Sugar Substitutes: Types, Benefits, Dangers & Brand Names

Sugar substitutes
Different kinds of sugar: powdered, icing, raw and coarse

October 3, 2020

A sugar substitute is a chemical- or plant-based substance used to sweeten foods or drinks without sugar. Not all sugar substitutes are created equally, nor are they for everyone.

However, sugar substitutes, also called alternative sweeteners or sugar alternatives, can support a healthier lifestyle and metabolic state. Others are associated with significant risks.

A sugar substitute is meant to replace high-calorie table sugar. Reasons for this might include a desire to:

  • Lower the calorie and/or carbohydrate content
  • Reduce sugar cravings or sugar addiction
  • Improve overall health
  • Source a more natural sweetener
  • Sweeten something at a cheaper price

Are sugar substitutes bad for you? Some sugar-free substitutes, like aspartame or saccharin, may be bad for your overall health when consumed regularly. Other sugar substitutes, like erythritol or stevia, have fewer negative effects for people and might actually have some health benefits.

What can I use instead of white sugar? You can use stevia instead of white sugar since stevia is a healthful and natural sweetener. However, several other sugar substitutes can be used as a substitute for white sugar (which we’ll explain in more detail below).

There are 4 general categories of sugar substitutes:

  1. Artificial sweeteners (otherwise known as “non-nutritive sweeteners” amongst nutritionists)
  2. Sugar alcohols
  3. Novel sweeteners
  4. Natural sweeteners

Below, we will briefly cover a comprehensive list of sugar substitutes, complete with where they come from, benefits, and dangers for each.

How Sugar Substitutes Can Support a Healthy Lifestyle

Sugar substitutes can support a healthy lifestyle, because they contain fewer calories from carbohydrates — in some cases, fewer calories your body can metabolize.

Carbs are a primary source of energy for the body, but carbohydrates from white sugar (or, worse, high fructose corn syrup) serve only as empty calories. They don’t offer the body real nutrition and contribute to weight gain, obesity, and metabolic issues over time.

Sugar substitutes may support a healthy lifestyle in several ways.

  • Sugar substitutes may help prevent weight gain and excess body fat
  • Fewer calories may potentially reduce the risk of metabolic illnesses like diabetes
  • Most alternative sweeteners don’t alter blood sugar levels, which benefits those with blood sugar problems or insulin resistance
  • Sugar substitutes don’t contribute to tooth decay and may help reverse cavities
  • Alternative sweeteners may help break sugar addiction
  • Some include sugar substitutes that have unique health benefits, such as antioxidant, anti-inflammatory, and potential anticancer properties

There are some distinct risks associated with specific sugar substitutes (which are explained in detail below). Some sugar substitutes have been linked with heart disease, type 2 diabetes, cancer, weight gain, and other health conditions.

At Clean Plates, we believe everyone benefits from a personalized diet plan. There is no one-size-fits-all diet. But reducing (or completely cutting out) processed and added sugar is an ideal step towards a healthier life — for anyone.

FDA-Approved Artificial Sweeteners

Artificial sweeteners are artificially synthesized compounds used to sweeten foods and drinks without adding calories.

The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has approved the following 6 “high-intensity” artificial sweeteners for use as food additives:

  1. Acesulfame K
  2. Advantame
  3. Aspartame
  4. Neotame
  5. Saccharin
  6. Sucralose

The FDA has prohibited the high-intensity sweetener cyclamate and its derivatives from being used in the United States.

Do the approved artificial sweeteners have negative effects on your health?

Studies in the last decade have called into question both the overall safety and health benefits of these artificial sweeteners. As a group, these sweeteners have been associated with:

The FDA also recognizes monk fruit extract and steviol glycosides as safe to use as food additives. Because these are derived from natural sources, we will discuss them later.

Below are the sources, brand names, benefits, and dangers of all 6 FDA-approved artificial sweeteners.

1. Acesulfame K

What is acesulfame K? Also called acesulfame potassium or ace-K, acesulfame K is a zero-calorie, heat-stable sugar substitute that is 200 times sweeter than sugar.

Where does acesulfame K come from? A close cousin of Ace K, aspartame, was discovered in 1967, when a researcher accidentally licked his finger after dipping it in chemicals. Ace K has been approved for use in the US since 1988.

