By Mayo Clinic News Network

If you're trying to reduce the sugar and calories in your diet, you may be turning to artificial sweeteners or other sugar substitutes. You aren't alone.

Today artificial sweeteners and other sugar substitutes are found in a variety of food and beverages marketed as "sugar-free" or "diet," including soft drinks, chewing gum, jellies, baked goods, candy, fruit juice, and ice cream and yogurt.

Just what are all these sweeteners? And what's their role in your diet?

Understanding artificial sweeteners and other sugar substitutes

Sugar substitutes are loosely considered any sweetener that you use instead of regular table sugar (sucrose). Artificial sweeteners are just one type of sugar substitute. The chart lists some popular sugar substitutes and how they're commonly categorized.

Artificial sweetenersSugar alcoholsNovel sweetenersNatural sweeteners
Acesulfame potassium (Sunett, Sweet One)ErythritolStevia extracts (Pure Via, Truvia)Agave nectar
Aspartame (Equal, NutraSweet)Hydrogenated starch hydrolysateTagatose (Naturlose)Date sugar
NeotameIsomaltTrehaloseFruit juice concentrate
Saccharin (SugarTwin, Sweet'N Low)LactitolHoney
Sucralose (Splenda)MaltitolMaple syrup
MannitolMolasses

Sorbitol

 

Xylitol
Advantame

The topic of sugar substitutes can be confusing. One problem is that the terminology is often open to interpretation. For instance, some manufacturers call their sweeteners "natural" even though they're processed or refined, as is the case with stevia preparations. And some artificial sweeteners are derived from naturally occurring substances — sucralose comes from sugar, for example.

Regardless of how they're classified, sugar substitutes aren't magic bullets for weight loss. Take a closer look.

Artificial sweeteners

Artificial sweeteners are synthetic sugar substitutes but may be derived from naturally occurring substances, including herbs or sugar itself. Artificial sweeteners are also known as intense sweeteners because they are many times sweeter than regular sugar.

Uses for artificial sweeteners

Artificial sweeteners are attractive alternatives to sugar because they add virtually no calories to your diet. In addition, you need only a fraction compared with the amount of sugar you would normally use for sweetness.

Artificial sweeteners are widely used in processed foods, including baked goods, soft drinks, powdered drink mixes, candy, puddings, canned foods, jams and jellies, dairy products, and scores of other foods and beverages.

Artificial sweeteners are also popular for home use. Some can even be used in baking or cooking. Certain recipes may need modification, though, because artificial sweeteners provide no bulk or volume, as does sugar. Check the labels on artificial sweeteners for appropriate home use.

Some artificial sweeteners may leave an aftertaste. You may need to experiment with artificial sweeteners to find one or a combination that you enjoy most.

Possible health benefits of artificial sweeteners

One benefit of artificial sweeteners is that they don't contribute to tooth decay and cavities. They may also help with the following:

  • Weight control. One of the most appealing aspects of artificial sweeteners is that they are non-nutritive — they have virtually no calories. In contrast, each gram of regular table sugar contains 4 calories. A teaspoon of sugar is about 4 grams. For perspective, consider that one 12-ounce can of a sweetened cola contains 8 teaspoons of added sugar, or about 130 calories. If you're trying to lose weight or prevent weight gain, products sweetened with artificial sweeteners rather than with higher calorie table sugar may be an attractive option. On the other hand, some research has suggested that consuming artificial sweeteners may be associated with increased weight, but the cause is not yet known.
  • Diabetes. Artificial sweeteners may be a good alternative to sugar if you have diabetes. Unlike sugar, artificial sweeteners generally don't raise blood sugar levels because they are not carbohydrates. But because of concerns about how sugar substitutes are labeled and categorized, always check with your doctor or dietitian about using any sugar substitutes if you have diabetes.

Possible health concerns with artificial sweeteners

Artificial sweeteners have been the subject of intense scrutiny for decades. Critics of artificial sweeteners say that they cause a variety of health problems, including cancer. That's largely because of studies dating to the 1970s that linked saccharin to bladder cancer in laboratory rats. Because of those studies, saccharin once carried a warning label that it may be hazardous to your health.

But according to the National Cancer Institute and other health agencies, there's no sound scientific evidence that any of the artificial sweeteners approved for use in the U.S. cause cancer or other serious health problems. And numerous research studies confirm that artificial sweeteners are generally safe in limited quantities, even for pregnant women. As a result of the newer studies, the warning label for saccharin was dropped.

Artificial sweeteners are regulated by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) as food additives. They must be reviewed and approved by the FDA before being made available for sale. In some cases, the FDA declares a substance "generally recognized as safe" (GRAS). These GRAS substances, including highly refined stevia preparations, are deemed by qualified professionals based on scientific data as being safe for their intended use, or they have such a lengthy history of common use in food that they're considered generally safe and don't require FDA approval before sale.

The FDA has also established an acceptable daily intake (ADI) for each artificial sweetener. This is the maximum amount considered safe to consume each day over the course of your lifetime. ADIs are intended to be about 100 times less than the smallest amount that might cause health concerns.

Sugar alcohols and novel sweeteners