Last Updated on July 29, 2020 by Michael Joseph
Sweeteners are food additives used to sweeten our food.
For those who like to use sweeteners, there is a broader range of choices than ever before.
Some of these options are caloric sweeteners such as sugar, honey, and maple syrup, and they provide energy in the form of sugars/carbohydrates.
Others are non-caloric sweeteners – sugar substitutes that mimic the sweet taste of sugar without carbohydrates or calories.
This article examines some of the most popular sweeteners, their characteristics, and their potential pros and cons.
Allulose is a sweetener usually made from corn, and it is relatively new on the market. The FDA accepted that allulose was ‘Generally Accepted As Safe’ (GRAS) for the first time in 2012 (1).
While manufacturers don’t have to list allulose as sugar on food labels, it must be included in the total carbohydrate listing (4).
Allulose acts very similar to regular table sugar, has a similar taste, and it adds bulk and even browns in the same way (5).
On the negative side, results from human trials have demonstrated that gastrointestinal symptoms such as bloating, flatulence, and nausea are possible from high doses of allulose (8).
Based on these trials, a maximum dose per serving of 0.4 grams per kilogram of body weight was established. This dose would be equivalent to 24 grams of allulose for an individual weighing 60 kilograms (8).
For more information, see this review of allulose sweetener for a full evidence-based guide.
Aspartame is an artificial sweetener, also known by its commercial brand names such as Nutrasweet and Equal.
This sweetener is made by combining aspartic acid and phenylalanine, both of which are amino acids (9).
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 on this topic.
However, it is worth noting that 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 (12).
3) Coconut Sugar
Coconut sugar is a caloric sweetener made by evaporating the sap from the coconut tree. A two-teaspoon serving contains 30 calories and seven grams of sugar (13).
However, the minimal levels of nutrients in coconut sugar do not make it a nutritious choice, and more significant quantities of these nutrients are available from other foods.
Coconut sugar has a glycemic index of 54, which is lower than the GI of regular table sugar (15).
All in all, coconut sugar is a gram-for-gram sugar replacement with a slightly lower glycemic index.
On the negative side, coconut sugar has a much higher cost than regular table sugar. Is the extra expense justified?
Erythritol is an interesting and widely used sugar alcohol.
Sugar alcohols are a class of compounds used as sweeteners that contain a mixture of molecules found within both sugar and alcohol, hence the name ‘sugar alcohol.’
Despite this, they don’t actually contain alcohol.
Erythritol has a glycemic index of 0 and an insulinemic index of 2 (16).
Although erythritol contains carbohydrates, they are non-digestible in the gut, and most of the compound is excreted in the urine. Hence, erythritol does not affect blood glucose levels (17).
Erythritol is approximately 70% as sweet as sugar. As a result, slightly extra amounts of erythritol will be necessary for an equivalent sweetness level (18).
Another benefit of erythritol is that it may be good for dental health because this sweetener does not harm teeth or contribute to plaque buildup. Additionally, studies have suggested that erythritol may help to decrease plaque (19).
On the downside, consuming high amounts of erythritol can lead to gastrointestinal distress for some individuals, including symptoms such as bloating, cramps, and gas (20).
This in-depth review of erythritol provides further details.
5) High-Fructose Corn Syrup
High-fructose corn syrup (HFCS) is a caloric sweetener, and its use is prevalent within the packaged and fast food industry, particularly in the United States. Although not widely used in Coca-Cola around the world, the American version of Coca-Cola is perhaps the most famous product to use HFCS.
Per tablespoon serving, HFCS contains 53 calories and 14.4 grams of sugar (21).
The production of this sweetener involves the enzymatic breakdown of starch in corn to form glucose. Once corn syrup has been produced, it undergoes further processing with an enzyme called glucose isomerase to partially convert the glucose into fructose (22).
Therefore, HFCS has a higher ratio of fructose to glucose than regular sugar. This exact fructose to glucose ratio can vary, but it is typically 55% fructose (23).
There have been concerns raised by some researchers over HFCS having potentially harmful effects due to its higher fructose content than regular sugar, with some speculating that this may have differential metabolic effects (24, 25).