Brand names of acesulfame K:

  • Sunett
  • Sweet One

Benefits of acesulfame K:

  • No calories
  • Sweeter than sugar
  • Heat-stable up to 392°, which makes it useful for baking and long shelf life
  • Does not contribute to tooth decay

Safety concerns of acesulfame K:

2. Advantame

What is advantame? Advantame is a white-to-yellow, zero-calorie sugar substitute that is 20,000 times sweeter than sugar.

Where does advantame come from? Advantame is a chemical cousin of aspartame. Advantame has only been used in the United States since 2014 — and in the European Union since 2013.

There are no brand names for advantame at this time. Consumers cannot purchase advantame by itself, but it may be used as an ingredient in chewing gum, powdered beverages, and yogurt.

Benefits of advantame:

  • No calories
  • Sweeter than sugar
  • Extends chew time in chewing gum
  • Such a small amount is needed to sweeten food, any potential toxicity is unlikely

Safety concerns of advantame:

  • Not very heat-stable
  • Closely related to aspartame, which is associated with a number of health concerns

3. Aspartame

What is aspartame? Aspartame is the most widely used artificial sweetener in the world. Aspartame produces 4 calories per gram, just like table sugar, but such a tiny amount is needed to sweeten your diet soda that it greatly reduces calorie intake. Aspartame is about 200 times sweeter than sugar.

First synthesized in 1965, aspartame was finally approved for use in the US in 1981 after a controversial approval process.

Dietary methanol from aspartame is metabolized by humans differently than in any other animal, making animal studies essentially obsolete when considering the dangers of methanol toxicity.

Based on the acceptable daily intake of the FDA and European Commission’s Scientific Committee on Food, you would have to drink 15-20 cans of diet soda to surpass the “safe” daily limit for aspartame.

Where does aspartame come from? Aspartame is derived from chemically manipulating naturally occurring amino acids.

Brand names of aspartame:

  • Equal
  • NutraSweet
  • Canderel

Benefits of aspartame:

  • Much less is needed to sweeten drinks than table sugar
  • Doesn’t raise blood sugar
  • Shown to encourage weight loss or weight management

Safety concerns of aspartame:

4. Neotame

What is neotame? Neotame is a zero-calorie artificial sweetener that is 7,000-13,000 times sweeter than table sugar.

Like aspartame, neotame does create methanol during metabolism. Although even small amounts of methanol can be toxic, so little neotame is used that it doesn’t seem to present a great concern.

Where does neotame come from? Neotame is synthesized from aspartame and dimethylbutanal.

Neotame is sold under the brand name Newtame. However, neotame is an unlisted trace ingredient in many food and drink products.

Benefits of neotame:

  • No calories
  • Sweeter than sugar
  • Taste is generally accepted as good
  • Heat stable

Safety concerns of neotame:

  • Neotame was approved by the FDA based on single-day studies
  • Neotame does not have to be listed as an ingredient

5. Saccharin

What is saccharin? Sodium saccharin (simply called saccharin) is a zero-calorie artificial sweetener that is up to 400 times sweeter than sugar.

Where does saccharin come from? Sodium saccharin (also known as benzoic sulfimide) was accidentally discovered to be sweet when, in 1879 — you guessed it — a chemist licked his fingers one evening after working with coal tar derivatives. For 70 years, the most popular method of synthesis was reacting anthranilate with nitrous acid.

Brand names of saccharin:

  • Sweet’n Low
  • Necta Sweet
  • Sweet Twin
  • Sugar Twin

Benefits of saccharin:

  • No calories
  • Heat stable

Safety concerns of saccharin:

6. Sucralose

What is sucralose? Sucralose is a zero-calorie artificial sweetener that may be up to 1,000 times sweeter than table sugar.

Where does sucralose come from? Sucralose comes from chlorinating table sugar (sucrose).

Is Splenda sucralose? By volume, Splenda is 5% sucralose (the sweetener part) and 95% bulking agents like dextrose and maltodextrin, which negatively affect insulin levels. Splenda is not safe for diabetics. Splenda, the “no calorie sweetener” contains a lot of dextrose, which produces 3.4 calories per gram.

