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What’s a Sugar Substitute?

A sugar substitute is an artificial (made in a lab) or natural (plant-based) substance that sweetens food and drink in place of sugar. Typically, sugar substitutes are hundreds of times sweeter than sugar and have few to no calories. They’re a common sweetening choice for “diet” products such as sodas, sauces, baked goods, or sugar-free candies or gum.

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Made from the amino acids aspartic acid and phenylalanine, it’s a popular artificial sugar. It has calories, but because it’s some 200 times sweeter than sugar, you use less. It’s in soda, gum, yogurt, desserts, and medicines. Equal and NutraSweet are common brands. You can’t bake with it, because it isn’t sweet after you heat it. People with the rare condition phenylketonuria (PKU) shouldn’t eat it because their bodies can’t process it.

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This lab-made sweetener has been around since 1879. It’s calorie-free, and can sometimes leave a bitter aftertaste. You can use it in baking. You’ll find it in processed foods like baked goods, canned fruit, gum, and soft drinks. If you’re pregnant, you may want to avoid it, because it can cross through the placenta to your growing baby.

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This product is about 600 times sweeter than sugar. It’s made in a lab by altering a sucrose (sugar) molecule, so you might hear it called a non-nutritive sweetener. Your body doesn’t absorb it, so it doesn’t give you any calories. One brand name for it is Splenda. Often sucralose is in sodas, juices, sauces, syrups, candy, and desserts. You can buy it in a bag and use it to bake.

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This natural sugar substitute gets its sweet taste from the extract of Stevia rebaudiana leaves. You’ll often find it as liquid drops in the store, or as an ingredient in yogurts, baked goods, candy, and gum. You can use it as a sweetener in coffee or tea, or you can bake with it.

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Monk Fruit

This sweetener is an extract from the Chinese monk fruit melon. The Chinese have used it for hundreds of years, but it’s fairly new in the U.S. It’s calorie-free and often mixed with other sugar substitutes. Monk fruit, or lo han guo, is in some juices, soft drinks, dairy products, condiments, and candies.

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Sugar Alcohols

Sugar alcohols have features of both sugar and food alcohols (not the kind you find in drinks). They’re carbohydrates that are either lab-made or come from certain fruits. Most have “-tol” at the end of their name, like erythritol, maltitol, sorbitol, and xylitol. You can find them in processed foods like gum, hard candies, ice cream, and pudding, as well as mouthwash and toothpaste.

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Are They Safe?

The FDA has approved these artificial and natural sugar substitutes. The National Cancer Institute says there’s no proof they cause cancer. But there are some risks, especially if you overdo it. They may change your gut bacteria and cause digestive problems. They’re also linked to diseases such as type 2 diabetes and high blood pressure.

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Are They Good for Weight Loss?

Yes, swapping out your sugar for a substitute might mean fewer calories in your food and drinks. But there’s no strong proof that using them helps you lose weight.

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Are They OK if You Have Diabetes?

Sugar substitutes can be a good option for satisfying your sweet tooth while keeping blood sugar levels under control. Keep your daily intake below the recommended level, and get your calories from whole, nutritious foods.

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Sources | Medically Reviewed on 01/21/2020 Reviewed by Christine Mikstas, RD, LD on January 21, 2020


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American Academy of Family Physicians: “Sugar Substitutes.”

FDA: “Additional Information about High-Intensity Sweeteners Permitted for Use in Food in the United States,” “Sugar Alcohols.”

Diabetes Spectrum: “Nonnutritive Sweeteners: Where Are We Today?”

Healthy Women: “Are Artificial Sweeteners Safe to Use During Pregnancy?”

Cleveland Clinic: “Sugar Substitutes & Non-Nutritive Sweeteners.”

International Food Information Council Foundation: “Everything You Need to Know about Monk Fruit Sweeteners.”

Utah State University Extension: “Sweet As ... Sucralose: The Pros and Cons of Artificial Sweeteners.”

Reviewed by Christine Mikstas, RD, LD on January 21, 2020

This tool does not provide medical advice. See additional information.

THIS TOOL DOES NOT PROVIDE MEDICAL ADVICE. It is intended for general informational purposes only and does not address individual circumstances. It is not a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment and should not be relied on to make decisions about your health. Never ignore professional medical advice in seeking treatment because of something you have read on the WebMD Site. If you think you may have a medical emergency, immediately call your doctor or dial 911.