The Truth About Sugar and Artificial Sweeteners

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The bottom line: If you’re looking to take a break from sugar (and given that the average American downs 22 spoonfuls a day of the stuff, maybe that’s not such a bad idea), your options have never been better. The current generation of low-cal artificial sweeteners is doing a decent job masquerading as the real thing, but you’ll still probably never mistake that sugar-free yogurt for the regular one. Technically known as “synthetic sugar substitutes,” the products are created by chemists in a lab, isolating molecules that allow them to greatly enhance the sweetness properties of the substance while forming structures that pass through the body virtually unabsorbed (hence lower in calories).

Here’s what you need to know about your sugar alternatives.

Name: Saccharin
Sold as: Sweet’N Low
Backstory: The original sugar substitute, it was created in the late 1800s in a Johns Hopkins lab by a scientist researching an alternative to coal tar.
How sweet? 200 to 700 times sweeter than table sugar
Need to know: “You’d need to drink 160 diet soft drinks a day, every day, to approach the levels considered unsafe by the FDA,” says Dr. Gerbstadt.

Name: Aspartame
Sold as: Equal, Nutrasweet
Backstory: A product of two amino acids (building blocks for proteins), this sweetener was discovered in 1965 and has been taking hostile fire ever since for claims of toxicity. (The FDA maintains it is safe for consumer use.) It is nevertheless one of the original and therefore best-known alternatives, making it a popular pick for sweetener packets.
How sweet? 200 times sweeter than sugar
Need to know: Aspartame has been added to more than 6,000 foods, personal care products, and pharmaceuticals, but soft drinks account for more than 70.

Name: Sucralose
Sold as: Splenda
Backstory: “Sucralose is an isomer of sugar,” says Dr. Gerbstadt. “It’s nearly identical on the molecular level.” Because of this, sucralose manufacturers like to claim it’s “made from sugar,” which it’s not.
How sweet? 600 times sweeter than sugar
Need to know: Sucralose will not break down at high temperatures, so you can bake with it. Choose the version specially formulated for baking—it has low-calorie fillers to replace the bulk of sugar.

Name: Acesulfame potassium (also called acesulfame-K)
Sold as: Sunett, Sweet One
Backstory: Approved by the FDA in 1998, “acesulfame-K is a good option for baking because it will withstand the heat,” says Dobbins.
How sweet? 200 times sweeter than sugar
Need to know: According to the American Dietetic Association, 95 percent of acesulfame-K passes through the body and is eliminated through urine, so the body does not absorb any energy from the product—hence, no calories.

Name: Neotame
Sold as: Not available for individual consumer consumption
Backstory: Neotame is widely used in the coatings of OTC tablets and throat lozenges, as well as for adding sweetness or enhanced flavor to liquid or chewable medications, vitamins, and other pharmaceutical products, so if you take one of these products you likely consume it almost every day without realizing it.
How sweet? At least 7,000 times sweeter than sugar
Need to know: Approved by the FDA only in 2002, Neotame is a relative newbie to the non-nutritive sweetener category. Like sucralose, it does not break down under heat, so it is frequently used in commercial baking of sugar-free snacks. The absence of any metallic aftertaste (often a complaint with artificial sweeteners) has made it a popular choice for enhancing the sweetness and flavor of sugar-free gum.

Name: Stevia
Sold as: Truvia
Backstory: Truvia is derived from the Stevia Rebaudiana Bertoni bush, native to Central and South America, lending it popularity as a “natural” sugar alternative. In truth, the plant extracts have been so highly refined to make the sweetener, there is little natural about it.
How sweet? 200 to 300 times sweeter than sugar
Need to know: A study in the Journal of Agricultural and Food Chemistry found stevia to have anti-inflammatory properties, potentially helpful in moderating various health conditions. Promising, but as Shay points out, “there are holes in the evidence, both pro and con, for these sweeteners. They are relatively new, and it takes years of collecting data and doing studies to know their real effect.”

Julia Savacool is a freelance writer in New York City. She is the author of The World Has Curves and frequently reports on topics of health and wellness for publications including Self, Women’s Health, and USA Today.

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