Low Calorie Sweeteners: Have Your Cake & Eat it Too

by Leah Frankel,  MS RD | frankel@myhousecallmd.com

Table Sugar

Every January approximately half of all Americans resolve to eat better and lose weight. With increased portion sizes and the evolution of coffee drinks that have more calories than a burger and fries, more and more people are reducing their sugar consumption by choosing low calorie or calorie free sugar substitutes. There are a number of artificial and natural sweeteners on the market, including recently approved Stevia, but which one is really the best choice? We’ll explore the difference between artificial and natural sweeteners, as well as learn about the newest low calorie sweetener, Stevia.

What is the difference between Artificial Sweeteners & Natural Sweeteners?

Artificial sweeteners are chemicals or chemically altered natural compounds that provide sweetness like sugar but with fewer calories. Natural sweeteners taste like sugar but occur naturally as opposed to being synthetically manufactured like artificial sweeteners. Individuals with diabetes have been using artificial sweeteners for years; these “fake sugars” taste like sugar but the body does not utilize them like regular sugar and therefore they don’t raise your blood sugar levels.

Artificial Sweeteners PacketsIn addition to use by diabetics, artificial sweeteners are commonly used to aid in weight loss since they’re low in calories or calorie free. While artificial sweeteners may contain little or no calories, the foods that contain these products may be high in calories, fat or carbohydrates. Let’s look at a few examples showing how artificial sweeteners may aid in weight loss or inhibit it. A regular 12 oz can of coke contains 140-150 calories but a diet coke is calorie free therefore, if we want to cut down our calorie count, the diet coke containing artificial sweeteners would be a better choice. Now another scenario: one serving of Oreos (34g) contains 160 calories. An equivalent serving of CarbWell Oreos, the sugar free version, contains 113 calories.  Murray’s Sugar Free Chocolate Sandwich Cookies contain 131 calories for the same serving. When we look at sugar free cookies vs. regular cookies the ideal choice isn’t as black and white.

Common Artificial Sweeteners

There are a variety of different artificial sweeteners available, each with different chemical properties that allow some of the products to withstand heat, while others cannot. For each sweetener we’ve included the ADI (Acceptable Daily Intake), which is the maximum quantity that is safe to be consumed per day, based on body weight in kilograms (kg) (Note: weight in lbs/2.2 = weight in kg, for example a weight of 150 lbs/2.2 = 66 kg).  As a side note, imagine the lab in which they were testing the “maximum amount of artificial sweetener that can be consumed.”  We’d love to find out what happened there.  Maybe even just see a picture of the whole operation.

Aspartame: Common products containing aspartame include Nutrasweet and Equal.  Aspartame is 200 times sweeter than sugar!  It is safe to consume 50 mg/kg a day which is equivalent to 18-19 cans of diet cola per day (Aspartamebased on body weight of 150 lbs).  We do not recommend trying this.  If you do, however, please let us know what happens with can #20 so we can utilize your discovery for the betterment of mankind.  Aspartame does not withstand heat and therefore cannot be used for cooking. Aspartame is not safe for people with Phenylketonuria (PKU), and an appropriate warning is required on all products containing Asprartame. Aspartame can be found in a number of products including soft drinks, sugar free cookies, chewing gum and yogurt.

Saccharin: Common products containing saccharin include Sweet ‘N Low and SugarTwin.  This sugar-alternative is 200-700 times sweeter than sugar. It is safe to consume 5 mg/kg per day which is equivalent to 9-12 packets of sweetener per day (based on body weight of 150 lbs).  Saccharin is able to withstand heat and is thus can be used for cooking.  Saccharin is most commonly used in diet sodas.

Acesulfame K: This sugar-alternative is 200 times sweeter than sugar and is found in Sunette and Sweet One. It is safe to consume 15 mg/kg a day which is equivalent to 30-32 cans of diet soda per day (based on body weight of 150 lbs). Acesulfame K is able to withstand heat and cooking. Acesulfame K is commonly found in baked goods and diet sodas.

Sucralose: Common products include Splenda and it is 600 times sweeter than sugar. It is safe to consume 5 mg/kg a day which is equivalent to 6 cans of diet cola per day (based on body weight of 150 lbs). Splenda is able to withstand heat and cooking. Sucralose is commonly found in diet sodas, protein bars and sugar free baked goods.

