What You Should Know About Sugar Substitutes

There's a lot of mystery inside those little pink, blue, and yellow packets. Despite decades of use, artificial and natural sugar substitutes still provoke lingering concerns among consumers. Here's what you need to know about the safety of sugar substitutes, what they're in, and how to use them to your advantage.


The Facts About Sugar Substitutes

Some of the most frequent questions we receive at Diabetic Living are about sugar substitutes. The topic is polarizing: some of you love them, some of you hate them. Some of you are concerned about their safety, and some of you want tips for how to use them more. For many people with diabetes, sugar substitutes -- which include artificial and natural sweeteners -- provide solutions for cutting out excess calories and carbohydrate while still being able to enjoy sweet treats.

Sugar substitutes are among the world's most scientifically tested food products, and the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has deemed them "generally recognized as safe." The one sweetener that still carries a warning on its label is aspartame (the sweetener in Equal Classic and NutraSweet) because a small group of people -- about 1 in 25,000 in the United States -- has a genetic condition that prevents the metabolizing of phenylalanine, an amino acid in aspartame.

While there is still a lot of testing to be done as new products enter the market, we know a lot more about sweeteners now than we did when the first sugar substitute, saccharin, was discovered more than 100 years ago.

Q. Is it better for a person with diabetes to use real sugar or sugar substitutes?
A. It depends. Both can fit in a healthful eating plan, but you should limit your intake of both as well. In terms of heart health, short-term studies suggest diet soda is better than regular soda, says Kimber Stanhope, Ph.D., RD, at the University of California, Davis. Recently, a small study in Denmark found that healthy people who drank about 4 cups a day of sugar-sweetened cola for 6 months had significant increases in belly fat, cholesterol, and triglycerides compared with those who drank aspartame-sweetened cola. Most artificially sweetened foods still contain calories and carbohydrate, so fit them in your daily calorie and carb counts just as you would any other food or drink.

Q. Why do some people say artificial sweeteners cause cancer?
A. "The idea of artificial sweeteners causing cancer arose when early studies showed that high doses of a sweetener named cyclamate, which is currently banned from U.S. food products, in combination with saccharin caused bladder cancer in laboratory animals," says Kantha Shelke, Ph.D., at Corvus Blue LLC, a food science and research firm in Chicago. The FDA has since deemed artificial sweeteners used in the United States to be safe based on extensive animal and human studies. Furthermore, studies have not documented adverse effects related to the intake of sugar substitutes, even when human subjects have consumed relatively large amounts. Few studies have been done in humans to evaluate the long-term effects of using sugar substitutes, however. The FDA has set acceptable daily intake (ADI) limits for each artificial sweetener. One study shows that the average daily intake of the heaviest users of aspartame was only 5-10 percent of the ADI.

Q. Which sugar substitute should I use for baking?
A. In the Better Homes and Gardens Test Kitchen, we test recipes first using regular granulated and/or brown sugar. When we achieve great results with those, we move on to test with a variety of sugar substitutes. We have the most success with baking blends, such as Splenda Sugar Blend or C&H Light, and limited success with other brands, depending on the length of cooking or baking time. Splenda Granular has proved successful in many recipes, and we have some success with Sweet'N Low, Truvia, and Equal.

FREE Baking Guide! Sugar Substitutes Put to the Test