For those who like to use sweeteners, there is a broader range of choices than ever before.
This article examines some of the most popular sweeteners and their potential benefits and drawbacks.
What Are Sweeteners?
Sweeteners are simply food additives that sweeten our food. Although people generally use this term to refer to artificial options, sugar itself is a sweetener too.
These products provide a sweet taste to everything from cakes and cookies to soft drinks, chewing gum, and even toothpaste (1).
Sugar is the most popular sweetener – both in homes and within the food industry.
However, choices like stevia, erythritol, aspartame, and sucralose are also very prevalent.
There is a lot of debate over the pros and cons of using sweeteners, and they are a somewhat controversial nutrition topic.
There are four main classifications of sweetener:
- Sugar alcohols
Artificial sweeteners are sweet-tasting, synthetic food additives.
In other words, they are produced in a laboratory from human-made compounds rather than having a natural origin.
Unlike sugar, artificial sweeteners are non-caloric, which is one reason why they are prevalent in “diet” soft drinks.
Examples of artificial sweeteners include aspartame and sucralose.
Natural sweeteners refer to products obtained from a natural source that the human body can break down and digest.
In other words, we metabolize and absorb the nutrients and calories these sweetening agents contain.
Some common examples of natural sweeteners include sugar, honey, coconut sugar, and molasses.
These sweeteners all contain varying proportions of glucose, fructose, and sucrose, and our body treats them like sugar.
In other words, we digest the calories and carbohydrates, and they have an impact on blood sugar levels.
People sometimes refer to plant-derived sweeteners as ‘natural,’ but generally speaking, they are heavily processed just like artificial sweeteners.
The main difference between artificial and plant-derived sweeteners is that the latter originated from a natural product—such as a leaf—rather than being made in a lab.
Perhaps the most popular plant-derived sweetener in recent times is stevia.
Some examples of sugar alcohols include erythritol, maltitol, sorbitol, and xylitol.
Sugar alcohols originally come from foods such as fruit, grain, and vegetables. While they do exist in nature, commercial production of sugar alcohols involves the hydrogenation of carbohydrates (2).
Additionally, these compounds are much lower in calories than regular sugar, and most do not have an impact on blood sugar levels (3).
If you are wondering about the name ‘sugar alcohol,’ this is because the chemical structure of these compounds shares similarities with sugar and alcohol. However, there is no need for concern because they contain no ethanol.
Sugar alcohols are also known as polyols, and while they do contain carbohydrates, these carbs mostly escape regular digestion in the small intestine. The bacteria in our gut ferment sugar alcohols in the colon (4).
Types of Sweeteners
In alphabetical order, here is a look at some of the most popular sweeteners and their pros and cons.
Allulose is a relatively new “natural” sweetener that came to market courtesy of Tate and Lyle, which is a large corporation better known for its sugar products.
While manufacturers don’t have to list allulose as sugar on food labels, it must be included in the total carbohydrate listing (7).
See this review of allulose sweetener for a full evidence-based guide.
- Allulose has zero glycemic value and it is virtually free of calories.
- It tastes almost identical to sugar, and we can use it in the same way.
- Allulose acts very similar to sugar; it adds bulk and even browns like regular table sugar does.
- There are no known side effects in human studies at this time. However, the available research is small, and long-term safety testing does not currently exist.
Aspartame is a somewhat controversial artificial sweetener, and it is also known by its commercial brand names such as Nutrasweet and Equal.
While there are many Internet claims linking aspartame to health problems, there is very little evidence from high-quality studies to support these assertions.
See this evidence-based guide to aspartame for more information.
- Aspartame is a zero-calorie sweetener, and it has a rating of zero on the glycemic index (8).
- It has a taste slightly like sugar, and people generally enjoy the taste.
- Although aspartame tastes similar to sugar, it does have a slight chemical aftertaste that some people dislike.
- Aspartame is not suitable for people with phenylketonuria. Phenylketonuria is a rare condition that impairs the absorption of the amino acid phenylalanine, causing it to build up in the body (9).
3) Coconut Sugar
Coconut sugar is a natural sweetener that even manages to offer some (small) nutritional value.
