When trying to shed some pounds or subscribe to a healthier lifestyle, cutting out sugar is one of the first things we check off of our to-do lists, and instead, reach for low- or no-calorie options. But, it turns out that these bright and pretty packaged substitutes (and even the ones marketed as healthy options) are causing you more harm than good. Here, we’ve rounded up the good, the bad, and the downright ugliest ones you can reach for.
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Found in: Equal, NutraSweet
What it is: This artificial sweetener is a combination of two amino acids (aspartic and phenylalanine acid) and delivers sweetness with almost no calories—hence its popular usage within diet cola drinks. According to the FDA, it is one of the most exhaustively studied substances in the human food supply and is widely used to sweeten beverages and pre-packaged foods. It also, however, has attracted much negative attention, with possible side effects including dizziness, abdominal pain, nausea, vomiting and headache.
The Verdict: Stay away. Although there is conflicting evidence regarding the safety of this sugar substitute, serious health risks aren’t something to be taken lightly, so it should ultimately be avoided.
Found in: Sweet’N Low
What it is: Saccharin is a compound containing sulfur and nitrogen that the body cannot break down, making it a calorie-free sugar substitute. Although studies in the 1970s that linked saccharin with bladder cancer have since been debunked and the compound no longer carries a warning label, health issues associated with saccharin (think headaches, breathing troubles, skin eruptions and diarrhea) are still present.
The Verdict: While the calorie-free tag may draw you in, it’s best to err on the side of caution, as there are a variety of healthier sugar substitutes available to us.
Found in: Splenda
What it is: This sugar substitute, more commonly known as Splenda, is processed using chlorine, which is a considered carcinogen. Not only can our bodies not physically break down sucralose, but studies in Norway have also found it in surface water at treatment plants, where it still cannot be broken down.
The Verdict: Although it is marketed as a close imitation of sugar, it is nothing like it. Anything that cannot be digested (and contains chlorine) should undoubtedly be avoided.
Found in: Truvia, PureVia, SweetLeaf, OnlySweet, Stevia in the Raw
What it is: According to celebrity nutritionist Paula Simpson, stevia is an extract from the stevia rebaudiana plant. “The components responsible for the sweet properties of the stevia plant have been found to be glycosides of steviol, primarily stevioside, which may be 250–300 times sweeter than sucrose (table sugar) and rabaudiosides A and C.” In 2008, the FDA granted “Generally Recognized as Safe” (GRAS) status to rebaudioside A, one of the chemicals in stevia that makes it sweet.
The Verdict: Although this plant-based, no-calorie sweetener has been termed “safe” by the FDA, there are definitely better options, as some people who use stevia or stevioside can experience bloating or nausea.
Found in: XyloSweet
What it is: This substitute is classified as a sugar alcohol, and is a naturally occurring food compound, meaning that it is “Generally Recognized as Safe” (GRAS) by the FDA. Simpson explains that the body absorbs xylitol, but not fully, which is why it causes digestive issues for some. Xylitol is often added to gums and mints and may also help reduce cavities through reducing acid in our mouths.
The Verdict: Although it’s a better option than the non-sugar alcohols above, xylitol may still cause gastric distress, making wholly natural sugar substitutes your best bet.
Found in: Sun Crystals, ZSweet
What it is: Simpson explains that erythritol—another sugar alcohol—is naturally found in melons and pears, and that the body fully absorbs it, but cannot break it down. This means it provides no calories or a glycemic spike.
The Verdict: Because it’s able to be absorbed, erythritol is less likely to cause digestive issues than xylitol and is a better alternative to most sugar substitutes. However, it provides no health benefits.
What it is: A sweetener commercially produced from various species of the agave plant, agave nectar is widely marketed as a healthy alternative to sugar. However, Simpson explains that there is evidence pointing in the opposite direction. “Agave has a higher fructose content than any commercial sweetener, ranging from 55–97 percent, which makes it far higher than fructose corn syrup.”
The Verdict: Although a much better option than lab-made substitutes, don’t be fooled by the healthy marketing. Avoid drinks or foods sweetened with agave nectar if you can, as these spiked fructose levels go straight for the liver.
What it is: According to Simpson, coconut nectar is produced when the coconut tree is tapped, which produces a nutrient-rich sap. “The sap is an abundant source of minerals, 17 amino acids, vitamin C, broad-spectrum B vitamins and a neutral pH,” she explains, adding that it is not processed, which is the top reason it is a better alternative than most raw sweeteners.
The Verdict: Try it! Coconut nectar is a great alternative to agave because it has the same syrup consistency and adds a light touch of sweetness sans the highly processed attributes of agave.
What it is: “Unlike refined white sugar and corn syrup, which are stripped of virtually all nutrients except simple carbohydrates, blackstrap molasses is a healthy sweetener that contains significant amounts of different minerals (like iron, calcium and potassium) that promote your health,” Simpson says. Although it is a much healthier alternative to refined white sugar, it’s important to note that molasses is still a sugar, and those with diabetes should avoid it.
The Verdict: This is one to try, but Simpson advises looking for the unsulphured type, which will be even cleaner and healthier.
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