The Ultimate Guide to Zero-Calorie Sugar Substitutes
With obesity on the rise and Americans becoming increasingly concerned about sugar consumption, the manufacturing and distribution of low and zero-calorie sugar substitutes is a $13 billion industry. The promise of a sweet treat with almost no caloric impact is tempting, but is it too good to be true? It’s obvious that not all sugar substitutes are created equally. While a few sugar substitutes seem to be exactly what they promise, others may have dangerous health risks.
Here’s everything you need to know about four of the most popular sugar substitutes.
Aspartame is an older player in the sugar-free game and certainly one of the easiest to find. Marketed under the names Equal and NutraSweet, aspartame has been popular since the early 1980s when it was approved by the FDA. Aspartame was discovered by a chemist named James Schlatter in 1965. The creation of aspartame was initially a step in generating a hormone for testing an anti-ulcer medication. Aspartame’s safety as a sugar substitute has been seriously questioned since the beginning of its mass-market distribution, and many of the studies regarding the safety of aspartame have yielded dubious results.
Aspartame is an incredibly potent sweetener. In fact, it is 180 to 200 times sweeter than sucrose, the main compound in regular table sugar. Several components make up aspartame: two amino acids, aspartic acid and phenylalanine, and an extra carbon atom. When digested, these components break apart and enter the bloodstream separately.
Aspartic acid is found in almost all dietary protein, and phenylalanine is only a serious danger to those with a disease known as phenylketonuria (an “inherited inability to metabolize phenylalanine that causes brain and nerve damage if untreated”). However, when the aspartame molecule separates during digestion, the extra carbon molecule is left alone forming methanol (or methyl alcohol). While methanol naturally occurs in small amounts in alcoholic beverages, the natural process by which the body disposes of methanol creates formaldehyde, which is extremely toxic.
While there remains significant debate among the medical community regarding the safety of consuming aspartame, it remains a popular sugar substitute among diabetics because it has no carbohydrates and therefore doesn’t impact blood glucose levels. Claims of aspartame’s dangerous side effects include everything from neurotoxicity, to cancer, to migraines. One study even found that aspartame and other sweeteners actually work against the metabolism, and can decrease appetite control over time.
Because the chemicals that make aspartame dangerous exist in small amounts in foods most people already consume, I'm not going to feel too guilty about my rare indulgence in Diet Coke.
The most popular Sucralose based product is, without a doubt, Splenda. Splenda is a popular sugar-free sweetener for baking because it can withstand heat, unlike aspartame. Sucralose is even sweeter than aspartame (400-700 times sweeter than table sugar) and does have a slight effect on blood sugar, though one study found Sucralose only affected the insulin and blood sugar levels of obese people who did not consume it on a regular basis.
Sucralose was inadvertently discovered in 1976 by two English scientists Leslie Hough and Shashikant Phadnis. Hough had asked Phandis to test a compound that the two were researching and Phandis misheard the instructions and tasted it instead! Luckily, Phandis survived, and the popular zero-calorie sweetener was born. Sucralose takes several steps to manufacture, and the end result is a bonding of hydrogen, oxygen, and chlorine. While Sucralose was approved by the FDA in 1999, there is still much conflicting evidence regarding the safety of this sugar substitute.
While Sucralose is marketed as a sugar substitute for those trying to lose weight, it may actually have the opposite effect. When studied in rats, it was demonstrated that the rats actually gained weight when consuming Sucralose. Sucralose may also negatively impact gut health by killing good gut bacteria, which can also lead to immune system decline.
Based on this information, I'll definitely be avoiding this one whenever possible.
With natural alternatives on the rise, stevia has become a popular sugar substitute for those who want to avoid manufactured compounds. Unlike aspartame and Sucralose which are created in laboratories, Stevia is a naturally occurring substance derived from the Brazilian plant species stevia rebaudiana and is a plant cousin to the common daisy and ragweed. Stevia has been used for more than 1,500 years by South Americans but did not become popular in North America until the 1980s.
Because stevia is considered to be “generally recognized as safe,” it does not require FDA approval as a food additive. It may be a good alternative for diabetics though the jury is still out on whether or not stevia spikes blood sugar as studies have produced conflicting results. While stevia does not have the same health risks associated with it as aspartame and Sucralose, it may interact with some medications, particularly medications involved in regulating blood pressure.
Stevia is 200 times sweeter than table sugar, but many companies produce baking blends that are cup-for-cup equivalents to regular sugar. Stevia is commonly found under the brand names Truvia and Pure Via and many brands such as Whole Earth blend stevia with monk fruit extract. Because stevia is a plant-based sweetener, it is a better choice for those who prefer natural sweeteners over lab created, though, like aspartame and Sucralose, it can be associated with weight gain by inducing metabolic syndrome.
I'll definitely keep using this one in moderation!
Popularized by followers of the Keto Diet, erythritol is the relatively new kid on the sugar-substitute block. The sugar alcohol erythritol was discovered by Scottish chemist John Stenhouse in 1848 but did not become a commercialized sugar substitute until the 1990s. While erythritol occasionally occurs naturally by fermentation, it is commercially manufactured by fermenting yeast.
Erythritol is the sweetener found in the popular sugar substitutes produced by the brand Swerve. While not technically a “zero-calorie sweetener,” it has 95% fewer calories than table sugar. Though commercial erythritol is a manufactured sugar alternative and not a plant-based alternative like stevia, no health conditions are associated with the moderate consumption of erythritol. Unlike most sugar substitutes which are far sweeter than table sugar, Erythritol is actually about 30% less sweet than table sugar. While this may make it easier to substitute with, consumers should be aware of the potential for over-consumption.
While I have only tasted Erythritol and haven't experimented with baking with it, I'm excited to give it a try.
This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and does not substitute for diagnosis, prognosis, treatment, prescription, and/or dietary advice from a licensed health professional. Drugs, supplements, and natural remedies may have dangerous side effects. If pregnant or nursing, consult with a qualified provider on an individual basis. Seek immediate help if you are experiencing a medical emergency.