The Truth about Low-Calorie Sweeteners

Spring is in the air (well, kind of)! Warm weather is around the corner, and this is the time when many search for ways to cut calories and shed unwanted pounds. This brings us to the topic of low-calorie sweeteners – a way to reduce calories, while maintaining taste and a pleasurable experience with food. However, are these low calorie sweeteners safe or recommended for consumption, in particular, by kids?


Photo Credit: Sara Bonisteel

First, the facts. There are both ARTIFICIAL and NATURAL low-calorie sweeteners on the market. Artificial sweeteners (Sweet ‘N Low, Equal) have been considered as “dangerous” in the past. Newer kids on the block, natural sweeteners (Stevia, Monk Fruit) are derived from plants, but does this make them safe?

Artificial Sweeteners May Actually Lead to Weight GAIN
Recent research from the Yale University School of Medicine has shown artificial sweeteners lack the ability to satisfy one’s sugar cravings, but instead, intensify the cravings and can lead to overindulging on sugary snacks.

Evidenced by the finding that high calorie beverages remain a major factor in weight gain and obesity, even after the mass introduction of low-calorie alternatives, Professor de Araujo, who led the study, explains, “We believe that the discovery is important because it shows how physiological states may impact on our choices between sugars and sweeteners”.

According to the study, because our brain associates pleasure with the increased amount of energy (calories) we receive from sugar, it is unable to receive the same level of satiety from the low-calorie version. Because the brain associates greater reward with sugars compared to artificial sweeteners, the sugar cravings remain.

Overall, we are not “fooling” the brain when consuming zero or lower calorie sweeteners in place of sugary beverages or foods. Instead, we are only giving the brain the taste of sweetness without the extra energy, leading to eventual overeating and weight gain.

Sweetener Side Effects
While generally considered safe, there are a few concerns and side effects with artificial sweetener consumption. For some, artificial sweeteners or sugar alcohols can lead to digestive issues – including nausea, general abdominal discomfort, and can even have a laxative effect (YIKES!).

In addition, some sweeteners, including saccharin, are not safe for consumption during pregnancy, as studies have shown it may have the ability to cross the placental barrier. Because complete understandings of sweetener effects are still unknown, it is best to avoid use during pregnancy.

Xylitol, another sugar substitute, also comes with a few concerns. Although considered safe in small doses, including amounts found in foods, there is some concernover the link between tumors and xylitol use over an extended period of time and in extremely high doses. Additionally, xylitol can be fatal if ingested by dogs, and has been known to cause gastric distress and diarrhea in humans, as well.

Natural Alternatives – Too Good to Be True?
Recently, a few sweetener alternatives have made claims to be a “natural” choice, one of the most popular being stevia. While the stevia plant is a natural herb with leaves twice as sweet as table sugar, the brand it is often marketed under is not natural. Truvia, a trademarked sweetener brand, claims to be “all natural” and come from the stevia leaf. However, recent news has indicated the product actually only contains 0.5 grams of stevia extract within a 3.5 gram serving of Truvia – the remaining 3 grams comes from erythritol, another type of sugar alcohol. Although this is another low-calorie sweetener option, the brand does not live up to its natural claims, and is not the same as stevia leaves.

Another natural sweetener gaining recent popularity is monk fruit. Monk fruit is a plant native to southern China and northern Thailand and boasts a sweetness that is 300 times stronger than sugar. It has been used in traditional Chinese medicine to treat diabetes and obesity, and has been used as a natural low-calorie sweetener in China for years. The fruit, also called luo han guo, has shown additional benefits including antioxidants and anti-inflammatory properties. At only 3 calories per serving, monk fruit is a great sweetener choice.

Comparison of Low-Calorie Sweeteners
How do these sweeteners stack up? Check out the facts about these sugar alternatives.

READ ingredients to learn WHAT is in your food! Take caution with foods that contain low-calorie sweeteners, and limit consumption for you and your family.

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Lara Field MS, RD, LDN is a Registered Dietitian and Specialist in Pediatrics with over a decade of clinical and client experience. When she’s not actively working to keep her clients healthy, she’s a busy mother of two active boys and loves testing new recipes in her kitchen. Follow her on Instagram to see her recipe ideas, product suggestions, and see how she manages a healthy lifestyle @larafield.