Brand names of sucralose:

  • Splenda (though it contains mainly dextrose)
  • ZeroCal
  • SucraPlus
  • CandyS
  • cukren
  • Nevella

Benefits of sucralose (not Splenda):

  • No calories
  • Heat stable

Safety concerns of sucralose:

Sugar Alcohols

What is sugar alcohol? Sugar alcohols are sweet-tasting, low-calorie sugar substitutes. Sugar alcohols are structured similarly to both sugars and alcohols. They do not contain ethanol, which is the specific alcohol that gets you tipsy when ingested.

Sugar alcohols naturally sweeten food or drinks. But their calorie content is less than that of white sugar. Sugar alcohol ranges in calorie content — from 0 up to 3 calories per gram, as opposed to 4 calories a gram in sucrose (white sugar).

Many sugar alcohols, though not all, pass through the digestive system without being metabolized like sucrose. This means they may have a negligible impact on blood sugar and are often not counted in “net carbs” (mostly relevant to the ketogenic diet).

Common sugar alcohols include:

  1. Erythritol
  2. Xylitol
  3. Isomalt
  4. Lactitol
  5. Maltitol (and maltitol syrup)
  6. Mannitol
  7. Sorbitol

Where does sugar alcohol come from? Sugar alcohols occur naturally. However, manufacturers often produce sugar alcohols for use as food additives by either hydrogenating or fermenting sugar.

Benefits of sugar alcohols:

  • Very similar taste to sugar
  • Fewer calories than table sugar (erythritol is zero-calorie)
  • Xylitol and erythritol may improve dental health

Safety concerns of sugar alcohols:

  • Gas
  • Bloating
  • Diarrhea
  • Inconsistent impact on blood sugar (all sugar alcohols may not be safe for diabetics or those with insulin resistance)

Novel Sweeteners

“Novel sweeteners” are derived from natural sources but can be highly processed. They are not artificial but sweeteners classified as “novel” by the FDA are no longer completely natural.

Common novel sweeteners include:

  1. Stevia
  2. Monk fruit
  3. Reb M
  4. Tagatose
  5. Trehalose

Depending on the diet that works best for your individual body, some of the sweeteners below may be a healthful addition to your eating.

1. Stevia

What is stevia? Stevia is a zero-calorie novel sweetener. The stevia leaf has been used for 1,500 years as a sweetener. High-quality stevia leaf extract is growing in popularity as a more natural sugar substitute.

Refined stevia is approved as a “novel sweetener”, but stevia’s crude or whole-leaf forms — which are less processed — haven’t been classified as “GRAS” or “generally recognized as safe” by the FDA. They’re still allowed in food but are technically not FDA-approved.

Where does stevia extract come from? Stevia extracts as we know them today come from the plant Stevia rebaudiana, native to South America. Manufacturers isolate the sweet-tasting glycoside compounds found in Stevia rebaudiana and make “stevia” out of that.

Brand names of stevia:

  • Truvia (Coca-Cola’s)
  • PureVia (PepsiCo’s)
  • Sun Crystals
  • SweetLeaf
  • Stevia in the Raw
  • Pyure
  • NuStevia

Benefits of stevia:

  • No calories
  • Heat-stable
  • Plant-sourced
  • Lower blood pressure (stevia is a vasodilator)
  • Antioxidant
  • Antimicrobial
  • Anticancer

Safety concerns of stevia:

2. Monk Fruit

What is monk fruit? Monk fruit grows on an Asian perennial vine, also called Buddha fruit or Siraitia grosvenorii. Monk fruit extract is growing in popularity as a zero-calorie sugar substitute that is up to 250 times sweeter than table sugar.

The FDA labels monk fruit extract as “generally recognized as safe” (GRAS). There are currently no known negative health effects associated with this sugar substitute.

Where does monk fruit extract come from? Monk fruit extract isolates the sweet mogrosides from the rest of the monk fruit, which also contains “offensive” flavors from sulfur-based amino acids.

Although monk fruit contains fructose and glucose, monk fruit extracts only contain sweet-tasting mogrosides, making monk fruit extract zero-calorie.

