With so many sugar substitutes to choose from, it can be confusing to make sense of it all. Learn the basics of artificial and natural sweeteners and how they’re different.
It is estimated that American adults consume a whopping 17 teaspoons of added sugar (68 grams) a day - an alarming statistic given that diets high in added sugar are associated with a greater risk of developing cardiovascular disease, weight gain and obesity, and chronic inflammation. For a 2,000 calorie/day diet the goal would be <10% of calories from added sugar which translates to 200 calories or 50 grams of added sugar per day (12.5 teaspoons of added sugar).
Artificial and natural sweeteners have been introduced as “healthier” sugar alternatives for sweetening foods and beverages. Found in a variety of products marketed as "sugar-free" or "diet," they are especially popular among people trying to lose weight or manage their blood sugar, as well as among those who want to reduce their sugar intake for other health reasons. There is a broad range of both artificial and natural sweeteners available, each with its own unique properties and potential health outcomes.
Artificial sweeteners are synthetically-made sugar substitutes that are especially popular because they provide an intensely sweet taste - many times sweeter than sugar. Many artificial sweeteners do not affect blood sugar levels and provide virtually no added calories or carbohydrates. Because these do not provide many calories to the diet, they are also known as “nonnutritive sweeteners.”
Here are three of the most commonly used artificial sweeteners.
One of the most well-known and widely used artificial sweeteners around, aspartame is a low-calorie sweetener that is approximately 200 times sweeter than sugar. You will find aspartame in many types of diet sodas and sugar-free candy. Although it does provide the same number of calories per gram as sugar, because it is so much sweeter than sugar, a very small amount can go a long way in sweetening foods.
Despite its popularity, consumers and researchers have expressed concerns about aspartame’s potential health risks over the years. While the Food and Drug Association (FDA) and Centers for Disease Control and Prevention continue to report that there is no evidence of harmful health consequences related to the use of aspartame and is safe for consumption when consumed in appropriate amounts, the safety of aspartame remains controversial. Researchers have recently explored the association between aspartame use and the development of obesity, type 2 diabetes, and cancer, and while a number of safety studies suggest that aspartame may pose harm, it is not clear whether aspartame is the direct cause of these conditions.
Sucralose, a low-calorie sweetener approximately 600 times sweeter than sugar, is commonly used in a wide range of food and beverage products, including baked goods, ice cream, chewing gum, gelatins, and soft drinks. Sucralose is favored because it stays heat stable and can be measured and poured like regular sugar in baking.
About 200 times sweeter than sugar, saccharin is an affordable, zero-calorie granule or liquid sweetener found in salad dressings, fruit juices, baked goods, candy, chewing gums, and jelly. Some people find that saccharin has a metallic, bitter aftertaste, and manufacturers will often try to cover it up by combining it with other artificial sweeteners like aspartame.
Allulose is a type of rare, simple sugar that is naturally found in small amounts in raisins, dried figs, wheat, brown sugar, and molasses. Allulose can also be manufactured. It has a similar texture and taste to table sugar but is about 70% as sweet. The body does not metabolize allulose, so it generally does not raise blood sugar or insulin levels and provides few calories.
Natural sweeteners are sugar substitutes derived from sources like plants and fruits and are often promoted as healthier options than sugar or other sugar substitutes. Some natural sweeteners provide calories and an elevation in blood sugar, and some do not.
Here are some examples of the most widely-used natural sweeteners.
Honey is a thick liquid sweetener made by bees using nectar from flowers. It has a slightly sweet and floral flavor and is commonly used as a natural sweetener in various food and beverages. Unlike many artificial sweeteners, honey does provide calories. In fact, honey is more calorie-dense than sugar: one tablespoon of honey contains 64 calories, whereas one tablespoon of sugar contains 48 calories.
Maple syrup is a sweet, slightly nutty amber-colored syrup made from the boiled-down sap of maple trees. It is often used as a condiment or natural sweetener in homemade salad dressings, desserts, and baked goods. Like honey, maple syrup is a source of added sugar and is more calorie-dense than sugar, containing 52 calories in one tablespoon.
Molasses is a thick, dark syrup that has a rich, sweet, and slightly bitter flavor and is a byproduct of the sugar-making process. It is made by boiling sugar cane juice or sugar beet juice to concentrate the sugars. It is often used in baking and cooking to add flavor and sweetness to foods. One tablespoon of molasses contains 58 calories.
Agave nectar, also known as agave syrup, is a sweetener made from the sap of the agave plant. It is often used as a vegan alternative to honey and has a mild, slightly sweet flavor. It has a sweet, syrupy consistency and is commonly used as a sugar substitute in baking and cooking. One tablespoon of agave syrup contains 63 calories.
