Sweeteners 101: Pros and Cons
Written by Chrissy Arsenault, MBA, RDN, LD
I’ll admit it. I’m a dietitian with a sweet tooth.
I bet many of you have a sweet tooth, too. We’re actually born to love the taste of anything sweet. In fact, added sugars account for more than 13 percent of the total calories we consume daily, so you’re not alone if you like the sweet taste of foods and drinks. But, how does a sweet tooth fit in with your health goals? What if you’re trying to cut back on sugar?
That’s where low- and no-calorie sweeteners fit in.
When it comes to sweeteners, there are so many options to choose from, and so much to know about. To make it simple, I’ll review these types of sweeteners on a high level: natural sweeteners that have recently become more popular (e.g. allulose, stevia, and monk fruit), artificial sweeteners (e.g. sucralose, aspartame, saccharin), and sugar alcohols (e.g. erythritol, xylitol, mannitol).
Read below for your guide to everything sweet.
Allulose (also called psicose) is the new kid on the block when it comes to popular calorie sweeteners. Allulose is often called the ‘rare sugar’ because it is found in small amounts in natural food sources like figs, jackfruit, raisins, and maple syrup. It offers the same classic texture as sugar and tastes almost identical to sugar (up to 70 percent of the sweetness), but with 90 percent fewer calories than sugar.
Allulose is found in select better-for-you snacks like Munk Pack Keto Granola Bars and Keto Nut & Seed Bars. It helps add a natural sweetness to already wholesome ingredients. One of my personal favorites is the Almond Butter Cocoa Chip Keto Granola Bar, which is gluten-free and plant-based. It has a great flavor and chewy texture, powered by natural ingredients like almonds, coconuts, and tapioca fiber. Plus, it’s important to me that the allulose Munk Pack’s products is sourced from non-GMO corn.
- Natural, plant-based. Unlike highly processed sweeteners, allulose comes from natural sources.
Fewer calories and fewer carbs. When you eat foods with allulose, your body absorbs the allulose, but ultimately, it leaves the body without being metabolized or used as energy.
- Better blood sugar control. Unlike other caloric sugars, allulose has no impact on blood glucose or insulin levels. Some initial studies also indicate that allulose actually even slows down the digestion of other high glycemic index carbs by mediating blood sugar spikes.
- Generally Recognized As Safe (GRAS). GRAS notices have been submitted to the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) for allulose as a food ingredient and with other sweeteners in foods.
Bonus: For those of you who follow a keto diet, rest assured that allulose is keto-friendly, since it’s natural,low in carbs and calories, and keeps your blood sugar in check. This means that you can stay in ketosis when you eat foods sweetened with allulose, which is super important if you get sugar cravings all the time like I do.
None that I can think of based on my personal experience and research. Allulose is usually free from side effects, unlike sugar alcohols and certain artificial sweeteners.
Stevia comes from the leaves of a small, bushy plant called Stevia rebaudiana that you can even grow in your own house! It was originally found in South America and provides 200 to 300 times the sweetness of sugar while having no calories. It’s become one of the more popular sweeteners.
- Natural, plant-based.
- No calories and doesn’t result in blood sugar spikes.
- Strong bitter aftertaste. Many stevia extracts have a bitterness that you can’t shake off. Just try putting a couple sprinkles of a stevia packet in your iced coffee or tea and you’ll know exactly what I mean.
- Questionable long-term safety. Although notices have been submitted to the FDA for steviol glycosides for GRAS status, whole stevia leaves or crude stevia extracts are not permitted for use and the impact on health over time is unknown. In fact, stevia has had a rocky history with the FDA. It was initially banned in 1990, allowed only as a supplement (not as a food additive or sweetener) as a part of the Dietary Supplement Health and Education Act in 1993, and finally given a no objection rating by the FDA for only highly purified stevia extract in 2008.
- Often combined with sugar alcohols and other sweeteners. Stevia is often used in products alongside other sweeteners, which can be a dealbreaker if you don’t like sugar alcohols or artificial sweeteners.
Monk fruit, also known as Luo Han Guo or ‘buddha fruit’, is a small, round, and green fruit native to Southern China, where it’s been used for centuries. Depending on the extract, it can be up to 100 to 250 times sweeter than sugar.
- Naturally derived.
- Zero calories and better blood sugar control compared to sugar.
