The Basics of Sugar in Food vs Sugar Substitutes

What are sugar substitutes?

Sugar substitutes are sweet substances or products that have no calories or far fewer calories than regular sugar (sucrose). Some are artificial, and some are derived from natural sources. They are also called sugar-free sweeteners, no- or low-calorie sweeteners, artificial sweeteners, non-nutritive sweeteners, or high-intensity or high-potency sweeteners.


Why even bother substituting for sugar?

Most everyone enjoys a sweet. And sugar is not toxic. Small amounts are perfectly safe. However, many people eat far too much sugar (and here we mean table sugar, raw sugar, high-fructose corn syrup—HFCS—and other sugary food ingredients). Sugar provides “empty calories”—calories devoid of vitamins, protein, and other nutrients. Too much sugar, especially in beverages, causes tooth decay and obesity and is also linked to heart disease, diabetes, and metabolic syndrome (larger waistline, higher blood pressure, blood sugar, triglycerides, and lower “good” cholesterol). In addition, the more sugar and sugary foods you eat, the less room there is in your diet for foods that contain valuable nutrients.

The American Heart Association recommends that women consume not more than 6 teaspoons, and men not more than 9 teaspoons, of added sugar per day. The association also recommends that most children and adolescent girls consume less than 5 teaspoons, and adolescent boys less than 9 teaspoons, of added sugars per day. No matter what your age, you would exceed those limits by drinking just one 20-ounce soft drink, which contains nine or more teaspoons of added sugar (usually in the form of HFCS).

Isn’t sugar healthier for you than high-fructose corn syrup?

No. There is no significant nutritional difference between sugar and HFCS. Both contain about half fructose and half glucose. (High-fructose corn syrup got its name because it is high in fructose compared to corn syrup, which is mostly glucose.) Neither contains any vitamins or minerals. All the other sweeteners, often used in “health foods,” including evaporated cane juice, honey, brown rice syrup, agave nectar, barley malt syrup, and juice concentrates, contain negligible amounts of nutrients.

What are the different ways that sugar can appear on the food label?

Sugar takes many forms: high-fructose corn syrup, corn syrup, corn sugar, honey, agave, raw sugar, cane sugar, brown sugar, date sugar, invert sugar, maple syrup, fruit juice concentrate, evaporated cane juice, and ingredients ending in “ose,” including dextrose or glucose, sucrose, fructose, isomaltulose, high-maltose corn syrup, and trehalose.

Which foods contain sugar substitutes?

We get most of our artificial sweeteners from diet (no- and lower-calorie) soft drinks and other sugary beverages, but sugar substitutes are being used in a wider and wider variety of foods, often without any disclosure on front labels. Read ingredient lists carefully!

You can also find sugar substitutes in products such as pharmaceuticals, toothpaste, mouthwash, and chewable vitamins.

How can I tell if a food or drink contains a sugar substitute?

You can’t trust foods’ front labels to disclose “diet” or the presence of sugar substitutes. To be sure, check the ingredient listings on the labels. Many foods called “diet” or “sugar-free” contain sugar substitutes … but sugar substitutes may also be in cereal, snacks, bread, yogurt, prepared meals, and other foods that are not called “diet” or “sugar-free.”

Sources: Johnson RK, Appel LJ, Brands M, et al. Dietary sugars intake and cardiovascular health. A Scientific Statement from the American Heart Association. Circulation. 2009; 120:1011-20. doi: 10.1161/CIRCULATIONAHA.109.192627

American Heart Association. Dietary recommendations for healthy children. Dietary-Recommendations-for-Healthy-Children_UCM_303886_Article.jsp; Accessed May 13, 2014.

BCC Research LLC. The market for high-intensity sweeteners is expected to reach nearly $1.9 billion In 2017. pressroom/fod/market-high-intensity-sweeteners-expected-reach-nearly-$1.9-billion-2017; accessed May 28, 2014.

Other relevant links:

• These artificial sweeteners are safe to eat. See: Sugar in Food: Sugar Substitutes that are Safe

• Sugar alcohols are safe… in moderation. See: Sugar in Food: Sugar Substitutes that are Safe in Moderation

• Approach with caution when it comes to these artificial sweeteners. See: Sugar in Food: Sugar Substitutes You Should Approach with Caution

• Stay away from these common sugar substitutes. See: Sugar in Food: Sugar Substitutes that You Should Avoid

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