Coconut sugar is a granulated, caramel-hued sweetener made from the sap of the coconut palm tree. It is often used as a natural and plant-based alternative to refined sugar and has a slightly sweet, caramel-like flavor with a texture similar to brown sugar. One tablespoon of coconut sugar contains 45 calories.
Stevia is a sweetener that is derived from the leaves of the stevia plant. It is approximately 300 times sweeter than sugar and is commonly used in various food and beverage products, including dietary supplements, soft drinks, and baked goods. Stevia has grown rapidly in popularity because, unlike the natural sweeteners above, it contains no calories or carbohydrates. Also, unlike many artificial sweeteners, stevia does not have a chemical structure and is considered natural.
Monk fruit extract
Monk fruit is a small, round fruit native to southern China and northern Thailand. Monk fruit extract is made by extracting the sweet compounds from the fruit and refining them into a concentrated form. It is often used as a natural alternative to artificial sweeteners in dietary supplements, soft drinks, and baked goods and has a sweet, fruity flavor. Monk fruit extract is about 150 times sweeter than sugar, but like stevia, it contains no calories or carbohydrates.
How are artificial and natural sweeteners different?
Artificial sweeteners and natural sweeteners are alike in one distinct way: they are used as alternatives to sugar to sweeten foods and beverages. But there are some key differences between the two.
Perhaps the most significant difference is how they are made. Artificial sweeteners are synthesized or manufactured through a chemical process that involves combining different compounds to create a substance that is sweet to the taste. Natural sweeteners, on the other hand, are extracted or derived from sources found in nature.
Artificial sweeteners and natural sweeteners also differ in their sweetness level. Artificial sweeteners are often much sweeter than sugar. Natural sweeteners can vary in sweetness, but they are generally not as sweet as artificial sweeteners.
A third difference between artificial and natural sweeteners is their potential health effects. Although artificial sweeteners are considered safe, they are not without controversy. Many previous studies have suggested that artificial sweeteners and their processed, chemical additives may pose health risks such as increased risk of being overweight, type 2 diabetes, metabolic syndrome, and cardiovascular events. Natural sweeteners are less processed and although they have sugar and provide calories, many contain beneficial vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants. For example, honey is widely known for its anti-inflammatory and antimicrobial properties and is rich in flavonoids and polyphenol antioxidants. Agave nectar contains antimicrobial properties and can benefit the gut due to its prebiotic activity, monk fruit extract has amino acids and vitamins C, B1, and B2, and maple syrup contains as many as 24 different antioxidants.
A note about sweeteners
Whether you choose to use an artificial sweetener or a natural sweetener to add a sweet taste to your food, it is important to keep in mind that there is no health benefit to consuming any type of added sugar. In fact, evidence appears to show that there may be a link between artificial sweetener use and weight gain.
Researchers followed the dietary habits and weight of 3,682 adults over a seven to eight-year period and found that the subjects who reported consuming more than 21 artificially sweetened soft drinks, coffee, and tea per week had almost two times the risk of being overweight or obese compared to those who did not consume any artificial sweeteners. Interestingly, those who were on a diet not only consumed more artificial sweeteners, but they also showed the most weight gain. Dieters experienced an increase in body mass index (BMI) of 2.00 kg/m2 versus an increase of 1.23 kg/m2 for non-dieters. This association does not establish it as a cause of weight gain as there may be several reasons why use of artificial sweeteners may indirectly lead to it.
For people living with diabetes, there is no clear evidence that using sugar substitutes will help with managing blood sugar or weight or improving cardiometabolic health in the long run.
Instead of steering clear of any one type of sugar, try to limit your overall intake of added sugars to less than 10% of your total calories per day. Be especially mindful of where sugar lurks, like pasta sauces, bread, condiments, salad dressings, dried fruit, fruit juices, snack bars, and flavored yogurt.
The bottom line
Artificial sweeteners are popular, synthetically-made alternatives to sugar that can help people reduce their calorie and sugar intake and manage their blood sugar. Natural sugars are derived from sources found in nature. There is a wide range of sweeteners available, each with its own unique properties and potential health effects. While the majority of research shows that artificial sweeteners are safe for consumption, there still remains debate and should be consumed carefully and in limited quantities. This means 50 mg of aspartame for each kilogram of body weight per day, 5 mg of sucralose for each kilogram of body weight per day, and 5 mg of saccharin for each kilogram of body weight per day. And remember - most natural food sources may offer health-promoting properties, but they still count as sugar and should count toward your daily sugar intake. Better yet, the next time you want to satisfy your craving for sweets, enjoy whole foods like fruits because they offer loads of health-boosting vitamins, minerals, and fiber which slows your digestion and keeps you feeling full.