Stevia and Sugar Substitutes

When you're cutting calories or cutting down on sugar, you may try other sweeteners. All of the following sweeteners are approved by the FDA.

Stevia

What It Is: This natural, no-calorie sweetener, made from a South American plant, has been around for centuries. It's now in sodas and sports drinks, as well as tabletop packets (usually green), liquid drops, dissolvable tablets, and spoonable products, as well as baking blends. Among brand names, SweetLeaf is a sweetener made from stevia extract, and both Truvia and Pure Via are stevia-based. Some stores have generic stevia products.

The Scoop: Highly purified stevia extracts, which are what you find on the market, are generally recognized as safe. Some people find that stevia can have a metallic aftertaste. Whole-leaf stevia or crude stevia extracts aren't FDA-approved.

Acesulfame Potassium (Acesulfame-K or Ace-K)

What It Is: Two hundred times sweeter than sugar, acesulfame potassium is a man-made, no-calorie sweetener. You can find it in tabletop packets as Sunett or Sweet One, or in sugar-free gum, light juices, and light ice cream.

The Scoop: The FDA says that more than 90 studies support its safety.

Aspartame

What It Is: Thousands of types of foods are sweetened with aspartame -- aka NutraSweet and Equal. It’s a combo of two amino acids that provide sweetness with almost no calories.

The Scoop: Aspartame "is one of the most exhaustively studied substances in the human food supply, with more than 100 studies supporting its safety," the FDA states.

"An adult weighing 165 pounds would have to drink more than 19 cans of diet soda or consume more than 107 packets a day to go over the recommended level," the American Cancer Society says.

Some people have reported that aspartame gives them headaches or dizziness or affects their moods, but studies haven't linked those symptoms to aspartame. If you have phenylketonuria (PKU), a rare metabolic disorder, avoid aspartame, because it contains phenylalanine. Any product containing aspartame has a warning label about that.

Saccharin

What It Is: Saccharin has been around since the late 1800s, when a researcher spilled the chemical compound on his hand and realized it tasted sweet. It’s between 300 and 500 times sweeter than table sugar and best known as Sweet’N Low.

The Scoop: In the 1970s, saccharin got a warning label after lab tests in rats suggested a possible link to bladder cancer. "Since then, more than 30 studies demonstrated that the results found in rats were not relevant to humans, and that saccharin is safe for human consumption," the FDA's web site states. Saccharin no longer carries a warning label.

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Sucralose

What It Is: Sucralose, also known by its brand name Splenda, has a tag line that it’s “made from sugar” (which it is). It’s 600 times sweeter than sugar.

The Scoop: The FDA says it reviewed more than 100 safety studies before approving sucralose as a general-purpose sweetener for foods. Because it's heat-stable, you can use it for baking.

Sugar Alcohols

What They Are: They don't contain the kind of alcohol you drink. These sweeteners, found in some fruit spreads, chocolate, baked goods, and even mouthwash, have names like xylitol and sorbitol.

They’re made from plant products. They have fewer calories than sugar.

The Scoop: If you have diabetes, be aware that sugar alcohols are carbohydrates and can still raise your blood sugar. They can also act like laxatives or have other digestive symptoms in some people.

WebMD Medical Reference Reviewed by Michael W. Smith, MD on July 31, 2014

Sources

SOURCES:

American Cancer Society: “Aspartame.”

FDA: “Is Stevia an ‘FDA approved’ sweetener?” “What refined Stevia preparations have been evaluated by FDA to be used as a sweetener?” “Additional information about high-intensity sweeteners permitted for use in food in the United States.”

NYU Langone Medical Center: “Stevia.”

Harvard School of Public Health: “Artificial Sweeteners.”

Mayo Clinic: "Possible health benefits of sugar alcohols."

American Diabetes Association: "Sugar Alcohols."

Joslin Diabetes Center: “What are Sugar Alcohols?”

Center for Science in the Public Interest: “Sweet Nothings.”

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