, and overall effect on health.
Too busy to read the whole article? [3000 words, a 15-minute read] Here are the takeaways:
- There are two main types of low-calorie sweetener: sugar alcohols (polyols) and “nonnutritive” or “intense” sweeteners
- I picked Splenda over dozens of other candidates because it’s readily available, easy to use, and has been thoroughly tested for safety.
- Erythritol, a sugar alcohol, tastes more like sugar than any other alternative and has no measurable calories, but it’s a little pricey and could use some more testing for long-term effects.
- Stevia has been widely praised for having health benefits, but mass-produced stevia in the U.S. is largely a processed chemical with questionable nutritional value. It’s hard to recommend any whole Stevia extracts in the U.S. without additional testing and research.
- Looking at the bigger picture, the scientific community is still divided on whether replacing sugar with a nonnutritive sweetener actually helps prevent disease or manage weight, so if that’s your goal, you may want to consider a different strategy.
Here are some of the headlines that have been making the rounds about how much sugar we eat: Sugar is “toxic.”It’s more addictive than cocaine. It may be the real cause behind America’s obesity epidemic.
Read more about “natural” alternatives to sugar.
So are there any sugar substitutes worthy of buying? After looking at the five main nonnutritive sweeteners on the market as well as over a dozen less-known options, I came to strong conclusion:
The best nonnutritive sweetener for most people is sucralose, often sold under the brand name Splenda. It’s easy to find, relatively cheap, tastes pretty good, and can be used in most cases just like sugar.
From a health standpoint, sucralose is the most widely-studied sweetener with the fewest reported negative effects. It has no significant calories and no measurable impact on metabolism.
There’s a chance that other sweeteners such as those derived from Stevia might some day trump sucralose, but for now, sucralose leads in all areas. I would particularly keep an eye on multi-sweetener blends, such as those containing erythritol, my runner up choice.
Also good, but needs sweetening help and more health research:
$20 for 2.5 lbs (equivalent to around 2lbs of sugar)
Erythritol is a type of sugar alcohol or polyol. But, unlike most sugar alcohols, erythritol has no effective calories and none of the bowel problems caused by other sugar alcohols. With that being said, it’s also hard to get, expensive, and can cause intestinal discomfort and allergic reactions in some. It hasn’t been as carefully studied as sucralose, so while it seems very promising, I expect new research to come out as erythritol gains popularity.
Now that you know my conclusions, the rest of this article will be about how I tested and evaluated my research.
Nonutritive sweeteners have significantly fewer calories than normal sugar
When I researched all the “natural” alternatives to sugar, I found that there aren’t any great substitutes for plain white sugar, but that honey and brown rice syrup are worth trying in some cases. So, if other caloric sweeteners don’t hold the answer to the sugar controversy, will it help to try a nonutritive substitute? First, let’s talk about what these sweeteners are and how they came into being.
There are two types of sugar alternatives that contain fewer calories than sugar itself. Sugar alcohols or polyols are made from chemically-manipulated sugar molecules. Most polyols deliver fewer calories than sugar to achieve the same sweetening effect, though it depends on the particular polyol (more on that later). The other nonnutritive sweeteners are a family of “intense sweeteners” that may contain some calories, but that are so sweet, they make essentially no noticeable change to metabolism when used in reasonable amounts. Both intense sweeteners and polyols might be referred to as “artificial sweeteners.”
Sugar Alcohols: Hard-to-digest chemical cousins of sugar
You’re more likely to see the term “sugar alcohol” on a package than “polyol”, but I think “sugar alcohol” is somewhat of a misnomer. Sugar alcohols are so named because on one end, they look chemically similar to an alcohol (like ethanol), while on the other they resemble a standard saccahride. Since these chemical cousins of sugar don’t behave anything like alcohol, I think a much better name for the stuff is their other name, “polyol.” Here’s a breakdown of the polyols most often used as sugar substitutes:
|Hydrogenated Starch Hydrolysate||33%||.65||2.8|
[Table adapted from about.com]
Of these, the most commonly used are sorbitol, xylitol, and erythritol.
what happens when lactose-intolerant people drink milk? Same thing goes for eating too much polyol sweetener.
