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Nutritive Sweeteners vs. Non-Nutritive Sweeteners

Last Updated on: November 22, 2021

two different sugars in bags

In searching to improve their health, many people consider replacing sugar with zero- or low-calorie sweeteners, but can such substitutes provide any real benefits? Read on for an overview of nutritive sweeteners and their non-nutritive counterparts.

Sugar comes in many forms and goes by many names, and so do non-sugar substitutes. Because there are pros and cons to each, it’s hard to know which may be detrimental to good health and which you can generally consume safely.

So with an eye toward improving your health, how can you tell which sweeteners to choose? After all, most sweeteners, whether they’re natural or artificial, enhance the flavors, textures, and even structures of your favorite foods. They also help increase shelf life. (1) Could any of them really be that bad, and how do they compare to one another?

One way to look at the differences between sugar and non-sugar replacements is to understand the difference between nutritive and non-nutritive sweeteners.

different kinds of fruits that contain natural sweeteners
Nutritive sweeteners are those that boost energy by providing carbohydrates.

Nutritive Sweeteners

Nutritive sweeteners provide carbohydrates for energy. Also known as caloric sweeteners, nutritive sweeteners come in two types: natural and added.

  • Natural nutritive sweeteners are sugars found naturally in foods, like fructose in fruit or lactose in dairy. Consuming a whole apple, for example, will not only give you fructose for energy, it will provide fiber, vitamins, and phytochemicals.
  • Added sugars are just that: sugars added to food during preparation. Much of the sugar in today’s diet comes from added sugars. Examples include sucrose (table sugar) and high-fructose corn syrup (HFCS). Added sugars are also known as refined sugars.

Your body processes all sugars the same way; it cannot tell the difference between a natural sugar and an added one. (1, 2)

Examples of Nutritive Sweeteners

  • Honey: contains antioxidants and traces of minerals.
    • Raw: comes straight from the honeycomb and is filtered to remove debris. Because it is not heated or processed, raw honey appears cloudy or opaque in varying shades of amber. It is still safe to eat and in fact contains vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants. (3)
    • Pasteurized: clear and smooth and of uniform color. The heating process, though it kills yeast, also kills most of the beneficial substances. Most honey on store shelves is pasteurized. (3)
  • Molasses: comes from crushed sugar cane or sugar beets and is a byproduct of the process of making sugar. Molasses comes in several varieties and contains traces of important vitamins and minerals, like iron, calcium, selenium, and copper. Brown sugar is a combination of white sugar and molasses. (4)
  • Maple syrup: comes from the sap of sugar maple trees and is classified according to color (light, medium, or dark amber). Some products claiming to be maple syrup are really only maple flavored; read labels to see the vitamins and minerals real maple syrup provides. It is especially high in manganese and zinc. (5)
  • Coconut sugar: comes from the coconut palm. Coconut sugar has enjoyed a surge in popularity as a sweetener that retains minerals and antioxidants from the coconut palm. (6)
  • Agave nectar (agave syrup): comes from the agave plant. Often marketed as beneficial because it does not cause blood sugar spikes, agave nectar is nevertheless 85% fructose, which is a dangerously high amount of sugar. (7)
  • Fruit juices: can be an excellent source of antioxidants and other nutrients but do not offer the fiber of the fruits they come from. Juices contain a moderate amount of sugar depending on the fruit source. (8)
  • Sucrose: also known as table sugar or white sugar. Sucrose is produced commercially from sugar cane and sugar beets through a refinement process. (9)
  • High fructose corn syrup (HFCS): derived from corn starch. Compared to white sugar, HFCS is sweeter, cheaper, and more easily absorbed into your body. (10, 11)
  • Sugar alcohols: can be made from fruits and vegetables, but most are synthetic. Although their chemical structures are similar to alcohol, sugar alcohols do not contain any ethanol. Sugar alcohols contain fewer calories than sugar, and some of them are less sweet. Because your body doesn’t fully digest sugar alcohols, you absorb fewer of their calories when you consume them. (12, 13)

    Here are some examples of sugar alcohols:

