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The Lowdown on Sugar Substitutes
It’s a constant battle for health-conscious people—balancing the desire to reduce sugar intake with a love of sweet foods and drinks. The struggle is real. Eighty percent of Americans are trying to limit or avoid sugar in their diet, according to a 2019 survey by the International Food Information Council (IFIC) Foundation.  The survey also found 33 percent of Americans believe sugars are the source of calories most likely to cause weight gain. 

According to the IFIC Foundation survey, about 33% of Americans use sugar substitutes, otherwise known as alternative sweeteners. Sugar substitutes include low- or no-calorie high-intensity sweeteners and sugar alcohols that add sweetness to foods and beverages without significantly contributing to calories.

What are Sugar Substitutes?

Most sugar substitutes, including aspartame and saccharin, are synthetic. Others, like allulose, occur naturally in very small quantities. Additionally, some sugar substitutes are derived from natural sources. For example, steviol glycosides are derived from the Stevia rebaudiana plant and monk fruit is extracted from the Siraitia grosvenorii Swingle fruit.  Sugar alcohols occur naturally in many fruits and vegetables, but they are produced from other carbohydrates, such as sucrose, glucose, and starch.

High-Intensity Sweeteners

High-intensity sweeteners are significantly sweeter than sucrose, hence the name, and provide few calories, if any. In addition, because the sweetness of most sugar alternatives is higher than that of sucrose, less is needed to provide the same sweetness. For example, one gram of aspartame provides four calories, which is the same as sugar, but because it is 200 times sweeter than sugar, less is needed which equates to less calories.  

Sweeteners    Common Uses Calories   Sweetness Compared to Sucrose 
Acesulfame potassium (Ace-K)
Used in food products including baked goods, candies, chewing gum, desserts, diet drinks, gelatins, puddings, and as a tabletop sweetener. Non-caloric
(0 Kcal/g)
200 times sweeter 
Advantame Used in food products including baked goods, soft drinks and other non-alcoholic beverages, chewing gum, candies, frostings, frozen desserts, gelatins and puddings, jams and jellies, processed fruits and fruit juices, toppings, and syrups. Non-caloric
(0 Kcal/g)
20,000 times sweeter
Aspartame Used in food products including beverages, breath mints, chewing gum, cocoa mixes, frozen desserts, gelatins, puddings, powdered soft drinks, and as a tabletop sweetener    Low calorie
(4 Kcal/g) 
200 times sweeter
Siraitia grosvenorii Swingle fruit extract

 
Used in food products including baked goods, soft drinks, juices, dairy products, desserts, candies, and condiments. Non-caloric 
(0 Kcal/g)
150-200 times sweeter
Neotame Used in food products including baked goods, beverages, candies, chewing gum, dairy products, frozen desserts, puddings, yogurt-type products, and as a tabletop sweetener. Non-caloric 
(0 Kcal/g) 
7,000-13,000 times sweeter
Saccharin Used in food products including baked goods, beverages, candies, chewing gum, jams, soft drinks, and as a tabletop sweetener Non-caloric
(0 Kcal/g)
200-700 times sweeter
Steviol glycosides Used in food products including baked goods, soft drinks, juices, dairy products, canned fruits, syrups, and condiments.  Non-caloric
(0 Kcal/g) 
300 times sweeter
Sucralose Used in food products including baked goods, beverages, candies, canned fruits, cereals and cereal bars, chewing gum, condiments, dairy products, desserts (as light ice cream, popsicles, and puddings), jams, nutritional products and dietary supplements, salad dressings, snack foods, syrups and condiments (as light maple syrup and low-calorie jams and jellies), and as a tabletop sweetener. Non-caloric
(0 Kcal/g)
600 times sweeter

Allulose, another type of sugar substitute, is referred to as a “rare sugar.” It has the chemical structure of a carbohydrate but provides a negligible number of calories (0.4 Kcal/g) compared to regular sugar because it is not completely metabolized as energy in the body. It is lower in sweetness compared to high-intensity sweeteners. It has a broad scope of applications in food products including beverages, frozen dairy products, baked goods, sauces and syrups, candies, jams and jellies, salad dressings, and chewing gum.

Sugar Alcohols

Sugar alcohols are not considered high-intensity sweeteners because they aren’t as sweet as sugar.  However, like high-intensity sweeteners, they do not promote tooth decay or cause a sudden increase in blood glucose. They are also slightly lower in calories than regular sugar.