The common problem among most polyols is that they can cause intestinal distress. That’s because while we do possess the enzymes necessary to digest real sugars, we don’t have the enzymes necessary to digest polyols. The only way our guts can deal with them is through bacterial fermentation. And when we digest food through fermentation, the result can be pain, diarrhea, and gas.
Think about it this way: what happens when lactose-intolerant people drink milk? Same thing goes for eating too much polyol sweetener.
But erythritol might be the one shining star in this family of sweeteners
Here are the facts about erythritol:
- Erythritol is around 70% as sweet as sugar with practically zero caloric impact.
- When fed to healthy adults, erythritol had no impact on insulin or other important hormones that are usually driven up by sugar intake.1, 2
- That’s probably because about 80% of ingested erythritol is excreted without being metabolized.3, 4
- Then what about all that erythritol that floats in your blood stream? Short-term human studies showed minimal effects.5, 6
- And long-term animal studies haven’t shown any evidence of toxicity.7, 8
- There have been a few reported cases of allergic reaction to erythritol. The number now is few, though it’s unknown whether reactions would increase if erythritol became more popular.9, 10, 11
For all these reasons, I would easily classify erythritol as the most promising of the sugar alcohols/polyols, though the allergic reactions currently reported should be more carefully studied.
Nonnutritive sweeteners are sweeteners that essentially contribute no measurable addition to energy intake (calories) when used in normal amounts. That’s because most of these compounds are many hundreds of times sweeter than sugar. You use so little to get the desired level of sweetness, the calories don’t matter.
When considering the nutrition of nonnutritive sweeteners, you need to ask two questions: (1) is it safe? and (2) is it better for me than sugar?
Is it Safe?
The Food and Drug Administration of the United States recognizes several nonnutritive sweeteners as “Generally Recognized as Safe” or GRAS. These include Aspartame, Saccharin, Sucralose, Acesulfame Potassium (Acesulfame K), and Neotame. In the case of sweeteners, the public is actually benefiting from the powers of large corporations. The nonnutritive sweetener companies want the government to label their products safe, but sugar producers would love to see all these sweeteners banned. The result is that the FDA has been able to analyze troves of research on both sides of the debate.
I drew most of my conclusions from these already well-documented controversies.
First introduced in 1974, then banned over concerns about brain damage. In 2007, a review of existing research on Aspartame concluded that “the weight of existing evidence is that aspartame is safe at current levels of consumption as a nonnutritive sweetener.”12. The argument from the anti-aspartame side would qualify, though, that most studies on Aspartame have been funded or influenced by corporations, so review studies such as the 2007 one are invalid to begin with.13
Aspartame is the most controversial and potentially most dangerous sweetener of all the nonnutritive sweeteners.
The FDA does recognize that people sensitive to phenylalanine may be intolerant of aspartame (aspartame breaks down in the body into aspartic acid and phenylalanine). A 2008 study also illustrated the dangers of aspartame to the brain 14 The most recent research I could find on aspartame dates to 2014 call for an “urgent review” of existing carcinogenic studies. Aspartame is the most controversial and potentially most dangerous sweetener of all the nonnutritive sweeteners. 15
Saccharin is the oldest of the nonnutritive sweeteners and is considered one of the most studied. Today, it is considered safe for human consumption, but has waned in popularity in recent years due to its bitter aftertaste. The best known brand of commercial saccharin is Sweet ‘n Low. Saccharin was the subject of considerable controversy in the 1970s. Studies showed that it was responsible for causing cancer in rats. There were many powerful companies interested in weighing in on the debate. The key players were producers of saccharin and the sugar lobby, as well as the producer of aspartame, then the biggest competitor to saccharin in the nonnutritive sweetener space.
