What’s the deal with white sugar substitutes?

If you have recently been diagnosed with diabetes, you may have been told to use sugar substitutes instead of regular table sugar. Maybe you use white sugar substitutes already because you’re trying to cut down on calories or sugar. Or you don’t even use sugar substitutes because they are created artificially. Whatever your take on these sweeteners, we want to make food simple again by giving you the facts and sharing our expert opinions.

What are all the white sugar substitutes?

What are sugar substitutes and how are they used?

You constantly see them in little packets at coffee shops and in restaurants but it may surprise you to learn their reach extends far beyond your sugar-free cappuccino.

Sometimes referred to as “non-nutritive” or “high-intensity sweeteners”, these seriously sweet crystals are found in many commonly purchased products. They usually appear in foods that are labeled “diet” or “sugar-free.” They taste even sweeter than sugar but add few to no calories to your food, the exact amount depends on which sweetener is used.

Did you know that 1 diet coke has 5.5 packets of aspartame?

chart of white sugar substitutes

Graphic by Amaris Galik

Are white sugar substitutes safe?

We think so. Over the past several decades, researchers have come up with some conflicting findings on sugar substitutes. Prior to the year 2000, we thought a link existed between saccharin use and bladder cancer. However, this belief was based on studies of rats, not humans, and the research turned out to be inconclusive. Today, the National Cancer Institute and other health agencies say there is no sound evidence pointing to any serious health problems with the use of these sweeteners.

In addition, these products are all either reviewed or researched by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration and deemed as generally safe when used in limited quantities. Overall, after decades of research and documentation, these various low/no-calorie sweeteners have shown no sign of health and safety concerns for their currently approved amounts. These sweeteners, therefore, are a great option for you if you’re trying to add sweetness but are watching your blood sugar!

In some individuals, however, these sweeteners may cause digestive distress. They are not fully digested and can change the balance of bacteria in the gut. Therefore, when the gut is not balanced, it makes digestive other foods more difficult, resulting in discomfort.

safety of white sugar substitutes

Photo Credit Kaitlin Williams MPH, RD, LD

Can they help me lose weight?

Don’t count on it. Although sugar substitutes are often recommended as a tool for weight loss, we don’t know enough about how they affect the brain or our hunger signals.

What’s more important? When a food is labeled “sugar-free,” that doesn’t mean it’s free of calories. If you go in with a dieter’s mindset, you may think the words “sugar-free” give you a license to eat more than you need. While it is true that artificial sweeteners reduce the calorie content of foods, the difference is not very large. Eating “sugar-free” or “low-sugar” foods makes it easy to justify eating more, which quickly adds up to account for all (or more than) what was saved by the lower-calorie sweeteners.

It is common for individuals who frequently consume artificially-sweetened products or who use sugar substitutes to have overstimulated sugar receptors, making them less sensitive to less sweet foods. This results in people disliking less sweet foods, therefore eating less naturally sweet or unsweet foods and relying on the sweeter, more processed foods.

How do Dietitians feel about white sugar substitutes?

We’re glad you asked. If you’re already familiar with our practice, you know we don’t believe in dieting. Time and again, we find diets don’t actually lead to long-term weight loss. Diets are restrictive. Avoiding foods can be emotionally taxing. And after all that sacrifice, diets don’t yield the results they promised us in the first place.

We think buying into food products that advertise a lower sugar or calorie content is a dieter’s game. While we don’t want you harboring an unhealthy fear of sugar substitutes, we don’t want you thinking they’re the magic bullet for weight loss either.

sugar substitutes

Photo Credit Kaitlin Williams MPH, RD, LD

That being said, using sugar substitutes can be a good thing!

Sugar substitutes may not be the end-all answer to weight loss, but they can help people manage certain conditions. Sugar-sweetened beverages (soda, lemonade, sweet tea, etc.) and other sugary foods are a huge concern for individuals with diabetes. When someone’s body is having a difficult time managing the sugar in food and drink, they can switch to a sugar substitute to better control their blood sugar.

They can honor a craving for something sweet by substituting sugar with one of the products listed above! Many sugar substitute brands have also created baking blends that can be used to create baked goods containing less sugar. Being diagnosed with a chronic condition, like diabetes, can be a scary time and involves several lifestyle changes. Sugar substitutes can provide the sweetness that people enjoy while allowing them to better manage their blood sugar and reach their health goals.

Favorite recipes using white sugar substitutes:

Are you interested in trying out an artificial sweetener? We have you covered with these recipes:

Here are some other blogs you might be interested in!

Want dietitian-approved products to make managing your condition easier? Below you’ll find products written and recommended by our very own dietitians!

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YouTube video

Watch Dietitian Kaitlin Williams Eckstein, MPH, RD, LD

Kaitlin discusses diabetes and blood sugar management in terms of artificial sweeteners and mindful eating and meal planning.

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If you are interested in learning more about how our dietitians can help you make nutrition work for you, reach out to us here.

-Blog contributions by Amaris Galik, RBA nutrition intern

-Blog reviewed and updated March 2021.

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Whether you are a novice in the kitchen, or a seasoned chef, Dietitian Klara will work with you to help you reach your nutrition goals. Co-author of Nourished: 10 Ingredients to Happy, Healthy Eating, Cooking with Diabetes and Cooking with Food Sensitivities Guide.