For instance, coconut sugar provides a moderate source of potassium (10).
However, the minimal levels of nutrients in coconut sugar do not make it a healthy choice, and as with any sugar, it is still better to limit intake.
Coconut sugar has a glycemic index of 54, which is lower than the GI of regular table sugar (11).
- Coconut sugar contains some trace minerals.
- It’s a gram-for-gram sugar replacement with a slightly lower glycemic index.
- It has a similar taste to sugar.
- Aside from the trace minerals it contains, coconut sugar is very similar to regular sugar, but it has a much higher cost. Is the extra expense justified?
Erythritol is an interesting and widely used sugar alcohol.
First of all, this sweetener has a glycemic index of 0 and an insulinemic index of 2 (12).
Although erythritol contains carbohydrates, they are non-digestible in the gut and do not affect blood glucose levels.
Erythritol is approximately 70% as sweet as sugar. As a result, slightly extra amounts of erythritol will be necessary for the same sweetness level as sugar (13).
- Good for dental health – does not harm teeth or contribute to plaque buildup. Additionally, studies have suggested that erythritol may help to decrease plaque (14).
- Erythritol has as no impact on blood sugar levels.
- Erythritol works as a straight one-for-one sugar replacement, and it even caramelizes like sugar.
- It can be used at heat, making erythritol one of the best sweeteners for baking.
- Consuming high amounts of erythritol can lead to gastrointestinal distress for some individuals (15).
This in-depth review of erythritol provides further details.
5) High-Fructose Corn Syrup
High-fructose corn syrup (HFCS) is prevalent within the packaged and fast food industry, and so many products use it.
The production of this sweetener involves the enzymatic breakdown of starch in corn to glucose (16).
There have been concerns raised over the potentially harmful effects of HFCS due to its high fructose content. These concerns have primarily been because, unlike regular sugar, fructose is mainly metabolized in the liver.
However, a systematic review featuring 21 intervention studies found no strong evidence to suggest that HFCS had any unique effect compared to regular sugar (17).
Research suggests that HFCS has a similar glycemic response to regular sugar (18).
- Very cheap
- Versatile ingredient.
- HFCS has a significant impact on blood sugar, so it is unsuitable for those who are trying to manage their blood glucose levels.
- It is pure liquid sugar, and aside from energy, it offers no nutritional value.
Although honey is a significant source of sugars, it is a healthier option than refined sucrose.
This statement is particularly true for unrefined honey, which is also a source of some micronutrients and polyphenols (18).
Despite this, though, honey is still very high in sugar, and it is better to use it in moderation.
Honey’s glycemic score can be as low as 35, depending on the concentration of fructose present (19).
- Some types of honey can have a very low GI.
- Unrefined honey contains micronutrients and polyphenols.
- Pleasant taste.
- Good-quality honey can be very expensive.
- Honey is not the best option for those who are looking for a non-caloric sweetener.
See this guide to honey for more information.
Maltitol is a commonly-used sugar alcohol, and it has approximately 90% of the sweetness of regular sugar (20).
However, maltitol does contain carbohydrates and calories, and it has a score of 36 on the glycemic index.
- Tastes just like regular sugar, but it has fewer carbs and calories, and a lower glycemic impact.
- Research suggests that maltitol may have benefits for oral health by helping to inhibit harmful bacteria (21).
- Unlike other sugar alcohols, maltitol does raise blood-glucose levels (22).
- Maltitol can cause side effects such as bloating, diarrhea, and gas. Effects such as these may be more intense for people with irritable bowel syndrome (23).
8) Maple Syrup
Maple syrup is another non-refined caloric sweetener, originating in Canada and the United States.
Maple syrup has a glycemic index of 54 (24).
Similar to honey, maple syrup contains small amounts of minerals and phenolic compounds.
- Maple syrup is a significant source of riboflavin and manganese. It also contains substantial amounts of zinc, magnesium, calcium, and thiamin (25).
- Even though maple syrup has some nutrients, it is still high in sugar (and calories).
9) Molasses (Black Treacle)
Molasses, also known as black treacle, is a thick and dark brown/black syrup.
