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Sweeteners - sugar substitutes

Sugar substitutes are substances that are used in place of sweeteners with sugar (sucrose) or sugar alcohols. They may also be called artificial sweeteners, non-nutritive sweeteners (NNS), and noncaloric sweeteners.

Function

Sugar substitutes may be helpful for people trying to lose weight. They provide sweetness to foods and drinks without adding a lot of extra calories. Most sugar substitutes contain almost no calories.

Using sugar substitutes in place of sugar can help prevent dental decay. They also may help with blood sugar control in people with diabetes.

Food Sources

Sugar substitutes can be added to food when you eat. Most can also be used during cooking and baking. Most "sugar-free" or low-calorie food products you buy at the store are made using sugar substitutes.

Commonly used sugar substitutes include:

Aspartame (Equal and NutraSweet)

  • Nutritive sweetener -- has calories, but is very sweet, so little is needed.
  • A combination of two amino acids -- phenylalanine and aspartic acid.
  • 220 times sweeter than sucrose.
  • Loses its sweetness when exposed to heat. It is best used in beverages rather than baking.
  • Well-studied, and hasn't shown any serious side effects.
  • FDA approved. (The FDA requires that foods containing aspartame must bear an information statement for people with PKU (phenylketonuria, a rare genetic disorder) alerting them about the presence of phenylalanine.)

Sucralose (Splenda)

  • Non-nutritive sweetener -- no or very low calories
  • 600 times sweeter than sucrose
  • Used in many foods and drinks, chewing gum, frozen dairy desserts, baked goods, and gelatin
  • Can be added to food at the table or used in baked goods
  • FDA approved

Saccharin (Sweet 'N Low, Sweet Twin, NectaSweet)

  • Non-nutritive sweetener
  • 200 to 700 times sweeter than sucrose
  • Used in many diet foods and drinks
  • May have a bitter or metallic aftertaste in some liquids
  • Not used in cooking and baking
  • FDA approved

Stevia (Truvia, Pure Via, Sun Crystals) 

  • Non-nutritive sweetener.
  • Made from the plant Stevia rebaudiana, which is grown for its sweet leaves.
  • Rebaudiana extract is approved as a food additive. It is considered to be a dietary supplement. 
  • Generally recognized as safe (GRAS) by the FDA.

Acesulfame K (Sunett and Sweet One)

  • Non-nutritive sweetener.
  • 200 times sweeter than sugar.
  • Heat-stable, can be used in cooking and baking.
  • Can be added to food at the table.
  • Used together with other sweeteners, such as saccharin, in carbonated low-calorie beverages and other products.
  • Most similar to table sugar in taste and texture.
  • FDA approved.

Neotame (Newtame)

  • Non-nutritive sweetener
  • 7,000 to 13,000 times sweeter than sugar
  • Used in many diet foods and drinks
  • Can be used for baking
  • Used as a tabletop sweetener
  • FDA approved

Monk Fruit (Luo Han Guo) 

  • Non-nutritive sweetener
  • Plant-based extract of monk fruit, a round green melon that grows in central Asia
  • 150 to 250 times sweeter than sucrose
  • Heat stable and can be used in baking and cooking and is more concentrated than sugar (¼ teaspoon or 0.5 grams equals the sweetness of 1 teaspoon or 2.5 grams sugar)
  • Generally recognized as safe (GRAS) by the FDA

Advantame

  • Non-nutritive sweetener
  • 20, 000 times sweeter than sugar
  • Used as general sweetener and is heat stable, so may be used in baking
  • Not commonly used
  • Generally recognized as safe (GRAS) by the FDA

Side Effects

People often have questions about the safety and health effects of sugar substitutes. Many studies have been done on FDA-approved sugar substitutes, and they have been shown to be safe. Based on these studies, the FDA states they are safe for use for the general population.

Aspartame is not recommended for people with phenylketonuria (PKU). Their body is unable to break down one of the amino acids used to make aspartame.

There is little evidence to support the use of or avoidance of sugar substitutes during pregnancy. FDA-approved sweeteners are fine to use in moderation. However, the American Medical Association suggests avoiding saccharin during pregnancy due to possible slow fetal clearance.

Recommendations

The FDA regulates all sugar substitutes that are sold or used in prepared foods in the United States. The FDA has set an acceptable daily intake (ADI). This is the amount that can be safely eaten each day over a person's lifetime. Most people eat far less than the ADI.

In 2012, the American Heart Association and the American Diabetes Association published a report that concluded that sensible use of sugar substitutes could help lower caloric and carbohydrate intake. Further research is still needed. There is also not enough evidence at this time to determine if sugar substitute use leads to weight loss or lower heart disease risk.

Alternative Names

High-intensity sweeteners; Non-nutritive sweeteners - (NNS); Nutritive sweeteners; Noncaloric sweeteners; Sugar alternatives

References

Aronson JK. Artificial sweeteners. In: Aronson JK, ed. Meyler's Side Effects of Drugs. 16th ed. Waltham, MA: Elsevier; 2016:713-716.

Gardner C, Wylie-Rosett J, Gidding SS, et al; American Heart Association Nutrition Committee of the Council on Nutrition, Physical Activity and Metabolism, Council on Arteriosclerosis, Thrombosis and Vascular Biology, Council on Cardiovascular Disease in the Young, and the American Diabetes Association. Nonnutritive sweeteners: current use and health perspectives: a scientific statement from the American Heart Association and the American Diabetes Association. Circulation. 2012;126(4):509-519. PMID: 22777177 www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/22777177.

Malik VS, Popkin BM, Bray GA, Després JP, Willett WC, Hu FB. Sugar-sweetened beverages and risk of metabolic syndrome and type 2 diabetes: a meta-analysis. Diabetes Care. 2010;33(11):2477-2483. PMID: 20693348 www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/20693348.

National Cancer Institute website. Artificial sweeteners and cancer. www.cancer.gov/about-cancer/causes-prevention/risk/diet/artificial-sweeteners-fact-sheet. Updated August 10, 2016. Accessed October 16, 2017.

US Department of Health and Human Services and US Department of Agriculture website. 2015-2020 Dietary Guidelines for Americans. 8th Edition. health.gov/dietaryguidelines/2015/resources/2015-2020_Dietary_Guidelines.pdf. Updated December 2015. Accessed October 16, 2017.

US Food and Drug Administration website. High-intensity sweeteners. www.fda.gov/food/ingredientspackaginglabeling/foodadditivesingredients/ucm397716.htm. Updated December 19, 2017. Accessed February 12, 2018.

US Food and Drug Administration website. Additional information about high-intensity sweeteners permitted for use in food in the United States. www.fda.gov/Food/IngredientsPackagingLabeling/FoodAdditivesIngredients/ucm397725.htm. Updated February 8, 2018. Accessed February 12, 2018.

Wiebe N, Padwal R, Field C, Marks S, Jacobs R, Tonelli M. A systematic review on the effect of sweeteners on glycemic response and clinically relevant outcomes. BMC Med. 2011;9:123. PMID: 22093544 www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/22093544.

Review Date 7/10/2017

Updated by: Emily Wax, RD, The Brooklyn Hospital Center, Brooklyn, NY. Also reviewed by David Zieve, MD, MHA, Medical Director, Brenda Conaway, Editorial Director, and the A.D.A.M. Editorial team.