The topic of sugar substitutes and their function is one that has been discussed for decades by doctors, registered dietitians, scientists, researchers, and consumers. Yet, despite many empirically sound findings, still to this day, the use of sugar substitutes seems to be a concern in the minds of many people. There are a lot of opinions and theories out there, many of which we can explore and consider, however, on the whole, the sugar substitute category can be a tad-confusing. Having said that, I would like to explore a few theories where more knowledge might be most important for you to form an opinion, based on the science regarding sugar substitutes.
Let’s start by mentioning that sugar substitutes have been around since 1879 and are used all around the world. I still remember the first time I tasted a sugar substitute in a beverage –I was immediately captivated! As someone who appreciates and enjoys a sweet drink, it’s a relief to know that I can have a low calorie sweetened beverage without worrying about going over my daily calorie limit.
We have the opportunity to enjoy low-calorie sweeteners because food safety and health regulatory agencies have concluded that they are safe. This safety conclusion has also considered what I think are three of the most frequently asked questions about low-calorie sweetener safety, which I discuss below. I hope that after reading this information, it will help ease some of your own concerns.
1) Do sugar substitutes cause cancer?
Consuming foods that may cause cancer is a fear that many people have, however, in the case of sugar substitutes, it can be firmly stated that sugar substitutes do not cause cancer, and are indeed deemed safe for human consumption by respected organizations such the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA), the European Food Safety Authority, and the American Cancer Society.
Below is what the American Cancer Society has to say about non-nutritive (low/no calorie sweeteners):
“Do non-nutritive sweeteners or sugar substitutes cause cancer?
There is no proof that these sweeteners, at the levels consumed in human diets, cause cancer. Aspartame, saccharin, and sucralose are a few of the non-nutritive sweeteners approved for use by the FDA. Current evidence does not show a link between these compounds and increased cancer risk. Some animal studies have suggested that their use may be linked with an increased risk of cancers of the bladder and brain, or of leukemias and lymphomas, but studies in humans show no increased cancer risk. People with the genetic disorder phenylketonuria, however, should avoid aspartame in their diets. Newer sugar substitutes include sweeteners such as sugar alcohols (sorbitol, xylitol, and mannitol) and naturally derived sweeteners (stevia and agave syrup). All of these sweeteners appear to be safe when used in moderation, although larger amounts of sugar alcohols may cause bloating and stomach discomfort in some people.”
2) Do sugar substitutes cause weight gain?
There has been quite a controversy regarding sugar substitutes and their connection with weight gain. However, one of the most attractive aspects of sugar substitutes is the fact that they have little to no calories, so they can be a perfect tool in helping to reduce calorie intake from sugar. This is important as excess sugar intake has been found to be a risk factor for gaining weight. Although some research has suggested that consuming sugar substitutes may be associated with increased weight gain, this has not been validated. Moreover, the suggested effect is largely the result of studies that were not designed to understand the effect of sugar substitutes on weight management. In contrast, many studies in humans support the fact that low-calorie sweeteners can be useful for weight management.
For more on this topic, read the article “Do Low-Calorie Sweeteners like SPLENDA® Cause Weight Gain?” by my colleague and fellow registered dietitian Robyn Flipse.
3) What is the connection between diabetes and sugar substitutes?
No-calorie sweeteners can be a helpful tool for people with diabetes, as they do not raise blood sugar levels. They can also help lower the total carbohydrate and calories in many foods and beverages, when used instead of sugar or other caloric sweeteners. Simple sugars, like sucrose (common table sugar), are a source of glucose, which is why lowering sugar intake can be helpful in diabetes management. Low-calorie sweeteners provide no or comparatively very little carbohydrate, which is why they can be useful in diabetes meal-planning. It is important to note that most retail no-calorie sweetener products contain small amounts of carbohydrate (less than 1 gram per serving) for needed volume and texture. Keeping down caloric intake from sweeteners may also be helpful, as excess body weight is a risk factor for developing Type II diabetes. Here’s what the American Diabetes Association says:
“As part of a weight loss or weight management plan, low-calorie sweeteners can provide lighter options for desserts and other treats instead of cutting them out completely.
By replacing sugar-sweetened drinks and foods in your diet with versions that have been sweetened with low-calorie sweeteners, you may significantly reduce your calorie intake if you do not compensate with extra servings of something else.”
In a nutshell, the currently approved sugar substitutes have been rigorously scrutinized for decades and critical reviews by regulatory agencies around the world have found them to be safe for human consumption. I hope that whichever position you held before, after reading the information above you will be able to have a clearer understanding of sugar substitutes and their safe and useful role.
I have been compensated for my time by Heartland Food Products Group, the maker of SPLENDA® Sweetener Products. All statements and opinions are my own. I have pledged to Blog with Integrity, asserting that the trust of my readers and the blogging community is vitally important to me.
For more information about the safety of sugar substitutes, visit the Sugar Substitutes section of this blog.
For more information about the 2015-2020 U.S. Dietary Guidelines, read about Added Sugars in the “Key Elements of Healthy Eating Patterns” chapter of the Guidelines: http://health.gov/dietaryguidelines/2015/guidelines/chapter-1/a-closer-look-inside-healthy-eating-patterns/ .
Sylvia Meléndez Klinger, MS, RD, LDN, CPT is founder of Hispanic Food Communications, Inc., a nutrition and food communications consulting company. A Hispanic native who is a leading expert in cross-cultural Hispanic cuisine as it relates to nutrition and health, Sylvia uses her in-depth culinary and cultural expertise to introduce new strategies for wellness to an increasingly health-conscious Hispanic population. For more than a decade, Sylvia has been a consultant for major food, beverage and pharmaceutical companies and non-profit organizations.