However, a systematic review that analyzed twenty-one human trials found no strong evidence to suggest that HFCS had any unique effect compared to regular sugar (26).
HFCS is a versatile ingredient, and it is very affordable. However, it offers little nutritional value, and it has a significant impact on blood sugar levels, particularly for people with type 2 diabetes (27).
Research suggests that HFCS has a similar glycemic response to regular sugar (28).
Honey is a caloric sweetener, and a tablespoon serving provides 64 calories and 17 grams of sugar (29).
Although honey is a significant source of sugars, it offers more nutritionally than more heavily processed sugars. This statement is particularly true for unrefined honey, which is also a source of some micronutrients and polyphenols (30).
Despite this, though, honey is still very high in sugar, and it is better to use it in moderation.
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 (33).
However, unlike some other sugar alcohols, maltitol does contain carbohydrates that are partially digested. Human studies have demonstrated that approximately 34% of maltitol is absorbed in the gastrointestinal tract, and the sweetener has a glycemic index of 36 (34, 35).
On the positive side, despite having a lower sugar (and calorie) content, maltitol tastes just like regular sugar.
Furthermore, research suggests that maltitol may have benefits for oral health by helping to inhibit harmful bacteria. In a randomized trial featuring 153 participants, chewing maltitol-sweetened gum lowered the population of bacterial species in the mouth (36).
On the negative side, unlike other sugar alcohols, maltitol does raise blood-glucose levels (34).
In doses above 40 grams, maltitol may also cause side effects such as bloating, diarrhea, and gas. Effects such as these may be more intense for people with irritable bowel syndrome (35).
8) Maple Syrup
Maple syrup is another caloric sweetener that offers some degree of nutritional value. For instance, the syrup contains trace amounts of minerals such as calcium, magnesium, and potassium. It also contains a range of polyphenols (36, 37).
As a caloric sweetener, a tablespoon serving of maple syrup provides 52 calories and 12 grams of sugar (38).
Maple syrup has a glycemic index of 54 (39).
9) Molasses (Black Treacle)
Molasses, also known as black treacle, is a thick and dark brown/black syrup.
It is a caloric sweetener, and a tablespoon serving contains 58 calories and 14.9 grams of sugar (40).
Interestingly, molasses is a good source of minerals and provides reasonably large amounts of manganese, magnesium, iron, potassium, and calcium per serving (41).
However, molasses has a somewhat bitter and powerful taste, so it imparts its unique flavor on food rather than just sweetness. This flavorful nature of molasses could be positive or negative, depending on whether someone enjoys the taste.
Molasses has a glycemic index of 55 (42).
10) Monk Fruit
Otherwise known as ‘Luo han guo’ (or longevity fruit), monk fruit is native to South-East Asia.
This sugar substitute is a non-nutritive sweetener, meaning that it contains no calories or carbohydrates. As a result, monk fruit is also zero glycemic and will not spike blood sugar levels (43).
Monk fruit is also arguably the most ‘natural’ plant-derived sweetener when following traditional processing methods. In these processing methods, the extract is derived from dried fruit (44).
Interestingly, the sweet taste of monk fruit sweetener comes from several sweet-tasting compounds it contains. These compounds are called mogrosides, a class of antioxidants that have shown potential benefits in cell studies. However, evidence of benefits from human trials is lacking (45, 46).
However, at this point, the sweetener has yet to be approved for use within the EU.
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, and it does not affect blood sugar levels (49).
Since saccharin has an extremely sweet taste, using only a small quantity is necessary, which makes it cheap and convenient (50).
On the negative side, saccharin has a strong aftertaste. For this reason, it often comes mixed with other ingredients (which are sometimes caloric sweeteners).
Sorbitol is another sugar alcohol that has a minimal glycemic index of 9 (51).
This sweetener is only about half as sweet as sugar and contains 2.6 calories per gram (52).
Like most sugar alcohols, sorbitol has zero/minimal impact on blood glucose levels. In a clinical trial, sorbitol intake led to only minimal increases in blood sugar in individuals with diabetes (53).
Generally speaking, sugar alcohols can cause digestive distress at high doses, and this is the same for sorbitol. However, this may happen at smaller intake levels with sorbitol compared to other sweeteners. For instance, studies show that even as little as 10 grams of sorbitol may lead to digestive cramping (54).