Several studies of saccharin in rats associated saccharin consumption with the development of bladder cancer. 16, 17, 18, However, later studies showed that rats digest saccharin in a way not relevant to humans and the FDA subsequently removed warning labels that saccharin may be a carcinogen.19 By the early 2000s, the consensus of the food science community was that although saccharin does indeed cause bladder in rats, it does no harm in humans.20
Several health experts claim that isolated patients have had allergic reactions to Splenda, but the only two references I found to reactions were two papers from 2006 that identified two single instances of sucralose being linked to migraines.21 The widely-propagated notion that Splenda was approved by the FDA as safe without proper testing also seems ill-founded, as multiple sources claim the FDA reviewed over 100 studies before giving sucralose approval.22, 23, 24 One recent review called sucralose “one of the most researched and reviewed food additives today.”25
A recent study that received attention in health- and natural-food circles found that sucralose negatively altered the gut flora of rats26, but a later expert review of that study concluded that it was not “scientifically valid.”27 Concerns had also been raised the rat study was funded in part by the Sugar Association.28 Although the matter seemed to remain of some debate, I have been unable to find any follow-on research from the original researchers and more recent research on Splenda in the human gut has found no significant negative effects.
Acesulfame Potassium and Neotame
Both Acesulfame Potassium and Neotame are more likely to be found in your diet coke than on store shelves. For that reason, it appears that they have less often been the subject of scientific investigation. Acesulfame potassium was approved in the 1980s as a food additive, but it was less-often used due to a bitter aftertaste. In recent years, it’s come back into favor because it can be mixed with other sweeteners to produce a desirable taste. I couldn’t find comprehensive review articles about Acesulfame potassium, though several sources have called for more thorough carcinogenic testing.29
Neotame is in a similar boat with acesulfame: neotame is a modified version of aspartame. Like the other nonnutritives covered here, there are plenty of sources that claim neotame is safe and has been well-tested, but I am reluctant to recommend it without seeing more debate and research on the sweetener. Neotame is still not popular both for retail sales and in the industry due to its poor aftertaste.
When I started researching this article, I genuinely thought that I would be giving the crown to stevia. In recent years, stevia, or more precisely the concentrated extract of the Stevia rebaudiana plant has become the darling of natural-food enthusiasts looking for a safe, healthy alternative to sugar.
Here are the arguments in favor of stevia:
- Stevia is extracted from a plant. All the other nonnutritive sweeteners are synthesized in a lab.
- Many cultures have used stevia as a natural sweetener. Studies dating back to the 1970s have shown that stevia is safe for human consumption.
- In Japan, over 40,000 clinical trials have been conducted on stevia, the vast majority of which demonstrate that stevia is safe for consumption.
- In fact, it’s not just safe, stevia has been suggested as a treatment for diabetes, a way to lower blood pressure, and for its antioxidant properties.30
So if all this is true, why don’t I think stevia should be crowned the best nonnutritive sweetener?
Look closely at the labels of any major stevia product on the market today. You’ll notice the ingredients will list something like “Reb A (Stevia extract)” and in many cases, erythritol. Reb A is short for Rebaudioside A, a processed extract of the stevia plant considered its most sweet constituent with the least bitter aftertaste. Comparing Rebaudioside A to stevia extract would be like comparing processed fructose to natural honey. Honey has been shown to have many beneficial effects on human health, but those benefits depend heavily on the sourcing and processing of the honey. I’m not trying to say that Rebaudioside A is as bad for you as processed fructose would be, but saying that a product containing Rebaudioside A has the same health benefits as stevia extract proof would be flat wrong.
As for erythritol? I’ve already written about erythritol’s use as a sweetener, above. It’s a solid alternative to sugar and the addition of Reb A probably makes it a little sweeter without adding any negative side effects. But I don’t think the erythritol and Reb A combination edges out sucralose’s advantages.
saying that a product containing Rebaudioside A has the same health benefits as stevia extract proof would be flat wrong.