Brand names of monk fruit extract:

  • Purisure
  • NOW Foods
  • Monk Fruit In The Raw
  • Lakanto (combined with Erythritol)

Benefits of monk fruit:

Downsides of monk fruit:

  • Mildly unpleasant aftertaste
  • Expensive
  • Hard to find in a grocery store

3. Reb M

What is Reb M? Reb M stands for “rebaudioside M”, which is a zero-calorie stevia extract that is 100-300 times sweeter than sugar.

Reb M can be found in the stevia plant or in fermented sugarcane (also zero-calorie). Here, we’ll focus on the stevia version.

Normal stevia extracts use rebaudioside A. But rebaudioside M is a more recently utilized steviol glycoside that tastes more like regular sugar, but costs more to extract because there’s less reb M than reb A in the stevia plant.

No health dangers have been associated with Reb M.

Where does Reb M come from? Reb M comes from the stevia leaf. It is not as abundant as reb A in the stevia leaf, but proponents claim it tastes more like table sugar.

Brand names of Reb M:

  • BESTEVIA
  • Avansya

Benefits of Reb M:

Downsides of Reb M:

  • Higher cost

4. Tagatose

What is tagatose? Tagatose is a novel sugar substitute that is slightly less sweet than sugar, with only a third of the calories. Tagatose is a white crystalline powder with a very similar texture to sugar.

Where does tagatose come from? Tagatose (or, “d-tagatose”) comes from hydrolyzing lactose, then isomerizing the resulting galactose.

Brand names of tagatose:

  • Tagatesse

Benefits of tagatose:

  • Fewer calories than sugar
  • Low glycemic index: GI 3
  • Similar texture to sugar

Safety concerns and downsides of tagatose:

  • Not as sweet as sugar
  • Not heat-stable above 140° F
  • Bitter aftertaste
  • Gas
  • Nausea
  • Diarrhea

5. Trehalose

What is trehalose? Also known as tremalose or mycose, trehalose is a disaccharide — a sugar formed when two glucose molecules are stuck together with an alpha bond.

Trehalose is only half as sweet as sugar and is more often used as a preservative or for its water retention properties.

Trehalose is an ingredient in Taco Bell’s ground beef. So far, no health dangers of trehalose have been identified.

Where does trehalose come from? Trehalose can be found naturally, but not in large amounts. The most cost-effective method of synthesizing trehalose is from corn starch.

Brand names of trehalose:

  • NewSweet
  • SweetT
  • TREHA

Benefits of trehalose:

Downsides of trehalose:

  • Not heat stable
  • Half as sweet as sugar
  • Expensive

Natural Sweeteners

Natural sweeteners are sugar substitutes that use little to no processing before they are sold to consumers.

Take note: natural sweeteners are not always “low-calorie” options, though some contain little to no sugar. The distinction between these and the other sweeteners above are that they are often less processed.

Depending on the diet that works best for your individual body, even some of the sweeteners below that contain natural sugars may be a healthful addition to your eating.

Common natural sweeteners include:

  1. Agave nectar
  2. Allulose
  3. Coconut sugar
  4. Date paste
  5. Honey
  6. Maple syrup
  7. Molasses
  8. Yacón syrup

Let’s briefly cover the source, benefits, and drawbacks to each natural sweetener.

1. Agave Nectar

What is agave nectar? Certain agave plants contain a lot of fructose, making them naturally very sweet. That’s why manufacturers like to extract its (incorrectly-named) nectar for commercial use.

Agave nectar is also known as:

  • Agave
  • Agave syrup
  • Maguey syrup

Where does agave come from? Agave syrup most commonly comes from two agave plants: Agave tequilana (AKA blue agave) and Agave salmiana (AKA Salm-Dick).

Brand names of agave:

  • Wholesome Sweeteners
  • In The Raw
  • Nectavé
  • Madhava
  • NOW Foods
  • Bluava
  • And many more…

Benefits of agave:

  • Doesn’t spike blood sugar
  • Low glycemic index: GI 17

Unfortunately, agave is often processed by heat or enzymes, removing healthy fibers — similar to the process of producing the famously unhealthy high-fructose corn syrup.

Safety concerns of agave:

  • Very high in fructose
  • Just as much risk as sugar to develop diabetes or heart disease

2. Allulose

What is allulose? Allulose is a low-calorie sugar found in wheat, figs, and raisins. Also known as psicose, allulose is less sweet than table sugar. Allulose has been approved by the FDA in the past decade but is still not approved for use in the EU.

