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About 13 billion dollars are spent every year on sugar substitutes in the world. Most people consume them for two major reasons:

1) They want to lower their calories intake, by sweetening their foods with a lower calorie substitute. There are 2.1 billion obese or overweight people in the world

2) Avoid the sugar spike in their blood, which is dangerous for people with sugar intolerance (mostly diabetes, type 1 or 2). There are 371 nillion people with diabetes, not counting the undiagnosed cases.

That is why the food industry and the scientific community have been looking for alternative sweeteners for over 100 years. By the end of the 19th century, the appearence of saccharin started the trend.

The good news is there are plenty of sugar substitutes, nowadays considered safe, and taste is improving. The bad news is sugar alternatives are confusing and filled with contradictory information.

Why is sugar bad for you

Table sugar, the white refined sugar we use in our daily life, is called sucrose. It contains 50% glucose (which provides energy to our bodies), and 50% fructose (which goes straight to the liver and is converted into fat).

Sugar does provide energy, but does not provide any useful nutrients. At 16 calories per teaspon, it does not provide major benefits, while can make us fat.

Nowadays, sugar has been declared a public enemy, with added-sugar being singled out as the reason behind the obesity epidemic. A few years ago, the scientific community was convinced that high fat consumption was the enemy, an idea which has been sponsored by the sugar industry.

The real problem is not sugar itself, but added sugar, especially when added in big quantities to otherwise non-nutritional foods. That is, eating fruits (which contain fructose naturally), brings calories with fiber and other nutrients, which is good in controlled quantities. But drinking a sugary soda, which is basically water and chemicals, will only provide empty calories, and plenty of them.

Substituting sugar

The best solution to the problem caused by sugar is avoiding all added sugar, and consuming it only from natural sources like fruits, and in moderate quantities. We should enjoy coffee for it’s flavor, not the sweet we add. We should learn to appreciate natural flavors.

But we like sweet. Thus, the second best option if we want to enjoy sweetness, is substituting it smartly.

Benefits of sugar substitutes

As we mentioned earlier, sugar is substituted to consume less calories, and to avoid sugar spikes in the blood. If you use the appropriate substitute, in the right amount, you can certainly accomplish both.

Problems with sugar substitutes

Many in the scientific community are wary about sugar alternatives. Since Saccharin was linked to Bladder cancer in rats in the 70s, they have been under intense scrutiny (it was later found that the bladder cancer occurs only in rats, saccharin is now considered safe).

As most of the sugar alternatives are artificial or processed, they need to be approved and tested. Thousands of studies have been carried out trying to determine the link between sweeteners and cancer, as well as many other side effects and potential issues. So far, the FDA has approved a number of them.

We will cover 4 sugar substitutes: brown sugar, artificial sweeteners, sugar alcohols, novel (“natural”) sweeteners, and other natural sweeteners.

Sugar and alternatives

TABLE SUGAR (sucrose)

Calories: 16 per teaspoon

Made up of 50 percent glucose, the component that spikes blood sugar, and 50 percent fructose, the stuff that goes straight for the liver

The deal: Sucrose offers energy but no nutritional benefits. In 2003, a team of international experts recommended that added sugars make up no more than 10% of your diet, or about 12 teaspoons (50 grams) for a 2,000-calorie diet.


Brown sugar is most often ordinary table sugar that is turned brown by the reintroduction of molasses.

The two varieties of sugar are similar nutritionally. According to the United States Department of Agriculture, brown sugar contains about 17 kilocalories per teaspoon, compared with 16 kilocalories per teaspoon for white sugar.

Brown sugar does contain certain minerals, most notably calcium, potassium, iron and magnesium (white sugar contains none of these). But since these minerals are present in only minuscule amounts, there is no real health benefit to using brown sugar.


Synthetic sugar substitutes (may be derived from naturally occurring substances including herbs or sugar itself).

