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Published on June 21, 2017

Artificial vs. natural sweeteners: The inside scoop on sugar substitutes

By Amber Herr, Dietetic Intern, Gundersen Nutrition Therapy

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After realizing sugar isn't as sweet in our bodies as it is on our tongue, many of us transitioned from "one lump or two?" to "blue packet or yellow?" We're talking sugar substitutes, or sweeteners used in place of sugar. When they first appeared on the market sugar substitutes felt like the solution to our not-so-sweet dilemma. But then we began to ponder: what are they? And should we be choosing sugar, artificial sweeteners or natural sweeteners?

Artificial sweeteners

The term "artificial sweetener" refers to a substance that has been chemically made to mimic sugar. The more commonly known sugar substitutes fall into this category: aspartame (Equal), saccharin (Sweet'N Low) and sucralose (Splenda). These are zero calorie sweeteners and are many times sweeter than table sugar. Artificial sweeteners are found in many "sugar free" products like soda. These sweeteners are also used in lower calorie desserts and other foods—take Splenda for example.

Natural sweeteners

"Natural sweeteners" include honey, agave nectar, maple syrup and other forms of sugar that are favored for being more natural or unprocessed than table sugar. These natural sweeteners are still considered added sugars, and many of them still undergo some form of processing before appearing on the shelf. Natural sweeteners and table sugar are both broken down into glucose and fructose during digestion, meaning there is no scientific evidence that the form of sugar found in natural sweeteners is any better than table sugar.

What about stevia?

Stevia is derived from a plant, but it is more similar to artificial sweeteners than commonly thought. The stevia that appears on supermarket shelves is purified, highly processed and, many times, cut with fillers or other sugar substitutes. Stevia extract is used in many low calorie beverages and food items and is sold for home use.

The bottom line

So which sweetener should we be choosing—sugar, artificial sweeteners or natural sweeteners? Many get so caught up in this question that they miss the point. Ideally, the majority of your foods and beverages should not contain added sweeteners of any kind. Sugar and natural sweeteners provide our bodies with calories that are either used as energy or stored as fat. Artificial sweeteners do not provide calories and are either broken down into a number of compounds, or not broken down at all.

Here's the bottom line: While all of these options are safe to consume in moderation, most of your diet should consist of foods with no added sweeteners—foods such as whole grains, fruits, vegetables, lean proteins, dairy and water.

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