By now, we all know that sugar is bad for you. And we’re not just talking about the crash you feel after an afternoon treat. The surge of sugar that comes form a day of overindulging can mess with the hormones in your bloodstream and lead to an increased risk for obesity, diabetes, and heart disease. When you consider that, it’s no wonder that a whole slew of alternative sweeteners—promising to be better for your body—have taken the market by storm.
You probably recognise names like stevia, sucralose (a.k.a. Splenda), aspartame, and xylitol from the labels on your protein bars, smoothies, and other products lining health food store shelves. While xylitol is a form of sugar alcohol that contains calories from carbohydrates, options like sucralose and stevia are known as nonnutrititive sweeteners because, you guessed it, they don't contain any nutrition or calories. But are any of these options really any better for you than plain old sugar?
Here’s what you need to know about the good and bad ways alternative sweeteners affect your bod:
They Don't Spike Blood Sugar
Since artificial sweeteners taste uber sweet, you might assume they cause your blood sugar to rise just like regular sugar. But they actually don’t do that. “Non-nutritive or artificial sweeteners do not affect blood sugar levels [in the same way] or elicit an insulin response,” says Dr Joy Dubost. That’s because they aren’t metabolised the same way as sweeteners like honey, maple syrup, or agave. Research has shown that stevia doesn’t affect blood glucose or blood pressure levels, either.
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They Won't Make You Crave Sweets
Humans are inherently born to like sweet things, says Dubost. But that doesn’t mean that alternative sweeteners like sucralose and stevia will make you want to dive into the cookie jar. “That’s simply not the case with regards to studies done in humans,” says Dubost. “It doesn’t show that those who consume [artificial sweeteners] have an increased preference for sweet foods.”
They Might Upset Your Tummy
Sugar alcohols like xylitol can be troublemakers for your tummy. According to Dubost, that’s because the chemical structure of these sweeteners can pull water into the gut, causing a stomachache. “That’s typical only if you consume very large amounts,” she says. Studies have found that moderate intake of xylitol (10 to 15 grams per day) won’t cause problems while higher doses (more than 30 grams per day) may lead to bloating, gas, loose stools, and other forms of GI distress. On the upside, sugar alcohols may reduce your risk for dental cavities, according to research from the Journal of the American Dental Association.
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They May Help With Weight Loss
Since stevia and sucralose both contain zero calories, they can be a good way to manage your sugar intake. “They can be a tool in your toolbox to help with weight management,” says Dubost. Xylitol contains about 10 calories for every four grams—but since alternative sweeteners tend to be much sweeter than sugar, you only need to add a little to your food or drink to achieve the same level of sweetness, cutting down on calories and added sugar in your diet.
It’s natural to be concerned about the safety of alternative sweeteners. “People can safely consume [these sweeteners] every day over their lifetime without risk,” says Dubost. The Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics has stated that both nutritive and nonnutritive sweeteners are safe when consumed as part of a healthy and balanced diet.
The FDA, which regulates the use and safety of nonnutritive sweeteners, has approved seven nonnutritive sweeteners for use in the United States based on expected intake, cumulative effects, and toxicology studies. “They then establish an acceptable daily intake (ADI) level,” says Dubost for what’s safe to consume in a day. “If you weighed 165 pounds, you would have to consume 107 packs of aspartame to exceed the acceptable daily intake.” That’s a lot of packets of Equal.
But research is still emerging. “It’s a very active area of research because of the emphasis on reducing added sugar in our diet,” says Dubost. “Check in with a registered dietician who can help you understand which sweetener would be best for you.”