+ Add virtually no calories to your diet
+ You need only a fraction to get the same sweetness as sugar
+ Generally don’t raise blood sugar levels because they are not carbohydrates
+ FDA regulated

– May leave an aftertaste
– Under scrutiny for causing cancer (numerous research studies confirm that artificial sweeteners are generally safe in limited quantities, even for pregnant women)

Commonly used artificial sweeteners:

  • Saccharin (cal: 0): around for 100+ years; linked in 70s with bladder cancer, later dismissed. Brands: Sweet ‘N Low, Sweet Twin
  • Acesulfame Potassium (cal: 0, approved 1988). Brands: ACE K, Sunette, Equal Spoonful, Sweet One, Sweet ‘n Safe
  • Aspartame (cal: 0, approved 1981) Has the lowest ranking in reviews of food additives. People with phenylketonuria should avoid it. Brands: Equal, NutraSweet, NatraTaste Blue
  • Neotame (cal: 0, approved 2002). A new version of aspartame, between 7,000 and 13,000 times sweeter than table sugar; the only nonnutritive sweeteners to get the seal of approval from the CSPI.
  • Sucralose (cal: 0, approved 1998) Not sensitive to heat, can therefore be used for baking. Brands: Splenda


Are combinations of various types of sweeteners. Are hard to fit into one particular category because they of what they’re made from and how they’re made.

Commonly used novel sweeteners:


Carbohydrates that occur naturally in certain fruits and vegetables, but can also be manufactured. Unlike artificial sweeteners, They’re not sweeter than sugar (some are less sweet than sugar)

+ FDA regulated, generally recognized as safe (GRAS)
+ Despite their name, they aren’t alcoholic. They don’t contain ethanol.
+ Add sweetness, bulk and texture to foods. They also help food stay moist, prevent browning when heated and add a cooling sensation.
+ Are often combined with artificial sweeteners to enhance sweetness
+ They don’t contribute to tooth decay and cavities
+ Only 2 calories per gram on average
+ You can consume sugar alcohols if you have diabetes, but you still must pay attention to the total amount. Talk to your doctor or dietitian for guidance.

– They contain calories (about 10 per teaspoon, 2.6 per gram). But they’re lower in calories than is regular sugar
– Generally aren’t used when you prepare food at home, but found in processed foods
– Can raise blood sugar levels, they’re carbohydrates. But your body doesn’t completely absorb sugar alcohols, their effect on blood sugar is less than that of other sugars.
– When eaten in large amounts, usually more than 50 grams, but sometimes as little as 10 grams, sugar alcohols can have a laxative effect

Commonly used sugar alcohols:

  • Xylitol:  2.4 calories/gram, 100% sweetness, compared to sugar
  • Erythritol: 0.2 calories/gram, 60% to 80% sweetness
  • Maltitol: 2.1 calories/gram, 90% sweetness
  • Mannitol: 1.6 calories/gram, 50% to 70% sweetness
  • Sorbitol: 2.6 calories/gram, 50% to 70% sweetness
  • Lactitol: 2.0 calories/gram, 30% to 40% sweetness
  • Isomalt: 2.0 calories/gram, 45% to 65% sweetness
  • Hydrogenated starch hydrolysate (HSH): 3.0 calories/gram, 25% to 50% sweetness


Sugar substitutes that are often promoted as healthier options than processed table sugar or other sugar substitutes. But even these so-called natural sweeteners often undergo processing and refining. Sometimes known as added sugars because they’re added to foods during processing.

– Their vitamin and mineral content isn’t significantly different from that of sugar
– There’s no health advantage to consuming any type of added sugar
– Consuming too much added sugar, even natural sweeteners, can lead to health problems, such as tooth decay, poor nutrition, weight gain and increased triglycerides

Commonly used “natural” sweeteners:

  • Maple syrup
  • High fructose corn syrup (cal: 17 per teaspoon, it’s cheaper than sucrose and gives products a longer shelf life; contribute to obesity more than sucrose)
  • Coconut sugar
  • Fruit purees / concentrate
  • Raw honey (cal: 21 per teaspoon; studies suggest it may not raise blood sugar as fast as other sweet products)
  • Agave nectar (cal: 20 per teaspoon) 70 to 90 percent fructose, one of the worst sweeteners on the market, and it’s deceptive because it’s been marketed as a healthy alternative
  • Date Sugar
  • Molasses

More sugar alternatives information