As for Stevia, the extract? I have a few bottles of stevia in my pantry and I do use them from time to time, usually to add sweetness to a product I’ve already sweetened with something else. The few extracts I’ve tried have all had a noticeable bitter aftertaste in any quantity.
More importantly, stevia extract is not technically approved by the FDA as generally recognized as safe (GRAS). And there’s a good reason for that. It’s perfectly acceptable to market stevia extract as a supplement, but it’d be very difficult to get a plant extract approved as a general-purpose sweetener. All the trace amounts of compounds that might have health benefits could also potentially cause harm if manufacturers don’t understand and control them properly.
Consider this line from a review of Stevia’s use and health effects: according to Japanese researchers, “a sign of an excellent Stevia product is one that is free of this liquorice essence and still not bitter.”31 A quote like that raises the question: what exactly constitutes a “high-quality” stevia extract? Might some extracts be a true miracle sweetener while others have toxic effects?
I simply don’t think we have enough research and public awareness of how stevia extracts sold in the United States are extracted and processed to make a firm recommendation either way.
Even if they are safe, nonnutritive sweeteners may not be healthier than sugar
I’ve focused on safety, but assuming whatever nonnutritive sweetener is safe, is it still better for you than sugar?
Here are the basic arguments against the overconsumption of sugar:
- Sugar has a considerable amount of calories with no significant nutritional (micronutrient/vitamin) content.
- Sugar is digested quickly, which means it places a glycemic load on our bodies, which can lead to insulin resistance and metabolic syndrome, which is in turn linked to obesity, heart disease, and type 2 diabetes.
- Since it’s sweet, we tend to eat too much sugar, and that can cause us to overeat other foods, ultimately leading to weight gain.
By definition, nonnutritive sweeteners have negligible calories, so studies have focused on (1) whether nonnutritive sweeteners elicit an insulin response similar to sugar and (2) whether replacing sugar with nonnutritive sweeteners results in long-term weight loss.
The results, unfortunately, have not been promising.
Long-term epidemiologic reviews of existing populations have found that the consumption of nonnutritive sweeteners (specifically in the form of diet sodas) actually increases weight gain32, 33 and increased risk of developing metabolic syndrome and type 2 diabetes.34, 35
While these studies have been quick to point out that they merely establish association and can’t comment on causation without further research, the results are nonetheless disappointing for people who might be considering switching from sugar-sweetened beverages to diet sodas as a means of improving health.
But, in the short term, studies show a contradictory result.
Study after study shows that, compared to sucrose, nonnutritive sweeteners have less effect on glucose levels, insulin response, and other hormones related to insulin resistance.36
Some human studies have shown that replacing low-nutritional-value sweetened beverages with artificially-sweetened beverages can support weight control37, 38,but the American Diabetes Association and American Heart Association together concluded as of 2012 that there hadn’t been enough trials conducted to make a conclusive recommendation one way or another.39
Now, I could go through each of the nonnutritive sweeteners I’ve written about and try to piece together each compound’s specific metabolic impact and long-term effects, but much of the evidence in this field of research looks more at questions of how we perceive food and the other foods we choose to eat when we drink sweetened beverages. The specific chemical behavior of particular sweeteners may not be the most important factor here.
So, should I be using a sugar substitute?
Yeah, I think so.
Here’s why: I have a big bag of Splenda sitting in my pantry right now (as well as a whole lot of other sweeteners—had to be thorough in my testing) and I plan to keep it there. But using splenda is not my strategy for preventing diabetes and managing my weight. To do that, I limit my overall intake of simple carbohydrates, eat vegetables with high nutritional value, and exercise, among other things.
I keep sucralose around because sometimes I like to make lemonade in the summer and it tastes pretty good with a spoonful of splenda in it. I don’t like the way I personally feel after drinking sugar-sweetened beverages, so if I am craving a sweetened beverage, I’ll pick a small dose of splenda over an equivalent amount of sugar.