Since sorbitol is less sweet than erythritol and xylitol, higher doses are necessary 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, and it is currently one of the most popular sweetening options.
Manufacturers make this popular sugar substitute by extracting the sweet-tasting steviol glycosides from the Stevia rebaudiana plant.
Although people widely refer to stevia as a ‘natural’ sweetener, it is usually highly refined. After all, stevia is originally a leaf – not a white powder (55).
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.
On the positive side, stevia does not adversely affect blood glucose levels, and some intervention trials demonstrated that it might even lower them (56).
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 (57).
Like other artificial sweeteners, sucralose contains no calories, has a zero score on the glycemic index, and will not raise blood sugars (49).
One potential area of concern is that using sucralose at high temperatures appears to cause the sweetener to break down into chlorinated byproducts called chloropropanols (58).
More research is necessary, but according to the German Federal Institute for Risk Assessment, these compounds could potentially have carcinogenic potential (59).
See this full guide to sucralose for further information.
Sugar is the most popular natural sweetener in the world, and it provides 16 calories and four grams of sugar per teaspoon (60).
However, there is also much controversy over its relative health effects.
For example, a wide range of studies has associated high sugar intake with an increased prevalence of chronic diseases. Some health organizations—such as the American Heart Association—advise that excess sugar is harmful and urge a lower intake (61).
In contrast, as shown in the findings of a systematic review, other researchers feel that problems caused by the over-consumption of sugar are primarily because of excessive energy (calorie) intake (62).
There is also a common belief that sugar is “addictive,” but does the evidence support that idea?
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: 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.
As an erythritol-based sweetener, Swerve is non-glycemic and will not affect blood sugar levels (17).
On the downside, as a branded product, Swerve is more expensive than its main ingredient erythritol. Is the extra cost worth the difference in price?
For further details, here is a guide to the benefits and drawbacks of Swerve sweetener.
Tagatose is a little-known sweetener that achieved ‘generally recognized as safe’ approval in 2001 (65).
Interestingly, tagatose is said to be 90% sweeter than sugar with a glycemic index of only 3, and it does not increase blood sugar levels (66).
Additionally, research has demonstrated that oral intake of tagatose can inhibit the development of plaque and oral bacteria (67).
Unfortunately, like with many other sweeteners, digestive problems appear to be a side effect following high (30-gram dose) tagatose intake (68).
Xylitol is one of the most popular sweeteners, and it has a minimal glycemic impact (and a glycemic index of 7) (69).
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 (70).
On the positive side, xylitol is beneficial for dental health, and it may help to prevent plaque (71).
Based on human trials and animal studies, the intake of xylitol may also potentially improve the variety and quality of beneficial bacteria in the gut (72).
Although xylitol contains calories and carbohydrates, it does not raise blood glucose or insulin levels. This fact makes xylitol a diabetes-friendly sweetener (73).
Once again, though, xylitol may cause symptoms of gastrointestinal distress in some people (74).
Sadly, xylitol is also highly toxic (and can even be fatal) for dogs. For dog owners, therefore, it might not be the best option (75).
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 (76).
Since we do not fully digest FOS, yacon syrup only offers around one-third the number of calories as regular sugar. Besides this, it has a very low glycemic index (77).
However, yacon syrup does still contain fructose and glucose (forms of digestible carbohydrates), so it will have a small impact on blood sugar levels.
Perhaps the biggest problem with yacon syrup is the price – it tends to be prohibitively expensive.
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, maple syrup, molasses, and yacon contain a low to moderate range of vitamins and minerals. However, there are better sources of these nutrients elsewhere, and this is not a good reason to start using the sweeteners.
- Artificial and sugar alcohols tend to be the best options for those who wish to use a non-caloric and non-glycemic sweetener. These sweeteners (mostly) have minimal impact on blood sugar levels.
- Although most sugar alcohols have minimal impact on blood sugar levels, using them in more significant amounts can lead to digestive upset.
- Despite being one of the most common (and oldest) choices, many people prefer the taste of sugar to artificial sweeteners.