Generally Recognized As Safe (GRAS). The FDA recognizes Mogroside V (which is found in monk fruit extract)  as safe to use as a food ingredient and with other sweeteners in foods.
- Anti-inflammatory effects. Although the research was specifically done for ear inflammation, monk fruit extract is believed to be helpful. More research is needed to understand the full benefits of monk fruit, but initial studies are promising.
Potential for too much sweetness if you add too much. A little amount goes a long way when it comes to monk fruit extract.
Some of the artificial sweeteners have been around for quite a long time. You’ll notice them at coffee shops and eateries by their unique color: yellow (sucralose), pink (saccharin), and blue (aspartame). Most of these sweeteners are at least 200 to 600 times sweeter than sugar, so you only need to use little amount to taste the sweetness.
- Often comes in individual packets. If you stick with buying packets, it’s easy to portion how much sweetener to add to beverages.
- No calories and low or no carbs, resulting in better blood sugar control.
- Approved for use as food additives in the United States. There are a total of six high-intensity sweeteners that are FDA-approved as food additives in the United States: saccharin, aspartame, acesulfame potassium (Ace-K), sucralose, neotame, and advantame.
- Poor taste. Saccharin, Ace-K, and aspartame don’t taste anything like sugar. This is why you can definitely tell a diet soda apart from a regular soda.
- Overpowering sweetness if you add too much. The sweetness from artificial sweeteners can often be yucky and overpowering in a not-so-good way. Try to stick with one packet, if you really need to add these into your drinks or food.
- Artificial and chemically processed. I don’t see any concerns about this from a health perspective, but this is just a personal preference if you like your food mostly natural and plant-based.
- May taste sweet, but doesn’t function like sugar. Most of them don’t dissolve well in beverages and you can’t bake with them (except sucralose) unless they’re mixed with sugar or other sweeteners.
- (Aspartame only) Metabolism issues for people with phenylketonuria (PKU), a rare genetic disorder. Such individuals should avoid or limit intake of aspartame. This is generally marked on the label with a warning.
Questions around safety, if consumed in extreme amounts. There are established acceptable daily intake (ADI) levels that are considered safe to consume each day over the person’s lifetime. In extreme amounts, safety has been questioned, but it is unlikely that someone would consume that much quantity for the safety to matter.
Sugar alcohols are neither sugars nor alcohols, despite their name! These compounds are carbs that resemble sugar molecules and taste sweet like sugar (25 percent to 100 percent of the sweetness of sugar, depending on the type), but they generally aren’t digested by the body in the same way. This means that sugar alcohols contribute fewer calories than sugar or typical sources of carbs normally would.
The easiest way to identify sugar alcohols in food is from their names – they generally end in -ol. Common types of sugar alcohols include sorbitol, xylitol, erythritol, maltitol, mannitol, lactitol, isomalt, and hydrogenated starch hydrolysates. Although these names can sound scary and chemical, sugar alcohols can naturally occur in food sources like fruits – and erythritol is a completely natural sugar alcohol.
- Fewer calories and not used by the body as energy. Sugar alcohols are less dense in energy than sugar or typical carbs, due to their incomplete and slow digestion in the body, as shown with sorbitol.
- No cavities. Sugar alcohols aren’t broken down in your mouth like sugar, so you can have sweets without worrying about tooth decay that sugary foods normally would cause. This is why many sugar-free gums contain xylitol.
- Gassy, bloating, and bathroom trips, oh my! Most sugar alcohols are partially absorbed and then fermented in your colon, which causes gastrointestinal distress. For example, consuming greater than 50g per day of sorbitol or greater than 20g per day of mannitol has been shown to cause diarrhea and other undesirable side effects . Although sugar-free treats with sugar alcohols may be tasty, you may want to avoid replacing your entire snack repertoire to avoid this discomfort.
- Cooling, somewhat minty sensation on the tongue. If you put sugar alcohols directly on your tongue, it dissolves and transfers heat to your tongue. As this chemical reaction takes place, your tongue feels like it’s freezing!
The Bottom Line
If you’re trying to balance your sweet tooth with reducing sugar intake, you don’t have to make sacrifices. In fact, there are many healthy sweetener options that can fit your lifestyle. You can find the name of the sweetener on the ingredient list on any food product to make an informed decision.
What’s your favorite sweetener and why? Comment below and let me know!