Artificial sweeteners are perhaps one of the most pervasive and controversial food products on the market. They can be found in everything from diet sodas to low-calorie baked goods and sports drinks.
There are currently six artificial sweeteners that the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has approved for general use as sweeteners after studying them in high doses in lab rodents.
But there’s still a lot we don’t know about what these artificial sweeteners do to the human body and brain, and studies trying to show health benefits are inconclusive.
And not all artificial sweeteners are created equal. Here’s the deal with each one, ranked by how sweet they are compared to traditional sugar.
Julia Calderone contributed to an earlier version of this post.
When it comes to sugar, we’re eating too much.
- Hollis Johnson
Sugar comes in many forms, including brown sugar, honey, agave nectar, corn syrup, molasses, sucrose, evaporated cane juice, fructose, glucose, maltose – the list goes on. The FDA recommends that Americans limit their consumption of sugar to 50 grams or less per day, but the average American consumes more than double that. The biggest offenders? Breakfast cereals, baked goods, and soft drinks.
While we’ve been consuming sugar for millennia, our modern diet of processed foods has dramatically increased our intake of added sugars. This spike in consumption has contributed to growing rates of obesity, diabetes, and heart disease.
Added sugars are also linked to a range of health issues including cavities, weight gain, liver failure, cancer, kidney disease, high blood pressure, and nutritional deficiencies.
But are low-calorie sweeteners the best alternative?
Manufacturers bill artificial sweeteners as a zero-calorie alternative to sugar that still gives you all the sweetness you’re looking for.
But whether artificial sweeteners can actually reduce the risks of weight gain, blood glucose spikes, type 2 diabetes, and the simple desire for something sweet – all effects that come with eating too much refined sugar – remains largely unknown.
In fact, some studies show that long-term consumption of artificially-sweetened foods is linked to weight gain. It’s also unclear how long-term consumption of these super-sweet compounds affects children, so cutting back on added sugar is still the safest bet for your health.
Nevertheless, here’s how the alternatives stack up:
Sugar alcohols (Xylitol) — “safe”
- Flickr/Veronica Aguilar
Sugar alcohols, such as Erythritol and xylitol, are low-calorie alternatives to sugar. These are another class of compounds that have been used for decades to sweeten a range of products including sugarless chewing gum, candy, fruit spreads, toothpaste, and cough syrup. They’re roughly 60-70% as sweet as traditional sugar.
Aspartame — “safe”
- Mike Mozart/Flickr
One of the most common sugar substitutes, aspartame is approved for use in more than 90 countries around the world and is used in 6,000 different products, including soft drinks, cereals, breath mints, chewing gum, hard candies.
A single gram of aspartame has the same amount of calories as a gram of sugar, but because it is 180 times sweeter than plain old sugar, you end up using a lot less to achieve the same sweetness.
Aspartame is one of the most studied substances on the market, according to the FDA. Despite initial concerns that aspartame breaks down into formaldehyde, a known carcinogen, more than 100 studies have suggested that it is safe. There are currently no links between aspartame and cancer.
The only people for whom it’s unsafe are those with a rare disorder called phenylketonuria (PKU), which doesn’t allow the body to metabolize one of the sweetener’s main amino acid components, phenylalanine.
Acesulfame-K — “safe
- Sara Mickow
Acesulfame-K – also called acesulfame potassium and ace-K – has a bitter taste and is often blended with other sweeteners. It was initially FDA-approved for limited uses in 1988, and became generally approved in foods with the exception of meat and poultry in 2003. It’s a good artificial sweetener to bake with, because it can retain its sweetness even at high temperatures. And it’s 200 times sweeter than sugar.
According to the FDA, more than 90 studies suggest that Acesulfame-K is safe for general use.
Stevia — “safe”
- Wikimedia Commons
Steviol glycosides, also known as stevia and its brand-name derivatives such as Stevia in the Raw and Sweetleaf, are natural low-calorie sweeteners. While stevia in its whole leaf form and crude extract versions have not been approved by the FDA, their high-purity derivatives, which are about 300 times sweeter than sugar, are currently sold under the GRAS (Generally Recognized as Safe) designation.
Saccharin — “safe”
- Flickr user qiaomeng
Saccharin – the same stuff in Sweet’n Low – is the earliest-known artificial sweetener, dating back to its discovery in 1879. It’s often found in soft drinks, fruit juices, baking products, processed foods, and it’s roughly 300 times sweeter than traditional sugar.
Early saccharin products used to contain warning labels listing it as a potential carcinogen after studies in the early 1970s linked it to bladder cancer in rats. More than 30 follow-up studies, however, determined that the results in rats didn’t apply to humans. The FDA deemed it safe, and it was removed from the potential carcinogens list in 2000.
Sucralose — “safe”
- Kate Ter Haar/Flickr
Sucralose – more commonly known as Splenda – is structurally very similar to sugar except for one slight modification, which allows it to pass through the body without getting broken down. It was approved as a general purpose sweetener by the FDA in 1999. It is stable under high heat, making it ideal for baking, and it’s often found in soft drinks, iced teas, sauces, syrups, chewing gum, power bars, protein powders, and baked goods. Sucralose is about 600 times sweeter than plain old sugar.
The FDA has evaluated more than 110 studies on sucralose and has deemed it safe.
Neotame — “safe”
Neotame isn’t as widely used as some of the other sweeteners out there. It was FDA-approved as a general sweetener in foods other than poultry and meat in 2002 and is a chemical spin-off of aspartame. It’s often found in fruit juices, baked goods, dairy products, lip glosses and balms, and it’s a lip-smacking 7,000 to 13,000 times sweeter than sugar.
The FDA has reviewed more than 113 studies in humans and animals and has deemed it safe. In fact, according to US News and World Report, neotame has an even better safety profile than its cousin, aspartame.
Advantame — “safe”
This is the newest artificial sweetener to hit the market. It became FDA-approved in 2014 and clocks in as the sweetest yet – it’s 20,000 times sweeter than sugar. It is another derivative of aspartame and is chemically similar to neotame. You can find it in baked goods, soft drinks, fruit juices, chewing gum, frostings, frozen desserts, gelatins and puddings, jams and jellies, processed fruits, toppings, and syrups.
Human and animal studies have been used to evaluate its possible toxic effects on immune, reproductive, developmental, and nervous systems and have suggested that it’s safe.
As with aspartame, however, those with the rare PKU disorder should not consume it because it contains phenylalanine.