Ask A Nutritionist: The Skinny on Sugar Substitutes

How healthy are artificial sweeteners?

An assortment of artificial sweetener packets
An assortment of artificial sweetener packets

All the sweetness and none of the calories — what’s not to love? Quite a bit, it turns out.

While non-nutritive sweeteners like aspartame, saccharin, and sucralose certainly have pros — including helping with weight control if used responsibly — they’re not the magic bullets they’re made out to be.

In fact, there’s still much that is unknown about how they might affect the body, says Georgia Giannopoulos, registered dietitian and manager of NYPBeHealthy, NewYork-Presbyterian’s health and well-being program. For example, artificial sweeteners may actually increase our craving for sugar by failing to satiate it, she says.

Here, Giannopoulos offers her take on the natural-versus-artificial debate and how to be aware of, and limit, added sugar in your diet.

Are sugar substitutes better or worse for you than regular sugar?
“A person with diabetes who’s having a difficult time controlling his or her blood sugar may benefit from swapping out sugar for a sugar substitute short-term,” says Giannopoulos. “However, I generally recommend more natural foods and sugars in moderation over artificial sweeteners. The long-term effects of artificial sweeteners are unknown at this time.”

What’s the science behind how our bodies process artificial sweeteners?
“Your body doesn’t process artificial sweeteners the same way it processes sugar,” says Giannopoulos. “That’s because you’re eating or drinking something really sweet, but not actually getting as much energy from it.”

Though not definitive, studies on animals have shown that artificial sweeteners may contribute to weight gain. The rationale? Because these products offer a sweet taste without the insulin response (an increase in blood sugar), hypoglycemia, or the lowering of blood sugar, occurs, which leads to increased food intake. Thus, the animals that were given artificial sweeteners consumed more calories than those that were simply given sugar.

How much added sugar should we be consuming, if any?
“Your body doesn’t actually need energy from added sugars, so if someone doesn’t generally eat sweet things I wouldn’t recommend adding sugars,” says Giannopoulos. The American Heart Association recommends limiting added sugars to no more than 6 teaspoons a day for most women and no more than 9 teaspoons a day for most men. A 20-ounce bottle of regular soda has 16 teaspoons of sugar. To find out how many teaspoons of sugar are in a food or drink, divide the grams of sugar on the nutrition facts label by 4.

What are some less obvious examples of added sugar?
“You know you’re consuming sugar when you add honey to your tea, but you may not realize there may also be added sugars in foods,” says Giannopoulos. “Sugars are often added to cereals, oatmeal, and yogurt; read the ingredients to spot this. The FDA is updating the nutrition facts label to include a separate line for added sugars, which will make it easier to see how much there are. The serving sizes will also be truer to what people consume, and the calories will be in a larger font and bolded.”

What are some easy ways to manage your sugar intake?

  • Instead of buying yogurt or cereal with fruit already in it, add your own fresh fruit. Also, avoid canned fruit.
  • Experiment with making your own salad dressing out of ingredients like olive oil, lemon juice, garlic, and spices.
  • When baking, replace sugar with unsweetened applesauce.
  • Replace sugar in recipes with spices (ginger, allspice, cinnamon) or extracts (vanilla, almond, lemon).
  • Drink water and avoid sugary drinks.

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