Where does allulose come from? Allulose is usually extracted from corn, but sometimes from sugar beets.

Brand names of allulose:

  • Dolcia Prima
  • ASTRAEA Allulose
  • Color Me Keto Allulose

Benefits of allulose:

  • Only 0.4 calories per gram (a tenth of sugar’s calories)
  • Same taste as table sugar
  • Does not raise blood sugar levels
  • Reduced body fat
  • Anti-inflammatory
  • Can be used on low-carbohydrate diets, like keto

Drawbacks of allulose:

  • High cost
  • Less sweet than table sugar
  • Not commonly available in stores

3. Coconut Sugar

What is coconut sugar? Coconut sugar is a natural sugar taken from coconut trees. It is sweet like caramel or brown sugar, and widely used in Sri Lanka and Indonesia.

Coconut sugar is also known as:

  • Coco sugar
  • Coconut palm sugar
  • Coconut sap sugar
  • Coconut blossom sugar

Where does coconut sugar come from? Coconut sugar comes from the flower stem of the coconut tree.

Brand names offering coconut sugar:

  • Wholesome Sweeteners
  • Viva Naturals
  • Nutiva
  • Palm Nectar
  • Madhava

Benefits of coconut sugar:

  • Contains trace minerals: iron, zinc, calcium, potassium
  • Less processed than refined sugar
  • Antioxidant

Safety concerns of coconut sugar:

  • Medium to high glycemic index: GI 35-54
  • As calorie-rich as table sugar
  • Not safe for people with coconut allergies/sensitivities

4. Date Sugar

What is date sugar? Date sugar, paste, syrup or nectar are created by mashing raw, seedless dates. It’s been used for centuries in the Middle East and beyond. It is very rich and sweet and often touted as a natural alternative to brown sugar.

Where does date sugar come from? Date sugar comes from the fruit of the date palm plant (Phoenix dactylifera), not from the tree’s sap. It’s usually ground and formed into granules for a sugar-like texture.

Date sugar cannot melt or dissolve like many sugars or sugar substitutes, making it a poor substitute for many common uses of sugar.

Brand names offering date sugar:

  • Date Lady
  • NOW Foods
  • Chatfield’s
  • Shiloh Farms

Benefits of date sugar:

  • High in fiber
  • Contains nutrients

Safety concerns of date sugar:

  • Expensive
  • High in calories
  • High in natural sugar (not appropriate for diabetics or insulin resistance)

5. Honey

What is honey? Honey is a common natural sweetener containing fructose, glucose, maltose, sucrose, and other carbohydrates. It is viscous, sweet, and all-natural.

Honey contains 3 calories per gram, instead of 4 calories like table sugar.

Where does honey come from? Honey bees form honey from the nectar of flowers, as well as regurgitation and enzyme activity. Beekeepers and honey harvesters get honey from the honeycombs in the beehives.

There are countless brands of honey. To get the most nutritious honey, opt for organic, locally sourced honey and avoid highly processed brands.

Science-backed benefits of honey include:

  • Anti-inflammatory compounds
  • Antimicrobial effects
  • Antioxidant-rich
  • Prevention of heart disease
  • Prevention of gastrointestinal disorders
  • Prevention of cancer

Safety concerns of honey:

  • Some honey contains bacteria that causes botulism in infants younger than 12 months
  • High calories

6. Maple Syrup

What is maple syrup? Maple syrup is a viscous, brown, sugary syrup. The chemistry responsible for its unique flavor is not completely known.

Maple syrup contains 3 calories per gram, slightly less than table sugar’s 4 calories per gram.

Where does maple syrup come from? Maple syrup is composed mainly of sap from the xylem of sugar maple, black maple, or red maple trees. Quebec, Canada is the largest producer of maple syrup, responsible for 70% of worldwide syrup output.

There are countless brands that sell maple syrup. Look for real graded maple syrup. Some syrups look deceptively like maple syrup, but are imitations of the goodness produced from maple trees.