If you can completely avoid sweetened foods and beverages, then by all means skip buying any sweetener, be it caloric or nonnutritive. But if you’re looking for a well-priced, easy-to-use option, for now, sucralose looks like your best bet, just don’t rely on a sugar substitute as your best means of staying healthy.
Have you ever tried a sugar substitute? Tell me about it in the comments!
Liked this article? Make sure to check out my piece on “natural” sugar alternatives.
- Noda K, Nakayama K, Oku T (1994). Serum glucose and insulin levels and erythritol balance after oral administration of erythritol in healthy subjects.European journal of clinical nutrition 48(4), 286-292 ↩
- Bornet, F. R. J, et al. (1996). Gastrointestinal response and plasma and urine determinations in human subjects given erythritol Regulatory Toxicology and Pharmacology 24(2), 296-302. ↩
- Arrigoni, E, Fbrouns, F, Amado, R (2005). Human gut microbiota does not ferment erythritol British Journal of Nutrition 94(5), 643-646
- Tetzloff W, et al. (1996). Tolerance to subchronic, high-dose ingestion of erythritol in human volunteers Regulatory toxicology and pharmacology 24(2), 286-295 ↩
- Tetzloff W, et al. (1996). Tolerance to subchronic, high-dose ingestion of erythritol in human volunteers Regulatory toxicology and pharmacology 24(2), 286-295
- Oku, Tsuneyuki, Mitsuko Okazaki (1996). Laxative threshold of sugar alcohol erythritol in human subjects Nutrition Research 16(4), 577-589 ↩
- Lina, B. A. R, et al. (1996). Chronic toxicity and carcinogenicity study of erythritol in rats Regulatory toxicology and pharmacology 24(2), 264-279 ↩
- Munro, I. C, et al. (1998). Erythritol: an interpretive summary of biochemical, metabolic, toxicological and clinical data Food and Chemical Toxicology 36(12), 1139-1174 ↩
- Hino, Haruko, et al. (2000). A case of allergic urticaria caused by erythritol The Journal of dermatology 27(3), 163-165 ↩
- Shirao, Kenichiro, et al. (2013). Bitter Sweet”: A Child Case of Erythritol-Induced Anaphylaxis Allergology international: official journal of the Japanese Society of Allergology 62(2), 269-271 ↩
- Abou-Donia, M. B., et al. (2008). Splenda alters gut microflora and increases intestinal p-glycoprotein and cytochrome p-450 in male rats. Journal of Toxicology and Environmental Health 71(21), 1415-1429 ↩
- Magnuson, B. A, et al. (2007). Aspartame: a safety evaluation based on current use levels, regulations, and toxicological and epidemiological studies CRC Critical Reviews in Toxicology 37(8), 629-727 ↩
- Mercola.com (2010). Aspartame’s Dangers, Side Effects and FDA Approval Explained Mercola.com. ↩
- Humphries, P, E. Pretorius, H. Naude (2008). Direct and indirect cellular effects of aspartame on the brain European journal of clinical nutrition 62(4), 451-462 ↩
- Soffritti, Morando, et al. (2014). The carcinogenic effects of aspartame: The urgent need for regulatory re‐evaluation American journal of industrial medicine. ↩
- Munro, I. C, et al. (1975). A carcinogenicity study of commercial saccharin in the rat Toxicology and applied pharmacology 32(3), 513-526 ↩
- Price, J. M, et al. (1970). Bladder tumors in rats fed cyclohexylamine or high doses of a mixture of cyclamate and saccharin Science 167(3921), 1131-1132 ↩
- Cohen, Samuel M, et al. (1979). Promoting effect of saccharin and DL-tryptophan in urinary bladder carcinogenesis Cancer research 39(4), 1207-1217 ↩
