Everywhere you look, people seem to be touting the benefits of a sugar-free diet. But not all sugar is created equal, and no one approach is the best for every person’s goals and preferences. Here are some key facts on sugar, sugar substitutes and sugar-free diets.
Sugar is one type of carbohydrate, as are fiber and starch. Although carbohydrates are essential macronutrients (nutrients the body uses in large amounts), sugar is not. Sugar is an umbrella term for many types of simple carbohydrates, including white table sugar. Also called sucrose, this is the most common sweetener used in sweet desserts and baked goods.
Sucrose is only one of several types of sugar naturally found in foods including fruits, vegetables, grains and dairy products. Other natural sugars include:
Sugar substitutes taste sweet but don’t contain sugar. They have fewer calories than sugar, and some have no calories at all. Foods labeled “sugar-free,” “keto,” “low carb” or “diet” often contain sugar substitutes, which fall into three categories: artificial sweeteners, sugar alcohols and novel sweeteners.
Most artificial sweeteners (also called nonnutritive sweeteners) are created from chemicals in a lab. A few are made from natural substances like herbs. They can be 200 to 700 times sweeter than table sugar.
These sweeteners don’t contain calories or sugar, but they also don’t have beneficial nutrients like vitamins, fiber, minerals or antioxidants. They are regulated by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) as food additives.
Traditionally, artificial sweeteners have been the only option for people who need to monitor their blood glucose levels or weight. Some experts believe that artificial sweeteners pose health hazards, from weight gain to cancer. But research on this is ongoing, and past studies showing health risks were conducted on animals, not humans. Studies on people have shown these products to be generally safe if more than the acceptable daily intake for each is not consumed.
The FDA has approved several artificial sweeteners:
Acesulfame potassium (Ace-K)
Similar to artificial sweeteners, sugar alcohols are created synthetically (typically from sugars themselves). Sugar alcohols are used in many processed foods. They’re not as sweet as artificial sweeteners, and they add texture and taste to foods like chewing gum and hard candies. They can cause gastrointestinal irritation like bloating, gas or diarrhea in some people.
Unlike other sugar substitutes, sugar alcohols must be listed on nutrition facts labels. Examples include:
Novel sweeteners are derived from natural sources. This relatively new group, sometimes called “plant-derived noncaloric sweeteners,” provides many of the benefits of both artificial and natural sweeteners like fruit or honey. Novel sweeteners are not a significant source of calories or sugar, so they don’t lead to weight gain or blood sugar spikes. They are also typically less processed and are more similar to their natural sources compared to artificial sweeteners.
Stevia and monk fruit are both naturally derived from plants and some people feel they have a flavor very similar to regular sugar.
The FDA says these sweeteners are “generally regarded as safe,” which means they are safe to use for their intended purpose.