    1. Xylitol: extracted from birch wood and is used in gums, mints, and candies and to make a medication that prevents middle ear infections. Warning: Xylitol is highly toxic to dogs. (14)
    2. Erythritol: a byproduct of the wine-, cheese-, and beer-making processes, in addition to being found in fruits and vegetables. Erythritol, unlike other sugar alcohols, contains zero calories. (15)
    3. Sorbitol: found naturally in such fruits as apples, peaches, and figs. Sorbitol offers about 60% of the sweetness of sucrose and contains about one-third fewer calories than sucrose. (13)
    4. Maltitol: used as a thickener in candy, baked goods, energy and protein bars, and other processed foods, in addition to sweetening them. (16, 17)
    5. Mannitol: made from fructose and hydrogen. Mannitol is also produced synthetically. In addition to sweetening foods and chewable medications, mannitol is used as a diuretic and a surgical rinsing agent. It is also being investigated as a treatment for Parkinson’s disease. (18)
    6. Isomalt: made from sucrose. Isomalt has about 50% to 60% of the sweetness of table sugar. (19, 20)
    7. Lactitol: made from lactose. Lactitol is mildly sweet with no aftertaste. It is particularly good for blending with other, more intense sweeteners that lack volume. (21)

Cautions for Nutritive Sweeteners

All foods that contain carbohydrates, such as fruits, vegetables, grains, and dairy, contain sugar naturally. It is best to eat whole foods — that is, unprocessed or minimally processed foods — with carbohydrates. Doing so gives you vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants at the same time that you’re ingesting the natural sugars. Dairy has the added benefit of protein and calcium. Your body digests these types of foods slowly, which provides steady energy for cellular functions and reduces the risk of developing such diseases as diabetes, heart disease, and some cancers. (22)

The main caution that concerns nutritive sweeteners is added sugar. Manufacturers add it to increase flavor and shelf life, and often it’s masquerading under as many as 200 different names, such as dextrose, galactose, maltodextrin, and ethyl maltol. A lack of familiarity with these names makes it hard to discern how much sugar you’re actually consuming; it might be more than you think. (10)

It’s easier to know where sugar is found than to keep track of all of its names. Unfortunately, it’s everywhere: about 80% of barcoded, processed foods in the U.S. contain added sugar, which is lurking in such products as soda, juice, yogurt, cereal, candy, and packaged desserts. These are the products we might think of first, but foods like soup, bread, cured meat, canned vegetables, nut butters, condiments, and frozen meals can also contain added sugar. (10, 23)

Consuming too much added sugar leads to such health issues as (22, 23, 24):

  • Weight gain
  • Tooth decay
  • Increased triglycerides (a type of fat in your blood)
  • Type 2 diabetes
  • Dementia
  • Liver disease
  • Leaky gut syndrome
  • Certain cancers

So how much added sugar is too much? This seems to be an ongoing debate among healthcare professionals, but generally, you should consume fewer than 150 calories a day from added sugars. This is about 36 grams of sugar; for perspective, 12 ounces of sugar-sweetened soda contains about 40 grams. (25)

A Note About Sugar Alcohols

By and large, sugar alcohols, like non-nutritive sweeteners in the next section, have some desirable advantages. They (12, 26):

  • Contain zero or very few calories (generally 1.5 to 3 calories per gram compared to sugar, which has 4 calories per gram).
  • Do not contribute to tooth decay.
  • Have a minimal impact on blood sugar and therefore help control diabetes. (But if you’re diabetic, test your blood sugar after consuming sugar alcohols to know the extent of their effect.)
  • Can aid in weight loss.
  • May act as prebiotics; that is, they feed good gut bacteria.

The main disadvantage of sugar alcohols is gastrointestinal distress. Most people can tolerate moderate doses of 10 to 15 grams per day. Consuming more than that, particularly sorbitol and mannitol, may cause bloating, gas, abdominal pain, and diarrhea — the so-called “laxative effect” of sugar alcohols. Weight gain can also happen if you overindulge in sugar alcohols, and some Type 1 and Type 2 diabetics have reported spikes in blood sugar when they have eaten uncontrolled amounts of sugar alcohols. (26)

Close up of a non-nutritive sweeteners which a wooden spoon
Non-nutritive sweeteners, like stevia, contain few calories and no nutrients.

Non-Nutritive Sweeteners

Non-sugar sweeteners, or non-nutritive sweeteners, are those that provide no nutrients and very few or no calories; in addition, they are generally much sweeter than white sugar. Some non-nutritive sweeteners are synthetic and others are derived from natural sources, like herbs or sucrose. (1, 27)

