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Jul 11, 2012

The Skinny on Sugar-Substitutes

Should we continue to use sugar-substitutes and are they safe?

We’ve seen them everywhere – Splenda, Equal, Sweet’N Low, Truvia and more. These sugar-substitutes are used in many low-calorie drinks to provide that sweet taste we love, but without the added calories. In fact, many of us like them so much that we use them at home, adding them to our coffee, tea or even baked goods, often to cut back on calories and achieve a healthier diet. Given their popularity, the longstanding question has been – should we continue to use sugar-substitutes and are they safe? And thanks to scientific evidence and a recent statement from the American Heart Association (AHA) and American Diabetes Association (ADA), the answer is yes.

First, what most of us want to be sure of is that sugar-substitutes are safe. Five of the six sugar-substitutes available to consumers have been approved by the US Food and Drug Administration, which is why they’re allowed on the market today (the sixth, stevia, is still awaiting approval but the USFDA has not objected to its safety). And while further research is needed to better understand the long-term impact of sugar-substitutes on our health, there is no evidence that use of these sweeteners should not be used as part of a healthy diet.

Which brings us to the second question - can sugar-substitutes help us lose weight and improve our health? In 2009, the AHA released a statement that the typical American diet consists of far more sugar than necessary, and that this added sugar could lead to weight gain. So experts wanted to find out whether replacing added sugars with sugar-substitutes, like Equal or Splenda, could aid in weight loss or weight maintenance. Although they need more evidence to know for sure, the AHA and ADA concluded that when used wisely, sugar-substitutes may help individuals lose weight and maintain weight when combined with a healthy diet. That means that by making smart decisions, like replacing full-calorie sodas with diet sodas, these types of choices could help decrease calorie intake and aid in weight loss. And these types of decisions are especially useful for diabetics, as it can help achieve better control of blood sugar.

So as with most things, moderation is key. Replacing full-calorie drinks full of added sugar with those containing low or non-calorie sweeteners may help with weight loss, but don’t get carried away. If you drink more diet beverages but overcompensate by increasing calorie intake with other foods, you can’t expect to lose weight. Instead, think of low or non-calorie beverages as a tool that might help weight loss or blood sugar control that much easier, as part of a healthy diet and regular physical activity.  

Questions for You to Consider

  • What types of low or non-calorie sweeteners are on the market?

  • There are six types of sweeteners, including acesulfame-K (Sweet One), aspartame (Equal, NutraSweet), neotame, saccharin (Sweet’N Low), sucralose (Splenda) and plant-based sweeteners (Truvia, PureVia and Sweet Leaf).
  • Is stevia not yet approved by the US Food and Drug Administration?

  • Stevia is a new type of sugar-substitute on the market. The US Food and Drug Administration has not yet granted it a “Generally recognized as safe” status, but has also issued no objections regarding its safety.