Sweeteners  Common Uses Calories Sweetness Compared to Sucrose 
Erythritol
 
Used in food products including baked goods, beverages, candies, chewing gums, chocolates, and tabletop sweetener packets.  Non-caloric 
(0.2 Kcal/g)
70% as sweet as sugar
Maltitol Used in hard candies, chewing gum, chocolates, baked goods, and ice cream. Low calorie
(2.1 Kcal/g)
90% as sweet as sugar
Sorbitol Used in sugar-free candies, chewing gums, frozen desserts, and baked goods. Low calorie
(2.6 Kcal/g) 
60% as sweet as sugar
Xylitol Used in food products including chewing gum, gum drops, and hard candy, as well as foods for special dietary purposes. Low calorie
(2.4 Kcal/g)
Same sweetness as sugar

High-intensity sweeteners, allulose, and sugar alcohols are considered to be safe by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) when consumed at levels within the Acceptable Daily Intake.  Consumers with phenylketonuria, a rare genetic disorder, have difficulty metabolizing phenylalanine, a component of aspartame, and should avoid or restrict aspartame consumption. Food products that contain aspartame are required to include a statement on the label that the product contains phenylalanine.

Sugar substitutes are one way to reduce intake of calories from added sugars, but they are not a magic bullet and should be consumed in moderation.  It is important to remember that food products containing sugar substitutes are not necessarily free of calories as they contain other ingredients that provide calories, such as carbohydrates, fat, and protein, with the exception of low- and no-calorie sweetened beverages, such as soft drinks that do not contain other nutrients.

The Nutrition Facts label on packaged food products is a good resource to learn more about the nutrients, calories, and added sugar in a food product. Make sure to also check the ingredient list which will tell you the exact type of sugar or sugar substitute used. Check out our Nutrition Facts label toolkit for more information.

REFERENCES

Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. “Sugar Substitutes: How Much is too Much?” December 11, 2018. https://www.eatright.org/food/nutrition/dietary-guidelines-and-myplate/sugar-substitutes-how-much-is-too-much.

International Food Information Council Foundation. “2019 Food & Health Survey.” May 22, 2019. https://foodinsight.org/wp-content/uploads/2019/05/IFIC-Foundation-2019-Food-and-Health-Report-FINAL.pdf.

International Food Information Council  Foundation. “What is Erythritol?” January 30, 2019. https://foodinsight.org/what-is-erythritol/.

International Food Information Council  Foundation. “Everything You Need to Know about Monk Fruit Sweeteners.” December 18, 2018. https://foodinsight.org/everything-you-need-to-know-about-monk-fruit-sweeteners/.

International Food Information Council Foundation. “Everything You Need to Know About Stevia Sweeteners.” October 16, 2018. https://foodinsight.org/everything-you-need-to-know-about-stevia-sweeteners/.

International Food Information Council  Foundation. “Has Perception of Sugar Become Reality?”  September 27, 2018. https://foodinsight.org/has-perception-of-sugar-become-reality/.

International Food Information Council  Foundation. “The Advent of Advantame.” August 5, 2014. https://foodinsight.org/the-advent-of-advantame/.

International Food Information Council Foundation. “Sugar Alcohols Fact Sheet.” October 15, 2009. https://foodinsight.org/sugar-alcohols-fact-sheet/.

International Food Information Council Foundation. “Sugar Alcohols Fact Sheet.” October 15, 2009. https://foodinsight.org/sugar-alcohols-fact-sheet/.

Mayo Clinic. “Artificial sweeteners and other sugar substitute.” September 25, 2018. https://www.mayoclinic.org/healthy-lifestyle/nutrition-and-healthy-eating/in-depth/artificial-sweeteners/art-20046936.

The Calorie Control Council. 2019. “Allulose.” https://allulose.org/.

U.S. Food and Drug Administration. “Additional Information about High-Intensity Sweeteners Permitted for Use in Food in the United States.” February 8, 2018. https://www.fda.gov/food/food-additives-petitions/additional-information-about-high-intensity-sweeteners-permitted-use-food-united-states#saccharin.

U.S. Food and Drug Administration. “High Intensity Sweeteners.” December 19, 2017. https://www.fda.gov/food/food-additives-petitions/high-intensity-sweeteners.

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