Common Natural Sweeteners

Stevia: The most recent natural sweetener on the market in the US is Stevia. While Stevia has been used internationally for hundreds of years, the FDA only put Stevia on the GRAS (Generally Recognized as Safe) list in late 2008, allowing its use as a sweetener. Stevia Rebaudiana Extract Stevia is an herb that is grown around the world, particularly in China and South America, that, when purified, is 200-300 times as sweet as sugar. Stevia is virtually calorie free and does not raise blood sugar levels, so it can be beneficial for diabetics or people looking to lose weight. While Stevia has been recognized as safe, people taking anti-hypertensive or diabetic medications should be cautious due to possible interactions with their medications (i.e. talk with your doc before jumping on the Stevia train if you’re on these meds). Some people may experience mild side effects including nausea or a feeling of fullness after eating.  A component of the Stevia leaf known as Rebaudioside A (Reb A) is used to make the sweetener. There are several brands of sweetener that use Stevia (these brands vary the components used in their sweetener but all contain Stevia):

  • SweetLeaf Sweetener contains only Stevia and is a zero calorie natural sweetener.

  • PureVia uses Reb A in addition to erythritol (a sugar alcohol), cellulose powder and natural flavor.  The product is 97% Reb A. PureVia can be found in 0 Calorie Sobe Lifewater as well as other Pepsi Products.

  • Truvia contains rebiana (a form of stevia), erythritol (a sugar alcohol) and natural flavors. It is safe and possible to cook with Truvia. Truvia can be found in products including VitaminWater 10, Odwalla, and Sprite Green.

Sugar alcohol: Examples of sugar alcohols include sorbitol or mannitol. Sugar alcohols contain 2 calories/gram vs. 4 calories/gram found in sugar. Sugar alcohols are carbohydrates thatSugarfree Candy resemble sugar and alcohol and therefore are considered “sugar free”. These substitutes are not completely absorbed and therefore can cause gas and diarrhea; any product that contains sugar alcohol will contain a warning label that states that excess consumption may have a laxative effect (i.e “diarrhea” which is scientifically classified as “not fun”).  The American Dietetic Association advises that consuming greater than 50 g/day of sorbitol or 20 g/day of mannitol may cause diarrhea. Sugar alcohols are commonly found in sugar free hard candies, sugar free baked goods and soft drinks.  In addition, sugar alcohols are found naturally in fruits and vegetables.

Honey: Honey contains disease-protecting antioxidants that may help reduce the risk of cardiovascular disease and cancer. Honey is sweeter than sugar and can cause blood sugar spikes.  As such, it should be used sparingly by diabetics.

Agave Nectar LabelAgave nectar: Agave nectar comes from the same Mexican plant that is used to make tequila. While it contains higher calories per teaspoon than sugar, it is a sweeter alternative and therefore less is needed to obtain the same level of sweetness. Agave is favored by vegans who are opposed to the use of honey (no bees are harmed in the making of agave nectar…party on vegans!).

So what should we choose as a sweetener?

Any of the artificial or natural sweeteners we’ve discussed, as well as sugar, are fine in moderation. According to the National Cancer Institute, there is no risk for developing cancer if you consume artificial sweeteners in moderation. If you’re a diabetic or trying to lose weight it may be beneficial to choose a low calorie sweetener instead of sugar to control blood sugar and caloric intake. At the same time, this does not means that you should only consume foods with low calorie sweeteners; a diet consisting of diet coke and sugar free cookies may be lower in calories but it is also missing some key nutrients (and sounds pretty horrible to have to eat every day). Remember that the most natural form of sugar can be found in nature’s candy: fresh fruit!

Fresh Fruit


Artificial Sweeteners and Cancer. 2009. Available at: http://www.cancer.gov/cancertopics/factsheet/Risk/artificial-sweeteners. Accessed Feb 10, 2010.

Mayo Clinic Staff. Artificial sweeteners: A safe alternative to sugar? Find out the benefits and portenital pitfalls of using artificial sweeteners. 2008. Available at: http://www.mayoclinic.com/health/artificial-sweeteners/MY00073. Accessed Feb 10, 2010.

PureVia: Available at: http://www.purevia.com/. Accessed Feb 11, 2010.

SweetLeaf Sweetener. Available at: http://www.sweetleaf.com/. Accessed Feb 11, 2010.

Truvia. Available at: http://www.truvia.com/. Accessed Feb 11, 2010.


02 2010

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