It’s a fair question: are sugar substitutes really better for you than sugar is? After all, everything is sugar free these days but everything still tastes sweet. What’s going into those foods, and, whatever it is, should it be going into our bodies?
Here, we’ll look at sugar, some popular alternative sweeteners, and some new ways to think about sweeteners in general.
Why Substitute Sugar at All?
Before we talk about sugar substitutes, let’s remind ourselves why sugar is so bad in the first place. It all boils down to this: sugar is a source of easy energy. When you take in more energy than you use, your body stores it as fat.
There are three major energy yielding nutrients that the body digests to create energy but it’s favorite is carbohydrates (Bagchi et al. 357). Carbohydrates yield the most energy with the least byproduct. Carbohydrates can be “simple” or “complex” with simple carbohydrates generating the greatest amount of energy in the least amount of time.
ALSO FROM HTBM: The Ultimate Guide to Carbohydrates
Technically, all simple carbohydrates are called “sugars” and some “sugar alternatives” are still chemically considered “sugars” – they’re just not the sugar that we think of first, which is “sucrose.” The reason that sugars in general and sucrose in particular are so “bad” is because they don’t offer any nutrients except for quick and easy energy.
This is particularly important for “health foods” or “all-natural” foods that market being made with this or that natural fruit sugar. Fruits are good for you because they contain enough water, fiber, vitamins, and minerals to make their naturally occurring sugars worthwhile. Remove all of those things from the sugar and it doesn’t matter that the sugar came from fruit – it’s still sugar.
Any “sugar substitute” that ends with “-ose” on an ingredients list is still just a sugar, no matter where it came from. There are two main exceptions, but we’ll get there.
What Are “Sugar Substitutes” Anyway?
Sugar substitutes can be broken into two major categories. “Nutritive sweeteners” that bring some carbs along, and “Non-nutritive sweeteners” that don’t (Pope et al. 88-89).
In our discussion, we give the “scientific name” that will show up on ingredients lists of pre-prepared foods. The sweeteners have a different “trade name” if you want to buy them yourself from the baking section of your favorite grocery store.
Non-nutritive sweeteners are more likely to be natural, or at least, produced naturally. These sweeteners typically do have more carbs than they’re worth but your body can’t absorb and digest them properly – they’re passed through your body before those carbs are broken down and stored.
The good news: you get all of the sweetness without all of the carbs. The bad news: because your body can’t break these sweeteners down properly, eating too much of them can cause digestive discomfort. Some people are more prone to this than others.
Common examples include Naturlose, Sorbitol, Mannitol, and Xylitol. Xylitol and sorbitol are favorites in sugarless gums. Gum probably isn’t a major carb-contributor in your diet, but it’s something to think about.
Non-nutritive sweeteners are … less natural, at least typically. They’re typically made in a lab by combining amino acids. Interestingly, this is kind of the opposite of what your body does to break down proteins for energy when you’re on a carb-restrictive diet.
Because your body can break these sweeteners down, they don’t have the same side effects as nutritive sweeteners. However, the properties of these substances – particularly in food or when exposed to heat – can vary wildly.
Common examples include Acesulfame K, Aspartame, Saccharin, Stevia, and Sucralose. We said above that most of the non-nutritive sugar substitutes are made in a lab, but stevia is the acception. Stevia is a plant and its name-sake sweetener is an isolated derivative. That has made it a poster-child for natural and health foods – and not without good reason.
Using and Consuming Sugar Substitutes
Which sugar substitutes you use and how can (and should) depend on your personal needs and the ways in which you interact with sugar in your diet.
If most of the sugar in your diet comes from natural sources, you can probably afford yourself a little added sugar if you like it in your coffee or in the occasional desert. Most people should really only be thinking about sugar substitutes if most of the sugar in their diet comes from processed foods and soft drinks.
That has its own evils.
Most processed foods and soft drinks that bring that much sugar to the party are bringing along a lot of other hangers on. For example, the refined flour used in most baked goods also brings along little more than carbs – even if those carbs are slightly more complex than sugar. Further, carbohydrates like sugars and grains aren’t the only source of energy in your diet.
Recall above that we said that there are multiple energy yielding nutrients? Carbohydrates like those found in sugars and grains are just one. Fats and proteins can pack a big punch too. If something is “sugar free” or uses sugar substitutes but has a lot of fats (which is often the case in baked goods) your body can still harvest and store that excess energy.
For a more nuanced understanding of why this is important, let’s dip back into some jargon quickly.
Rethinking Carbs and Calories
Watching your carbs is great. However, we as a society might be putting too much emphasis on carbs, leading us to overlook other energy offenders. That’s where the Calorie comes in.
Carbohydrates are a class of nutrient. Calories are a measure of energy from food. So, all carbohydrates yield calories but not all calories come from carbohydrates. Calories also come from fats, and even proteins (calories also come from alcohol, but that’s not a problem for responsible drinkers).
Some foods that feature low-carbs and no sugar (or sugar substitutes) just get their calories from another source. That applies to baked goods, candies, soft drinks, anything. So, instead of straining your eyes looking for the chemical names of sweeteners, just look for calories instead of carbs.
Interestingly, digesting food requires energy. That means that eating no-or-low calorie foods can result in a net calorie loss. Food requiring energy to digest is called the “thermic effect of food” and foods that burn more calories than they bring are called “thermic foods.” HTBM has a whole article on thermic food scheduled. Spoiler alert: it takes a lot of cold celery to lose weight.
Should You Use Sugar Substitutes?
Now that we’ve had that conversation, let’s return to the main point: whether or how you use sugar substitutes should depend on you.
Not all diets benefit from sugar substitutes and some people are more sensitive to these sweeteners than others.If you do decide to use a sugar substitute, consider keeping a food diary so that you can track whether this change might be responsible for other things in your life.
Further, while this isn’t usually a major risk, you can bring it up with your doctor if you’re worried. Specifically, people with diabetes, a history of stomach problems, or people who have had stomach surgery should consider talking to their doctor before switching to a sugar substitute.
If you decide to switch to a sugar substitute in your own food prep, follow the directions on the package or look for recipes online. Sugar substitutes have different sweetness intensities than sugar, so using them in a one-to-one ratio like you would have used sugar can lead to some funky tastes.
Another option is to blend sugar substitutes with real sugar. This can preserve more of the tastes and textures of your favorite recipes while still reducing the calorie count.
Are sugar substitutes really better for you than sugar? Yes. Yes they are. However, sugar isn’t the only boogy man in the average diet. If you’re worried about sugar to the point that you’re actively seeking alternatives, there are probably one or two other dietary knobs that you should be turning if you want to lead a healthier life.
Bagchi, Debasis; Nair, Sreejayan; Sen, Chandan K (eds). “Nutrition and Enhanced Sport Performance.” Academic Press. Waltham MA, USA. 2013.
Pope, Jamie; Nizielski, Steven; McCook, Alison. “Nutrition for a Changing World.” Macmillan Learning. New York NY, USA. 2015.