- Integrated Laboratory Systems (1999). NTP Report on Carcinogens Background Document for Saccharin. ↩
- Singh, Zorawar (2013). Toxicological Aspects of Saccharin Food Biology 2(1), pg 4. ↩
- Patel, Rajendrakumar M, Rakesh Sarma, Edwin Grimsley (2006). Popular sweetner sucralose as a migraine trigger Headache: The Journal of Head and Face Pain 46(8), 1303-1304. ↩
- Rodero, A. B.; Rodero, L. S.; Azoubel, R. (2009). “Toxicity of sucralose in humans: a review. Int J Morph. 21(1), 239-244. ↩
- Grotz, V. Lee, Ian C. Munro (2009). An overview of the safety of sucralose Regulatory toxicology and pharmacology 55(1), 1-5. ↩
- Grice HC; Goldsmith LA (2000). “Sucralose–an overview of the toxicity data”. Food Chem Toxicol 38 (Suppl 2): S1–6. ↩
- Shankar, Padmini, Suman Ahuja, Krishnan Sriram (2013). Non-nutritive sweeteners: Review and update Nutrition 29(11), 1293-1299. ↩
- Abou-Donia, M. B., et al. (2008). Splenda alters gut microflora and increases intestinal p-glycoprotein and cytochrome p-450 in male rats. Journal of Toxicology and Environmental Health 71(21), 1415-1429. ↩
- Brusick, David, et al. (2009). Expert panel report on a study of Splenda in male rats Regulatory Toxicology and Pharmacology 55(1), 6. ↩
- Daniells, S. (2008). Splenda study: Industry and acadmemia respond FoodNavigator.com. ↩
- Karstadt, Myra (2010). Inadequate toxicity tests of food additive acesulfame International journal of occupational and environmental health 16(1), 89-96. ↩
- All these conclusions are drawn from the excellent review paper Goyal, S. K, R. K. Goyal (2010). Stevia (Stevia rebaudiana) a bio-sweetener: a review. It cites dozens of other references, some of which I couldn’t find in databases I have access to, so I’ve just cited the review here. ↩
- Goyal, S. K, R. K. Goyal (2010). Stevia (Stevia rebaudiana) a bio-sweetener: a review. ↩
- Fowler, Sharon P, et al. (2008). Fueling the Obesity Epidemic? Artificially Sweetened Beverage Use and Long‐term Weight Gain Obesity 16(8), 1894-1900. ↩
- Stellman, Steven D, Lawrence Garfinkel (1986). Artificial sweetener use and one-year weight change among women Preventive medicine 15(2), 195-202. ↩
- Nettleton, Jennifer A, et al. (2009). Diet soda intake and risk of incident metabolic syndrome and type 2 diabetes in the Multi-Ethnic Study of Atherosclerosis (MESA). Diabetes 32(4), 688-694. ↩
- Fagherazzi, Guy, et al. (2013). Consumption of artificially and sugar-sweetened beverages and incident type 2 diabetes in the Etude Epidémiologique auprès des femmes de la Mutuelle Générale de l’Education Nationale–European Prospective Investigation into Cancer and Nutrition cohort The American journal of clinical nutrition 97(3), 517-523. ↩
- As summarized in Shankar, Padmini, Suman Ahuja, Krishnan Sriram (2013). Non-nutritive sweeteners: Review and update Nutrition 29(11), 1293-1299. ↩
- de Ruyter, Janne C., et al. (2012). A trial of sugar-free or sugar-sweetened beverages and body weight in children New England Journal of Medicine 367(15), 1397-1406. ↩
- Sørensen, Lone B., et al. (2014). Sucrose compared with artificial sweeteners: a clinical intervention study of effects on energy intake, appetite, and energy expenditure after 10 wk of supplementation in overweight subjects The American journal of clinical nutrition. ↩
- Gardner, C, et al. (2012). Nonnutritive Sweeteners: Current Use and Health Perspectives Diabetes Care 35(8), 1798-1808. ↩