Benefits of maple syrup include:

Safety concerns of maple syrup:

  • High calorie content
  • Spikes in blood sugar (not appropriate for blood sugar/insulin issues)

7. Molasses

What is molasses? Also called black treacle, molasses is a strong-flavored natural sweetener, more viscous than maple syrup. Molasses, a by-product of processing white sugar, is the integral element left in brown sugar.

Where does molasses come from? Molasses is the result of refining sugar beets or sugarcane into a viscous sugar. Molasses varies by amount of sugar, method of extraction, and age of plant.

Once molasses is boiled 3 times, you get “blackstrap molasses”, which is dark, strong-flavored, and lower in calories.

Benefits of blackstrap molasses include:

  • Vitamin B6
  • Essential minerals: calcium, iron, magnesium, manganese, potassium
  • Half the calorie content of sugar: 2 calories per gram

Safety concerns of blackstrap molasses:

  • More refined than other natural sweeteners
  • Bitter
  • May cause diarrhea

8. Yacón Syrup

What is yacón syrup? Yacón syrup is a viscous, sweet product, high in fructose. It is derived from the root of a South American flowering, perennial plant. Yacón syrup has one third the calorie content of table sugar.

Where does yacón syrup come from? Yacón syrup comes from the edible portions of the yacon plant.

Brand names offering yacón syrup:

  • Alovitox
  • Peruvian Naturals
  • Nature Botanicals
  • Zint
  • Swanson
  • Of The Earth

Benefits of yacón syrup include:

  • Prebiotic fibers
  • Very little processing
  • Relatively low calories
  • Reduced body weight and BMI
  • Bone health
  • Can be used on low-carbohydrate diets, like keto

Safety concerns of yacón syrup:

  • Not heat stable
  • Not recommended if you have IBS, IBD, or follow a FODMAPS diet
  • Abdominal pain
  • Gas
  • Diarrhea

When to Talk to Your Doctor or Dietician

Artificial sweeteners may cause changes to your blood sugar levels, especially if you have recently made major changes to your diet. If your blood sugar gets too high or too low, seek medical advice.

Hyperglycemia occurs when your blood sugar levels are too high. This is particularly a problem for diabetics. If you suspect you have hyperglycemia, talk to your doctor or dietitian right away.

Symptoms of hyperglycemia:

  • Weakness
  • Dry mouth
  • Fruity taste in mouth
  • Fruity breath
  • Abdominal pain
  • Nausea
  • Vomiting
  • Confusion
  • Coma

Hypoglycemia (with an “o” instead of “er”) is when your blood sugar levels are too low. Hypoglycemia can occur in diabetics, but also when you drink too much alcohol, have an eating disorder, or take medications with certain adverse side effects.

Animal studies have shown artificial sweeteners may trick your body into thinking there’s sugar that needs to be processed. This leads to a reduction in blood sugar levels, leading to hypoglycemia. If you have hypoglycemia, talk to your doctor or dietitian right away.

Symptoms of hypoglycemia:

  • Hunger
  • Anxiety
  • Shaking
  • Sweating
  • Chills
  • Irritability
  • Lightheadedness
  • Irregular heartbeat
  • Headache
  • Confusion
  • Fatigue
  • Coma

Takeaway: Sugar Substitutes

Sugar-free, no-calorie, and low-calorie sweeteners are more ubiquitous today than ever before. Even if you have a sweet tooth, you can eat healthy, sweet foods.

Usually, a sugar substitute is better than sugar. However, no sugar or sugar substitute may be the best option in many cases. Breaking a sugar addiction often means letting go of the need for frequent added sweetness in your diet.

What is the best alternative to sugar? Stevia may be the best alternative to sugar. Although research is relatively young on the stevia plant, its natural sourcing, antioxidant properties, and zero calories make it a great sugar substitute.

Other promising alternatives to sugar are:

  • Reb M (also from the stevia leaf)
  • Monk fruit extract
  • Xylitol
  • Erythritol
  • Honey
  • Blackstrap molasses

What is the safest sugar? Allulose is anti-inflammatory, has the same sweet taste as sugar, and only has 0.4 calories per gram. Allulose is a sugar, though it is not the same as table sugar. Allulose is probably the safest sugar — followed by tagatose or trehalose.

If you’re interested in more health news and useful tips, consider signing up for Clean Plate’s email newsletter. We are dedicated to bringing you the best information on living a healthy lifestyle your way.

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