The ultimate guide to fake sweeteners: what they do to your body, how to consume them, and what to use instead

Leo Aquino
July 14th, 2021 · 6 min read
Medically Verified
Collectively, we know that sugar isn’t always good for us. Unwilling to give up the sweet life, we turn to artificial sweeteners, like Splenda or Sweet n Low, to sweeten our morning coffees and sugar-free desserts. But are fake sweeteners really better for us? Sugar alternatives, like saccharin and aspartame, have gotten such a bad rep that we need alternatives for the sugar alternatives.
Not all fake sweeteners are created equal, but we’re here to help you figure out the best ones to use. Here’s what you need to know about sugar alternatives:

In this article

  1. What are artificial sweeteners?
  2. Why is everyone talking about it?
  3. How do artificial sweeteners impact the body?
  4. Are sugar alternatives bad?
  5. What’s the difference between artificial sweeteners and natural sugar alternatives?
  6. What are the best natural sugar alternatives?
  7. Uses for sugar alternatives

In Brief

  • Artificial sweeteners are sugar-free chemical compounds that make foods and drinks sweet.
  • Artificial sweeteners have been criticized by health experts for their adverse effects on blood glucose levels, increasing risk of developing diabetes and more.
  • Some artificial sweeteners are better than others, and there are natural sugar substitutes that are healthier than artificial sweeteners.
  • Natural sugar substitutes may contain fiber, vitamins and minerals that artificial sweeteners don’t have.

What are artificial sweeteners?

Artificial sweeteners are sugar-free ingredients that make foods and drinks sweet. Intended to curb the rising rates of diabetes and obesity caused by sugar, artificial sweeteners are man-made chemical compounds that are meant to sweeten foods without the harmful effects (and calories) of real sugar.
Currently, the FDA has 5 approved fake sweeteners:
  • Acesulfame potassium (aka Sunett)
  • Aspartame (Nutrasweet or Equal)
  • Sucralose (Splenda)
  • D-Tagatose (Sugaree)
  • Saccharin (Sweet n Low)

Why is everyone talking about it?

Artificial sweeteners have been criticized by scientists since the 1970s, when one study linked saccharin to bladder cancer in rats. Saccharin was first created after World War II to solve a sugar shortage, but stayed on household shelves because of their marketable low-calorie promise.
After the study suggested that saccharin could potentially cause cancer, the FDA still approved it with the caveat that saccharin producers are required to add a small warning on the label. This chain of events showed consumers that FDA-approval doesn’t always lead to a healthier choice.
Artificial sweeteners are so successful that it’s expected to grow into a 20.6 billion dollar industry by 2025. That’s only four years from now! Their products are typically marketed in bright packaging that makes you feel like you’re making a healthier, more informed choice as a consumer. FDA-approval aside, artificial sweetener producers make an effort to conceal the negative effects of their products from consumers.

How do artificial sweeteners impact the body?

Here are five ways that regular consumption of artificial sweeteners can impact the body:
  • Some artificial sweeteners don’t cause the same spike in blood sugar levels like real sugar does. This is important for people with type 1 diabetes who still want to sweeten their drinks and eat desserts. 
  • Artificial sweeteners change your tolerance for sweetness. According to Harvard Medical School, artificial sweeteners are over 100x times sweeter than regular sugar. When we consume artificial sugar, our sugar receptors become overstimulated. Artificial sweeteners train our tastebuds to think that natural sugars from fruit aren’t sweet enough. The brain’s association becomes that extra-sweet foods help you lose weight, which is counterintuitive.
  • Artificial sweeteners are addictive. In a Time Magazine article about artificial sweeteners for children, Dr. Robert Lustig compared artificial sweeteners to methadone, a drug that helps addicts wean from more addictive substances. Dr. Lustig says, “If you’re using artificial sweeteners as a way to kick a heavy sugar habit, then great. But if you’re using it as an excuse to keep eating sweet foods and substituting one for the other, then ultimately they are not going to be helpful.” Take a step back and assess your eating habits. What role does artificial sweeteners play in your diet? You may have curbed your sugar addiction, but a dependence on artificial sweeteners can be just as detrimental to your overall health.
  • Artificial sweeteners put you at greater risk of developing type 2 diabetes. Type 2 diabetes happens when your body becomes resistant to insulin due to a combination of genetics and lifestyle choices. A 2020 study published in the Journal of Family Medicine and Primary Care showed that the sweetness of artificial sweeteners tricks the body into releasing more insulin. Eventually, the body develops a resistance to insulin that can lead to type 2 diabetes.
  • Artificial sweeteners can cause metabolic issues. Studies have shown that artificial sweeteners can cause weight gain. Artificial sweeteners can also negatively affect the gut microbiome, the good bacteria in our digestive system that facilitates digestion. When the gut microbiome changes, you’ll feel less full and satiated by regular-sized meals.

