January 22, 2018
Sugar Substitutes: Not All Are Equal

Sugar Substitutes: Not All Are Equal

by Berkeley Wellness  

Which sugar substitute, if any, should you consider using? Here’s the lowdown on them.

  • Acesulfame K (Sunett, Sweet One). Approved in 1988, this sweetener is also known as acesulfame potassium, though it contains insignificant amounts of potassium. It is 200 times sweeter than table sugar and is heat-stable, so it can be used in cooking and baking. Because it may have a bitter aftertaste when used alone, it is often combined with aspartame or sucralose, especially in soft drinks. The Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI), a nonprofit consumer advocacy group, advises avoiding acesulfame K out of concerns it might cause cancer, at least in rats, but the FDA, World Health Organization, and European Union have repeatedly affirmed its safety. About 100 studies have given it a clean bill of health.
  • Advantame. The latest—and sweetest—sugar substitute, it was approved by the FDA in 2014 for use in a variety of foods and is 20,000 times sweeter than sugar. Despite flaws in animal studies show­­ing that advantame is safe, any concerns about cancer are countered by the fact that such tiny amounts need to be used, according to CSPI.
  • Aspartame (NutraSweet, Equal, Sugar Twin). Approved as a general-purpose sweetener in 1996 and made from two amino acids (building blocks of protein), aspartame is 200 times sweeter than table sugar. But because it isn’t heat-stable, it can’t be used in baked goods. It carries a warning label for people with a genetic condition called phenylketonuria (PKU), who lack the ability to process one of the amino acids. Though some people still believe that aspartame causes headaches, dizziness, brain tumors, depression, insomnia, memory loss, and almost every other disorder—and though CSPI has it on its “avoid” list—it is one of the most studied substances in the food supply and, aside from the PKU issue, has been declared safe by the FDA, World Health Organization, and other authorities.
  • Monk fruit extract (Monk Fruit in the Raw and others). Also known as luo han guo and derived from an Asian fruit, this sugar substitute comes from ingredients that originate in nature, but it is still processed to some degree and contains no actual fruit. Rather, its intense sweetness (about 150 to 200 times sweeter than sugar) is due to mogroside compounds extracted from the fruit. Monk fruit extract is heat-stable, so it can be used in cooking and baking. At least one manufacturer recommends substituting half the sugar in a recipe with the sweetening equivalence of the monk fruit sweetener. It’s considered GRAS (generally recognized as safe) by the FDA, but CSPI recommends caution “because it has been poorly tested in animals.”
  • Neotame (Newtame). Less popular than other sugar substitutes, this sweetener is chemically related to aspartame but much sweeter, so you need less. People with PKU can safely consume it, and it can be used in cooking and baking, since it is heat-stable. Neotame was approved by the FDA based on a safety review of more than 100 animal and human studies, and it gets a green light from CSPI.
  • Saccharin (Sweet ‘N Low). Saccharin, which was discovered accidentally in 1879, is 200 to 700 times sweeter than table sugar and is heat-stable. In the 1970s, animal studies linked very high doses of saccharin to bladder cancer, prompting a warning label. However, the label was removed in 2000 after scientists found that rats and humans process the substance differently, while observational studies failed to find clear evidence of risk in people. The FDA declared saccharin safe in 2001, though CSPI still recommends avoiding it. Some people may have a genetic propensity to taste saccharin as bitter.
  • Stevia extract (Truvia, Pure Via, and others). This is made by steeping the leaves of the Stevia plant (Stevia rebaudiana), a shrub native to South America, to extract the sweet compounds, called steviol glycosides, which are 250 to 300 times sweeter than table sugar. The FDA considers various purified stevia-derived extracts to be GRAS (generally recognized as safe), as does CSPI—but not crude extracts or whole-leaf stevia (which can be sold only as a dietary supplement, not explicitly as a sweetener). Marketers boast that stevia extracts, which can be used in baking, are “natural,” though the leaves have to be highly processed to isolate the compounds.
  • Sucralose (Splenda). Approved in 2003 as a general-purpose sweetener, it is about 600 times sweeter than table sugar and heat-stable. It is produced by altering sugar molecules so that they pass through the body largely undigested and thus without calories. Sucralose can be used anywhere you would use regular sugar and is found in a wide variety of foods. Previously promoted as being “natural,” it’s actually a synthetic compound made through a complex chemical process. Despite some recent research calling its safety into question, the FDA and other authorities stand behind their approval.

Originally published May 2013. Updated August 2017.