About 40% of adults use low-calorie sweeteners, and most of those people do so at least once daily. While these sugar substitutes are most commonly consumed in beverages, they’re also eaten in foods and used in place of sugar to stir into coffee or sprinkle over cereal.
The presence of such sweeteners in our foods isn’t always apparent, though phrases like “light,” “no sugar added,” “sugar-free,” or “low-calorie” mean there’s a good chance they contain a sugar substitute. People are often unsure about whether to consume these items, and for good reason.
An alphabet soup of sugar substitutes
There are six types of sugar substitutes approved for use as additives by the FDA: saccharin (Sweet’N Low), aspartame (NutraSweet, Equal), sucralose (Splenda), neotame (Newtame), advantame, and acesulfame-potassium (Sunett, Sweet One).
Stevia-based sweeteners, which are derived from the leaves of the Stevia rebaudiana plant, are “generally recognized as safe,” a designation that does not require FDA approval before hitting grocery shelves.
Artificial sweeteners must appear in the ingredient list of a food label if present in that food.
Assessing potential health risks is complicated
Research results about the potential consequences of regularly consuming sugar substitutes have been inconsistent. This is partly because there are many sweeteners to study, and also because sugar substitutes make up only part of a person’s dietary habits.
For instance, research shows individuals who drink low-calorie beverages containing sugar substitutes may be more likely to eat pre-made meals and fast food. In addition, people trying to lose weight might disproportionately select more artificially sweetened, low-calorie products. Unless researchers account for this, sugar substitutes could be blamed for health risks that stem from lifestyle habits or diseases, like obesity.
Furthermore, the different sweeteners are not processed uniformly in the body, and may not have the same effects on a person’s health.
Low-calorie sweeteners and weight loss
Sugar substitutes might have a modest benefit for weight loss, specifically when reducing sugar-sweetened beverages (though water would be a better choice). But the impact may depend on the sweetener and how it is consumed. For example, switching from regular soda to diet soda has been associated with less weight gain over time. However, a recent 12-week trial found that consuming six cups per day of a saccharin-sweetened beverage increased body weight similar to a sugar-sweetened drink. That said, aspartame, reb A (a stevia derivative), and sucralose were not associated with weight gain in this study.
Sugar substitutes and chronic disease risk
Other studies link low-calorie sweeteners to a potential increased risk of diabetes and metabolic syndrome. A r