Are sugar alternatives bad?

Not necessarily.
Like any other food or ingredient, moderation is key. Eating one pastry baked with artificial sweeteners once in a blue moon won’t kill you. However, regular consumption of artificial sugar can cause some of the negative effects listed above.
Some artificial sweeteners, like sucralose found in Splenda, are better than others. A 2020 study showed that sucralose consumption has no effect on blood sugar, insulin or the gut microbiome. Production of sucralose actually starts with real sugar (sucrose), which may be the reason it’s not as harmful to our bodies as other artificial sweeteners.
Another sugar alternative called Xylitol, a sugar alcohol with similar sweetness to real sugar, can actually support the gut microbiome rather than harm it. Sugar alcohols like xylitol are less common in home cooking, but can be found in processed foods that are labeled sugar-free.
Not all artificial sweeteners are bad, but there are healthier alternatives sourced naturally. Each person’s dietary needs are different, so it may take some trial-and-error to figure out which sugar alternatives work best for you.

What’s the difference between artificial sugar and natural sugar substitutes? 

Simply put, natural sugar substitutes are found in plants, while artificial sweeteners are made in a lab. Natural sugar substitutes contain fiber, vitamins and minerals. They’ve been used by humans for centuries, while artificial sweeteners are created in labs and lack all the benefits of plant-based alternatives.

What are the best natural sugar alternatives?

Here are few common natural sugar alternatives and their unique benefits:
  • Stevia comes from a South American plant called Stevia rebaudiana, which has medicinal properties and natural sweetness. Stevia typically comes in a coarse powder that melts well in hot liquids. You can buy Stevia at most grocery stores and convenience stores. It is hundreds of times sweeter than sugar, but contains no calories.
  • Honey is the gold liquid produced by bees. It has a lower glycemic index than sugar, which means it does not raise blood glucose levels as quickly. Raw honey can also fight infection and soothe acid reflux, among many other health benefits.
  • Molasses also contains nutrients and antioxidants, making it healthier than refined sugar, but it still contains high levels of sugar. 
  • Coconut Sugar comes from the sap of the coconut palm tree. The sap is mixed with water, boiled into a syrup, then crystallized to look like table sugar. Vegans love coconut sugar because it’s minimally processed and completely plant-based, however its molecular structure is pretty close to regular sugar. It still causes the same spike in blood glucose levels as regular sugar.
  • Agave comes from the large succulent plants that grow in warm climates like Southwest America and Mexico. It does contain antioxidants and nutrients, but it has large amounts of carbohydrates from fructose, similar to regular sugar.
  • Maple Syrup only has a slightly lower glycemic index than sugar, which means it may not raise blood glucose levels as quickly. However, most maple syrup brands add high fructose corn syrup during the production process. Read ingredient labels carefully.
  • Monkfruit is a small green melon native to southern China, named after the monks who cultivated it centuries ago. Its wellness benefits have been honored by Traditional Chinese Medicine for a long time. Monkfruit is gaining mainstream popularity because it’s 150-250 times sweeter than table sugar, but has zero calories and doesn’t raise blood glucose levels. 
  • Yacon Syrup is extracted from the roots of the yacon plant that grows natively in the Andes mountains in South America. The yacon plant has been eaten and used for medicinal purposes for centuries in South America. Once processed, it becomes a sweet syrup with a consistency similar to molasses. Yacon syrup contains ⅓ of the caloric value of table sugar, and it contains soluble dietary fiber.
  • Fruit can’t be used in the same way as powdered sugar or syrupy substitutes, but it’s a great fiber-packed substitute for sweet snacks.

Uses for sugar alternatives

All of these sugar alternatives can be used for drinks, cooking and baking. If you’re working from a recipe, remember that sugar alternatives are typically many times sweeter than sugar. Find ways to tweak the recipe to balance out the sweetness, or look for recipes that are written for artificial sweeteners, both natural and manmade.

More articles from Base Blog

The relationship between your hormones, anxiety, and caffeine

Learn about the relationship between anxiety, caffeine, and cortisol, the stress hormone. Cortisol imbalances may increase the symptoms of anxiety disorders.

July 5th, 2021 · 8 min read

6 simple tips for easy, healthy habits

The key to improving health is better behavior. Here we describe how continuous glucose monitoring and closed-loop systems inspire real behavior change.

June 17th, 2021 · 9 min read
We send really nice emails
Follow usLink to $ to $ to $
Created by potrace 1.16, written by Peter Selinger 2001-2019
© 2023 Base