Artificial sweeteners are synthetic sugar substitutes which have been approved by the FDA. Gram for gram, they are often sweeter than sugar itself. Certain artificial sweeteners are derived from natural substances, while others are not and are created from a mixture of chemical components. Some different artificial sweeteners you may see on food labels include:
- Acesulfame potassium
- Aspartame, also known as Equal or NutraSweet
- Saccharin, also known as Sweet'N Low
- Sucralose, also known as Splenda
Pros and cons
The obvious pro to artificial sweeteners is that they don’t provide any calories, but still provide a sweet taste. For example, a regular can of soda provides about 120 or so calories, while a can of diet soda provides 0 calories. This could be beneficial for those with diabetes, who have to manage their levels of carbohydrate throughout the day. Artificial sweeteners are healthier than sugar for your teeth, since they don’t cause tooth decay. And it also seems like they would be beneficial for weight management, since they cut out extra calories.
However, some researchers suggest that artificial sweeteners may have a detrimental effect on weight/health. There may be the issue of compensation, meaning that when the calories are cut out of drinks or food by using an artificial sweetener, people may overcompensate later and eat extra calories. There also may be a brain chemistry component – those who consume a lot of artificially sweetened foods and beverages may crave other regularly sweetened foods more or have a different brain response to actual sugar. And of course there is the issue of whether you want to put something artificially made into your body.
You probably know that those little packets of Equal and Splenda are artificial sweeteners, and you’re likely aware that diet sodas contain them too since they taste sweet but don’t have any sugar. But you might be surprised at some of these other sources:
- Other beverages. Aside from diet soda, there are actually a lot of other beverages that contain artificial sweeteners. Certain brands of lemonades, iced teas, fruit drinks, and even some flavored and seltzer waters contain artificial sweeteners.
- Yogurt. If you notice brands of yogurt that seem low in calories and sugar compared to others on the shelf, check the ingredients. Some common brands will add in artificial sweeteners to make the yogurt taste better. You are better off searching for a natural plain yogurt to which you can add fresh fruit! (Keep in mind that fruit-flavored yogurts without artificial sweeteners often contain a lot of added sugar).
- Fruit cups. When you look for fruit cups or canned fruit, you want to avoid ones packed in syrup (high in added sugar) and rather look for ones packed in juice or water. However, there are now some fruit cup manufacturers are packing fruit in juice/water and adding artificial sweeteners to the water to boost the flavor. Check the labels.
- Jams and jellies. If you see a “lower sugar” or “no added sugar” brand of jelly or jam, check the ingredient label – sometimes these have artificial sweeteners added. There are plenty of brands of jams and preserves out there though that contain little to no added sugar or artificial sweeteners – they’re just made from fruit and natural fruit juices. Stick with those!
The bottom line:
If you plan to consume foods with artificial sweeteners, do so in moderation – just like you do for added sugars. Even better, focus on making most of your diet natural and minimally processed foods like vegetables, fruits, whole grains, and lean meats. Why add tons of artificial sweeteners to the mix when you can find plenty of healthy choices without them?