Interestingly, molasses is a significant source of minerals and provides large amounts of manganese, magnesium, iron, potassium, and calcium (26).
- Rich in minerals
- Molasses has a somewhat bitter and powerful taste, so it contributes its own flavor rather than just sweetness.
- High in sugar.
10) Monk Fruit
Otherwise known as ‘Luo han guo’ (or longevity fruit), monk fruit is native to South-East Asia.
This sugar substitute is non-caloric, zero-glycemic, and it contains no carbohydrate.
Monk fruit is arguably the most ‘natural’ plant-derived sweetener when following traditional processing methods. In these processing methods, the extract is derived from dried fruit (27).
- Monk fruit has no impact on blood glucose or insulin levels (28).
- The taste of monk fruit comes from the sweet taste of a class of antioxidants they contain called mogrosides, which may offer potential benefits (29, 30).
- Monk fruit extract is relatively new, and there is no extensive research from human trials. It appears to be safe, but more research is necessary.
- More expensive than other sweeteners.
See this complete guide to monk fruit for more information.
Otherwise known by the brand name of ‘Sweet’N Low,’ saccharin is a non-glycemic artificial sweetener.
- Since saccharin is so sweet, only small amounts are necessary, making it cheap and convenient.
- Saccharin is non-glycemic, so it is suitable for individuals trying to regulate their blood sugar levels (31).
- Saccharin has a strong aftertaste. For this reason, it often comes mixed with other ingredients.
Sorbitol is another sugar alcohol that has a minimal glycemic index of 9 (32).
Sorbitol is only about half as sweet as sugar and contains 2.6 calories per gram.
- Like most other sugar alcohols, sorbitol has zero/minimal impact on blood glucose levels (33).
- Studies demonstrate that sorbitol likely has a protective effect against dental plaque (34).
- Sugar alcohols, in general, can cause digestive distress at high doses, and this is the same for sorbitol. However, studies show that even as little as 10 grams of sorbitol may lead to digestive cramping (35).
- Since sorbitol is lesser sweet than erythritol and xylitol, more is needed to match the sweet taste of sugar. Unfortunately, this makes the risk of side effects much higher than with other sugar alcohols.
For more information, there is an in-depth guide to sorbitol here.
Stevia is a plant-derived non-caloric sweetener.
Manufacturers make this popular sugar substitute by extracting the sweet-tasting steviol glycosides from the Stevia rebaudiana plant.
People widely refer to stevia as a ‘natural’ sweetener. Despite the fact stevia has this ‘natural’ image, it is usually highly-refined (36).
After all, it is originally a leaf – not a white powder.
This refined version of stevia may come as a granulated powder or liquid drops.
However, we can also use stevia in its whole-leaf, unprocessed form, which has a much milder taste and is not as sweet.
- Stevia appears to be a safe sweetener, and there are no noteworthy negative studies.
- The whole leaf form of stevia is unprocessed and the most ‘natural’ sweetening option.
- Stevia does not adversely affect blood glucose levels. One trial showed it might even lower them (37).
- Some highly-processed versions of stevia use solvent-extraction methods and chemical flavorings. Although this itself doesn’t mean stevia is particularly “bad,” the ‘natural’ marketing might be misleading.
- Some people dislike the aftertaste of stevia.
See this full review of stevia for more information.
Sucralose is a sweetener commercially sold as Splenda, SucraPlus, Nevella, and several other brands.
The production of sucralose involves replacing three hydrogen-oxygen groups from regular sugar with three chlorine atoms (38).
Like other artificial sweeteners, sucralose contains no calories, and it has a zero score on the glycemic index.
- Some people prefer the taste compared to other artificial sweeteners.
- Sucralose contains no calories, and it has no glycemic impact.
- Some people find that sucralose has a strong chemical aftertaste.
- Using sucralose at high temperatures appears to cause the sweetener to break down into chloropropanols. More research is necessary, but these compounds could potentially be harmful (39).
See this full guide to sucralose for further information.
Sugar is the most popular natural sweetener in the world, and the truth is that most of us consume too much of it.
However, there is also much controversy over its relative health effects.
