Sickly sweet: What you need to know about sugar substitutes

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Low fat, low calorie, no sugar  = healthy, right? Wrong.

The “better alternative” incarnations of junk foods—think sugar-free cookies and diet soda—are often worse than the real thing. These so-called “wholesome” substitutes, which lurk even in the aisles of Whole Foods, contain some of the worst offending preservatives, additives, and sweeteners.

More reading: 7 healthy versions of your junk food faves 

With the help of registered dietitian Marissa Lippert, founder of the popular Nourish Kitchen + Table in Manhattan’s West Village, and author of The Cheater’s Diet, Well+Good brings you this two-part series on the top 5 nasties to avoid. With Lippert’s guidance, you won’t be fooled by misleading labeling or an ingredients list that reads like a chemistry textbook.

Marissa Lippert
Photo: Marissa Lippert

Look for words like: saccharin, aspartame, and sucralose.

As Lippert puts it “the name says it all, they’re artificial!” Lots of health foods are billed as “low sugar,” “no-sugar added,” or “sugar free” but they contain truckloads of artificial sweeteners.

More Reading: Are you addicted to sugar without knowing it?

“Consuming artificial sweeteners can cause bloating, digestive distress and increased sugar/sweet/carbohydrate cravings,” says Lippert. In fact, one packet of Splenda (which the Center for Science in the Public Interest now says to avoid), is 600 times sweeter than one packet of sugar, which is just 16 calories.

This means a “healthy” gluten-free, sugar-free cookie could end up increasing your cravings.

Look for words like: malitol, sorbitol, xylitol and mannitol

Sugar alcohols are ultra processed artificial sweeteners, used because they tend to have a third too one half of the calories of regular cane sugar.  “They’re man-made and your body doesn’t metabolize them well,” says Lippert. Consuming too much of them can cause diarrhea, weight gain, and bloating. They’re typically found in gum, sugar-free candies, cookies, and diet drinks.

More Reading: Do you have dirty little dietary secret and is it called Diet Coke?

With natural sweeteners such as agave nectar, stevia, and maple syrup, a teaspoon or two is all you need, says Lippert. “Agave nectar is better than stevia in terms of blood sugar stabilization,” she explains. “I’m more hesitant about stevia because it goes through processing to become a powder. It’s also 600 times sweeter than sugar, which raises your sensitivity to sweet things. Your palette can get our of whack and fruit might stop tasting sweet.”

Next, we reveal the unsavory details of foods with “added fiber” and “added protein.”

Originally published in June 2010 and updated June 2016. 

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