Everything You Need to Know About Sugar Substitutes

Are artificial sweeteners like aspartame and saccharine really a healthy choice?

woman using artificial sweetener in coffee

Updated on December 15, 2022.

When you're trying to lose weight, the "no sugar" label on many packaged foods can be tempting. Sometimes, no sugar means the food is unsweetened. And sometimes it means the food has been sweetened artificially. The question is, are sugar substitutes really a healthy choice?

While sugar substitutes such as aspartame and saccharine may help some people reduce their overall calorie intake, they won’t do you any favors if they end up causing you to overeat, consume too many empty calories, or neglect nutrients. Meanwhile, we don't fully know the long-term effects of consuming these artificial sweeteners.

Commercially available sugar substitutes have been clinically tested and deemed safe for consumption for most people. They may even be helpful for people on special diets. However, a federal stamp of safety does not indicate that something is your healthiest option, especially when it comes to nutrition.

There are healthy and unhealthy ways to approach these sweeteners, so consider these tips when deciding the best way to incorporate them into your diet:

You'll need to guard against overeating

Substituting artificial sweeteners for sugar is an easy way to cut back on calories and lose weight, right? Not necessarily. 

Although sugar substitutes may help you maintain your weight after shedding pounds, they generally will not help you lose weight. In fact, some studies show they may do the opposite. 

Research on sugar substitutes has led some scientists to believe that consuming products that contain them may actually encourage you to eat more servings than you would if the food or drinks were sweetened with real sugar.  

A 2021 review published in Endocrine Practice, for example, didn’t discover much benefit for people who used sugar substitutes, particularly for those who were obese or at risk of prediabetes. Researchers found that artificial sweeteners tended to negatively affect weight, satiety, and energy regulation.

It's still too early to say that there is a definite link between artificial sweeteners and overeating. But regardless of the sweetener you choose, be conscious of the total number of calories you consume whenever you eat or drink sweet things.

Artificial sweeteners may make it easy to overuse them because you might think "no sugar" means "low-calorie." The reality is that many artificially sweetened foods still contain fat and calories. If you're trying to manage your weight, don't count on simply substituting fake sugar for the real stuff to help you shed pounds. Instead, focus on controlling calorie intake and exercising regularly.

You may need to work harder to get your nutrients

It's normal to crave sweets. Humans naturally have an appetite for sugary things. But if the foods you typically reach for are candy and cookies, even if they are sugar-free, you're getting mostly empty calories and few, if any, beneficial nutrients.

Rather than seeking out sugar-free versions of your favorite indulgences, try replacing a few of them with whole foods that offer much more than a satisfied sweet tooth. Whole fruits and berries are great examples of naturally sweet treats that also provide many of the vitamins and nutrients your body needs to fight off illness.

Plus, with a sweet treat such as blueberries or raspberries, you will get a serving of fiber instead of the empty calories that come from many processed, artificially sweetened treats. Fiber-rich fruits can help satiate your hunger and assist with weight loss. Here are some more sweet whole-food suggestions:

Instead of:

  • Sugar-free gelatin made from a mix
  • Powdered diet drinks
  • Sugar-free ice cream


  • A bowl of strawberries
  • Freshly blended fruits sweetened with orange or apple juice
  • A banana dipped in dark chocolate, rolled in crushed nuts, and then frozen

If your favorite indulgence is soda, it's certainly wiser for your waistline to grab a diet soda than a regular soda that’s full of sugar and empty calories. Just be sure your diet sodas don't elbow out healthier, more nutritious choices, such as 100 percent fruit juice, skim or low-fat milk, water, or herbal tea.

You'll have to wait to see if there are any long-term consequences

Because many artificial sweeteners are still relatively new to the food scene, the long-term effects of regular consumption are still unknown. Current studies show that consuming these products in moderation won't hurt you. But more time is needed to determine whether there are any problems with these sweeteners when used over the long term.

There is still a great deal of public controversy surrounding the safety of several sugar substitutes. For example, a 2021 review published in Nutrients found that aspartame consumption may cause mental stress, mood disorders, and depression, and may influence obesity levels and glucose management, among other negative effects. Most believe that the benefits of using aspartame outweigh the potential side effects, while researchers continue to look for any signs that aspartame or any other artificial sweetener may be harmful to human health.

Focus less on sweets and more on diversity

It's fine to treat yourself to something sweet from time to time. In fact, denying yourself sweet foods may increase their appeal and cause you to overeat when you finally satisfy the craving.

But because many artificially sweetened foods still contain calories (and some tend to be nutritionally weak), you should think of artificially sweetened foods the same way you think about sugar-sweetened ones and practice moderation with them. Otherwise, a healthful diet could quickly be transformed into a calorie-dense or nutrient-poor one.

An herbal alternative

Stevia is a popular natural sweetener extracted from the Stevia rebaudiana plant. This herb has been used in South America for centuries, is about 300 times sweeter than sugar, and is calorie-free. Although the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), has not officially approved stevia as a safe food additive, in late 2008 it was classified as Generally Recognized As Safe (GRAS).

Article sources open article sources

U.S. Food and Drug Administration. Additional Information about High-Intensity Sweeteners. 2019. 
Christofides EA. POINT: Artificial Sweeteners and Obesity—Not the Solution and Potentially a Problem. Endocrine Practice. 2021;27(10):1052-1055. 
Sharma A, Amarnath S, et al. Artificial sweeteners as a sugar substitute: Are they really safe? Indian J Pharmacol. 2016 May-Jun;48(3):237-40. 
Shahagadkar P, Shah H, et al. Berry derived constituents in suppressing viral infection: Potential avenues for viral pandemic management. Clinical nutrition ESPEN. 2021;46:14-20. 
Harvard School of Public Health. Vegetables and Fruits. August 20, 2018. 
Hervik AK, Svihus B. The Role of Fiber in Energy Balance. Journal of nutrition and metabolism. 2019;2019:4983657. 
Mayo Clinic. Pros and cons of artificial sweeteners. October 8, 2020. 
University of Alabama at Birmingham. Artificial Sweeteners. Accessed December 15, 2022.
Czarnecka K, Pilarz A, et al. Aspartame—True or False? Narrative Review of Safety Analysis of General Use in Products. Nutrients. 2021;13(6):1957. 

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