For example, a wide range of studies has associated sugar intake with an increased prevalence of chronic diseases. Some researchers and health organizations—such as the American Heart Association—advise that sugar is harmful and urge a lower intake (42).
In contrast, as shown in this systematic review, others feel that problems are caused by the over-consumption of sugar, which leads to excessive energy intake (43).
There is also a common belief that sugar is addictive, but does evidence support the idea of sugar addiction?
- No sharp or chemical aftertaste like some artificial sweeteners have.
- Sugar has a glycemic index of 65, so it will have a significant impact on blood sugar levels (44).
- Like all natural sugars, sugar is bad for dental health.
16) Swerve Sweetener
Swerve sweetener is a popular sugar substitute with the low-carb baking crowd.
This sweetener uses a blend of three different ingredients. These ingredients include erythritol, oligosaccharides (a prebiotic fiber), and ‘natural flavors.’
Additionally, it provides a consistency very similar to sugar, and it can be a gram-for-gram replacement in recipes.
Swerve sweetener is non-glycemic.
- Swerve contains no digestible carbohydrate; it is non-glycemic and has no adverse impact on blood sugar levels.
- It is a gram-for-gram sugar replacement.
- Swerve has a similar taste to sugar.
- Swerve is more expensive than its main ingredient, erythritol. Is the extra cost worth the difference?
For further details, here is a guide to the benefits and drawbacks of Swerve sweetener.
After only recently achieving ‘generally recognized as safe’ (GRAS) status, at this point, tagatose is a little-known sweetener.
Tagatose is 92% as sweet as sugar, and it has a score of 3 on the glycemic index.
- Initial trials show that tagatose may have a range of health benefits (45).
- Tagatose does not appear to affect blood sugar levels.
- Unfortunately, like with many other sweeteners, digestive problems are a side effect following high levels of tagatose intake.
Xylitol is one of the most popular sweeteners, and it has a minimal glycemic impact (and a GI score of 7) (46).
Interestingly, the sweetness of xylitol is approximately on a 1:1 ratio with sugar.
Despite this, xylitol contains 33% fewer calories than regular table sugar (47).
- Xylitol is beneficial for dental health, and it may help to prevent plaque (48).
- Based on animal studies, the intake of xylitol may improve the variety and quality of gut flora (49).
- Although xylitol contains calories and carbohydrates, it does not raise blood glucose or insulin levels. This fact makes xylitol a diabetes-friendly sweetener (50).
- Similar to other sugar alcohols, xylitol may cause symptoms of gastrointestinal distress in some people (51).
- Xylitol is highly toxic (and can even be fatal) for dogs. For dog owners, therefore, it might not be the best option.
See here for a research-backed guide to xylitol.
19) Yacon Syrup
Most of the carbohydrates in yacon syrup are fructooligosaccharides (FOS), which are non-digestible (52).
Since we do not digest FOS, yacon syrup only offers around one-third the number of calories as regular sugar. Besides this, it has a low glycemic index (53).
However, yacon syrup does still contain fructose and glucose (forms of digestible carbohydrates), so it will have a small impact on blood sugar levels.
- Yacon syrup only has 33% of the digestible carbohydrate (and calories) of sugar.
- Minimal glycemic effect compared to regular table sugar.
- Very expensive
- Not suitable for those who wish to find a non-glycemic and non-caloric sweetener.
Which Is the Best Sweetener?
Firstly, there are several good sweetener options, and the answer to which is “best” is subjective and depends on what you are seeking.
However, there are several factors to bear in mind:
- Natural sweeteners such as honey, molasses, and yacon contain a low to moderate range of vitamins and minerals. However, there are better sources of nutrients elsewhere, and this is not a good reason to start using the sweeteners.
- Artificial and plant-derived sweeteners are the best option for those who wish to use a non-caloric and non-glycemic sweetener. They (mostly) have minimal impact on blood sugar levels.
- Most sugar alcohols also have minimal impact on blood sugar levels. However, using them in more significant amounts can lead to digestive upsets.
- Despite being one of the most common (and oldest) choices, many people prefer the taste of sugar to artificial sweeteners.