Sugar Substitutes

Medically reviewed in January 2020

When you're on a diet, the "no sugar" label on many packaged foods can be tempting. Sometimes, no sugar means not sweetened. And sometimes it means the food has been sweetened artificially. The question is, are sugar substitutes really a healthy choice?

Not if they are causing you to 1) overeat; 2) consume too many empty calories; or 3) neglect nutrients. And that's not considering that we don't yet 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 points 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 artificial sweeteners may actually encourage you to eat more servings than you would if the food or drinks were sweetened with real sugar. Animal studies have revealed behaviors that suggest sugar substitutes may interfere with the body's natural ability to count calories based on a food's sweetness. When this calorie-counting ability is skewed, you may consume excess calories.

It's still too early to say that there is a definite link between artificial sweeteners and skewed appetite control. 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 lose 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. By filling your menu with sugar-free versions of muffins or desserts, you may still be getting too many calories and not enough vital 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 andberries are great examples of naturally sweet treats that also provide many of the vitamins and nutrients your body needs to fight off illness and needless aging.

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
  • Diet powdered punch
  • 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 better 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 pure fruit juice, skim milk, water or herbal tea.

You'll have to wait to see if there are any long-term consequences
Because most artificial sweeteners are relatively new to the food scene—especially sucralose—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 long term.

There is still a great deal of public controversy surrounding the safety of several sugar substitutes. For example, even though there is no dependable evidence that aspartame has toxic effects at doses that would be expected in normal consumption, some people who are sensitive to aspartame have reported headache, fatigue, gastrointestinal problems and more pronounced symptoms of premenstrual syndrome (PMS).

Researchers are continuing to look for any signs that aspartame or any other artificial sweetener may be harmful for 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).

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