The Sweet Truth About Sugar Substitutes: Healthy or Harmful?

Article posted in: Diet & Nutrition Experts’ Corner
adding sugar substitute in coffee

It’s a fact: too much sugar in your diet is a bad thing, but that hasn’t stopped most of us from eating sugar in excess. The average person consumes 17 teaspoons (68 grams) of added sugar daily. That’s three times more than experts recommend, increasing the risk of obesity, heart disease and diabetes.

But are artificial sugars and sugar substitutes the answer? These food additives help satisfy your sweet tooth without adding calories. However, their healthfulness is widely debated.

To help you cut through the confusion and make the best choice for your weight loss journey, let’s examine the facts.

Types of Sugar Substitutes

sugar substitutes

The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has approved using various sugar substitutes in products like diet soda, cereals, packaged snacks and desserts. They typically fall into one of two categories:

Artificial sugar substitutes are made from chemical sources. Common types include:

  • Aspartame (Equal ®)
  • Acelfuame K (Sunett ®)
  • Saccharin (Sweet‘N Low ®)
  • Sucralose (Splenda ®)

Natural sugar substitutes are made from plant sources and may contain minimal calories. These include:

  • Stevia
  • Monk Fruit
  • Sugar Alcohols (mannitol, erythritol, sorbitol)

Each sugar substitute varies in sweetness and how the body digests it, adding complexity to their study.

Do Sugar Substitutes Help With Weight Loss?

sugar free candy

Using sugar substitutes in place of high-sugar foods may help reduce calorie intake, leading to weight loss. However, only when used in moderation as part of an overall healthful diet.

Calorie-free sugar substitutes might seem like a great weight loss solution, but it’s not that simple. While they can cut calories, using them too much might backfire.

Some studies have found that frequent diet drink consumption could lead to weight gain. How? Critics say the intense sweetness might make you crave more sweet foods, leading to overeating.

On the other hand, a recent review of multiple studies found that swapping just one sugary drink with a diet version helped overweight people lose about four pounds on average. Plus, this review showed sugar substitute use did not affect appetite, cravings or calorie intake.

So, are sugar substitutes the secret to weight loss? No, but they might help a little if used occasionally as part of a balanced diet and active lifestyle.

Health Implications of Sugar Substitutes

diet soda

While sugar substitutes may offer small but helpful benefits to your weight loss journey, are there any downsides? Let’s review some FAQs on the health impacts of using sugar substitutes.

Do sugar substitutes cause cancer?

The debate over a possible link between sugar substitutes like aspartame and cancer has flared up again, with the World Health Organization (WHO) recently listing aspartame as a possible carcinogen. Does this mean you should stop drinking diet soda?

First, it’s worth noting that many long-term studies have found no connection between cancer and sugar substitutes within recommended amounts.

For context, the WHO’s maximum recommended intake for aspartame would equal about 12 cans of diet soda daily for a 130-pound person – far more than most people would consume.

So why the concern? Some studies have noted that people who develop certain cancers also use sugar substitutes. However, these findings don’t mean that diet sodas cause cancer. Other lifestyle factors might be involved, or the observations could be due to chance or bias.

Ultimately, the WHO wants to encourage further monitoring and research on this topic.

In the meantime, both the WHO’s committee on food additives and the FDA have reassured that sugar substitutes are safe within currently recommended intake amounts. The main takeaway? Keep enjoying your diet beverages, but like anything else, moderation is key.

Do sugar substitutes increase the risk of developing diabetes?

Some studies have noticed that people who consume a lot of sugar substitutes seem to have a higher risk of developing Type 2 diabetes. But that doesn’t mean the sugar substitutes are to blame. People who end up with diabetes might just happen to enjoy diet soda more.

In fact, many controlled studies have found sugar substitutes have no impact on blood sugar control or insulin levels.

Furthermore, the American Diabetes Association says sugar substitutes are an acceptable replacement for sugar to control calorie and carbohydrate intake. However, they recommend reducing both sugar and sugar substitute intake as much as possible.

Do sugar substitutes impact your gut health?

Your gut is teaming with micro-organisms collectively known as your gut microbiome. The balance of this ecosystem affects everything from nutrient absorption to immunity. What you eat, sugar substitutes included, can quickly change this balance.

For example, one study showed that saccharin and sucralose negatively affected blood sugar regulation by altering the gut microbiome, while stevia interfered with cell communication. Conversely, sugar alcohols have been found to promote the growth of healthy bacteria.

But these findings are just the tip of the iceberg, and more research is needed to fully understand the effects of sugar substitutes on our gut health.

What is The Best Way To Use Them?

artificial sweetener

Health agencies agree that using sugar substitutes in moderation is a safe way to cut calories from harmful sugars and potentially aid weight management. Each option has its benefits and risks, making no type significantly healthier than the other.

What matters more for your health is the amount you use rather than the specific sugar substitute you choose. Ultimately, sugar substitutes should not be a significant part of your diet, so consider where you can minimize them in your daily food choices.

Low Sugar and Low-Calorie Alternatives

Refreshing Ice Cold Water with Lemon

What are some low-sugar and low-calorie options for reducing or skipping sugar substitutes? Try these ideas:

  • Add mint, cinnamon, unsweetened cocoa powder or vanilla extract to coffee and tea.
  • Flavor sparkling or flat water with fruit, lime or lemon juice.
  • Use balsamic vinegar to flavor salads or cut vegetables instead of sweet salad dressings.
  • Use unsweetened applesauce in baked goods in place of sugar.
  • Freeze fruits like bananas, berries and grapes for a sweet snack.
  • Create a healthy pudding by combining unsweetened almond milk with chia seeds and berries.

Do Nutrisystem Foods Contain Sugar Substitutes?

As part of Nutrisystem’s commitment to food quality, no artificial sweeteners are used in their foods. Certain foods contain natural sugar alternatives like stevia, monk fruit and sugar alcohols. Complete ingredient statements for each product are available to review online to help you choose options that best meet your health goals.


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