Examples of Non-Nutritive Sweeteners

  • Aspartame: made from amino acids. Brand names include Equal® and NutraSweet®. Aspartame, which is 200 times sweeter than white sugar, can be found in cereals, candy, diet sodas, and many other products. It is also used in some vitamin supplements. (12, 28, 29)
  • Acesulfame potassium (acesulfame K): made by combining acetoacetic acid and potassium to form a stable sweetener. Brand names are Sunett® and Sweet One®. Usually combined with other non-nutritive sweeteners, acesulfame K is often added to sugar-free sodas. (12, 30)
  • Neotame: derived from aspartame and used in low-calorie foods, but not as much as other sweeteners. Sold under the name Newtame®, neotame is about 8,000 times sweeter than sugar and has a bit of a licorice aftertaste. (12, 31, 32)
  • Saccharin: oldest non-sugar sweetener on the market. Brand names include Sweet ‘N Low® and Sugar Twin®. Saccharin is produced by oxidizing either o-toluene sulfonamide or phthalic anhydride. It is 300 to 700 times sweeter than sucrose and can have a metallic aftertaste; this is why it’s often combined with other no-calorie sweeteners or flavored with lemon. (12, 33, 34)
  • Sucralose: made from regular table sugar by replacing three hydroxyl groups on the sucrose molecule with three chlorine atoms. Brand names include Splenda® and Equal®. Sucralose, which is 600 times sweeter than sugar, can be used in cooking and baking, and is found in many low-calorie foods. (12, 35)
  • Stevia: extracted from the leaves of the stevia plant. Brand names include SweetLeaf®, Truvia®, PureVia®, and Stevia in the Raw®. Used in a variety of foods, stevia is 200 to 300 times sweeter than sugar. It can be bitter, so it’s sometimes blended with other non-sugar sweeteners. (12)
  • Tagatose: produced from the natural sugar galactose. Tagatose occurs naturally in minute amounts in dairy products and some fruits like apples and pineapple. One interesting aspect of tagatose is that it acts as a prebiotic; that is, it increases good gut bacteria. (36, 37)
  • Monk fruit extract: produced by crushing the monk fruit and collecting its juice. Brand names include Nectresse®, PureLo®, Monk Fruit in the Raw®, and Purefruit®. Known as luo han guo in China where it has been in use for over 1,000 years, monk fruit sweetener is one of the newest on the U.S. market. It is 150 to 250 times sweeter than sugar and has no calories. (12, 38)

Cautions for Non-Nutritive Sweeteners

One of the biggest questions concerning non-nutritive sweeteners is, “Are they safe?” It’s the Federal Drug Administration’s (FDA’s) job to determine this. The FDA conducts research on non-nutritive sweeteners, approves them as ingredients, and regulates their use. Therefore, if a sweetener is on the market, the FDA has approved it. (39)

A very important caution concerns aspartame. For people who have phenylketonuria (PKU), avoiding aspartame is vital. Aspartame contains phenylalanine, an amino acid humans need for building proteins. However, people with PKU cannot break down extra phenylalanine (which the body would normally flush out as waste), and it therefore builds up in the blood and brain, which can lead to brain damage. (39, 40)

Another issue has to do with weight loss. It seems counterintuitive that non-sugar sweeteners would cause weight gain, but it can happen due to a particular frame of mind. The American Heart Association (AHA) and the American Diabetes Association (ADA) caution that those who use non-sugar sweeteners may replace the lost calories through other sources, possibly hindering weight loss. This is due to the mindset “I’m drinking a diet soda without calories, so I can have dessert.” Also, if you’re trying to lose weight, know that even if a food is sugar-free, it can still have calories from fats and other types of carbohydrates. It’s important to read food labels to know exactly what you’re eating. (41)

In addition, non-sugar sweeteners may change the way people taste food because they are much more intensely sweet than natural sugar. Sugar receptors can be overstimulated by the continual use of these concentrated sweeteners. This may cause people to find less intensely sweet but healthier foods, such as fruits and vegetables, less appealing. (41)

Finally, pregnant and breastfeeding women should limit their consumption of non-sugar sweeteners because they need a nutrient-rich diet, and non-sugar sweeteners provide no nutrition. Even so, the FDA has approved aspartame, acesulfame K, sucralose, stevia, and sugar alcohols for pregnant and breastfeeding women. The key is to consume these sweeteners in moderation. Ask your doctor which sweeteners are safest for you and your child. (39)

Honeycomb on a white plate
Natural sugar comes in many forms, including honey, agave nectar, and coconut sugar.

So What Types of Sweeteners Are Best?

In the end, how do we decide which sweeteners are best for us? Some would argue that ideally, we should all be eating whole foods with no added sweeteners at all — either natural or artificial. We should only be eating foods that contain sugar naturally, like fruit, because we’ll get vital nutrients along with them. However, how likely is it that we can avoid added sugars or other sweeteners altogether? (42)

The key to figuring out the sweetener dilemma goes back to that old adage: everything in moderation. Any of the sweeteners discussed here are generally safe in moderation, even for children (but with caution for those with PKU and pregnant and breastfeeding women). And as always, it’s best to consult your doctor for advice. (42, 43)

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