Sugar Substitutes Made Simple

Everything you need to know about sugar substitutes and which to choose.

Sugar, or overindulgence of sugar, is a trending topic lately. There is no doubt that research shows negative health effects associated with chronic, high sugar intake.  With so much worry about the adverse effects of sugar we are left with hundreds of sugar substitutions.  So, what are the pros and cons of sugar substitutes and how do you make the best choice?


What is a sugar substitute?

A sugar substitute is any sweetener that is used in place of table sugar.  They are typically classified into 4 categories including artificial sweeteners, sugar alcohols, novel sweeteners, and natural sweeteners. 


Artificial Sweeteners

One of the most popular sugar substitutes, artificial sweeteners are referred to as intense sweeteners because they are much sweeter than table sugar.  Most are calorie-free, and many are even derived from natural sources.  They are most useful for diabetics and assisting with weight control because they do not cause blood sugar levels to spike.  Past studies linked artificial sweeteners to cancer, however most recent evidence has suggested this may not be true.  Examples of artificial sweeteners include: aspartame (Equal), saccharin (Sweet’N Low), sucralose (Splenda).


Sugar Alcohols

Often combined with artificial sweeteners; sugar alcohols are found in gum, candy, and processed foods because they help to prevent browning and keep food moist.  Sugar alcohols do contain some calories although, only a small fraction of the calories in normal sugar.  This makes them a viable choice for weight control and prevention of diabetes.  However, in large doses, sugar alcohols have been found to have a laxative effect and may cause gastrointestinal distress.  Examples include: erythritol, sorbitol, and xylitol.


Novel Sweeteners

The most confusing of the sugar substitute categories, novel sweeteners are actually a combination of several different kinds of sweeteners.  They are often highly refined and have no calories.  They are a relatively new product in the sugar substitute world which means research is limited.  However, the FDA considers them generally recognized as safe (GRAS) in moderation.  Examples include: stevia extracts, tagatose, and trehalose.


Natural Sweeteners 

Marketed as the “healthiest” sugar substitutes available, natural sweeteners are sweeteners derived from natural sources.  However, this does not mean they are “healthy” or free from processing.   Many natural sources of sweetness are very expensive to provide to the public at a large scale so refining or processing occurs.  For instance, agave nectar, has been criticized in recent times for being worse for you than real sugar because of the high fructose concentration.  Large levels of fructose in the diet has been linked to fatty liver disease, excessive abdominal fat, diabetes, and heart disease. Natural sweeteners are also calorie dense and can contribute to tooth decay and weight gain.  Examples of natural sweeteners include agave nectar, honey, maple syrup, molasses, and fruit juice concentrations. 


So what should you choose and why?

When considering sugar substitutes, it is most important to practice moderation.  Calorie-free substitutes may assist with weight control, but they are not the only answer.  A balanced macronutrient focused diet combined with daily exercise is the best long-term solution for weight control.  Artificial sweeteners and sugar alcohols are fine in small amounts, but they should not be consumed on a regular basis.  Novel sweeteners do have a lack of research and a relatively new place on the market; however, in small amounts, there is minimal risk to the consumer.  Natural sweeteners have my vote for best sugar substitute to consume; nevertheless, doing your research is essential.  Never buy a natural sugar that has been refined or processed.  Stick to honey or use regular table sugar in moderation.


Remember, moderation is the key to a healthy lifestyle.  If you need further nutritional advice, share this post on social media and we will give you a free nutrition assessment to get on the right track!  Feel free to post any questions to our social media pages and remember to subscribe to our mailing list to stay on top of all things Transform Rehabilitation.


In health,

Kyle Lance, PT, DPT


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