Sweeter than Sugar: All About Artificial Sweeteners and Sugar Substitutes

Consuming an overabundance of sugar can lead to many unhealthy conditions, including type 2 diabetes, a fatty liver, and obesity. In addition, a diet high in sugar can also accelerate aging. It does this by causing damage to the collagen and elastin that keeps skin supple and increases cellular aging. Fortunately, there are several calorie-free alternatives to sugar, including natural and man-made artificial sweeteners. In this article, we’ll explore what the predominant types of artificial sweeteners are derived from, how they compare to sugar, and the pros and cons of each.

Natural Artificial Sweeteners

Artificial sweeteners are food additives that mimic the sweet taste found in the sugars sucrose, glucose, and fructose but without any of the calories. Although many of the artificial sweeteners we use are manufactured, some calorie-free sweeteners are also found in nature. Three of the best-known are Monk Fruit sweetener, stevia, and thaumatin.

Monk Fruit 

monk fruit

Monk fruit, also known as Swingle or luo han guo fruit, is a melon-like fruit closely related to the cucumber. This nonnutritive sweetener tastes between 100 and 150 times sweeter than sugar, but its sweetness comes from unique glycosides called mogrosides rather than sugars. Mogrosides are also believed to have both antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties.

Consuming monk fruit sweetener does not raise blood sugar levels, and some studies indicate it may even lower blood sugar levels, making it an appealing option for diabetics. Processing monk fruit into sweetener involves juicing the fruit, then drying it into a concentrated powder.

It should be noted that monk fruit is often mixed with other natural products to cut its intensity.


Stevia Plant

Stevia sweeteners or Steviol glycosides are made from the leaves of Stevia rebaudiana, a flowering plant from South America. However, most stevia products don’t contain whole stevia leaf and are composed of a highly refined stevia extract called rebaudioside A, or Reb-A for short.

Stevia-based sweeteners are considered a safe, calorie-free alternative to sugar that may help control blood sugar. Small studies in 2009 and 2010 indicated that stevia-based sweeteners might even lower total cholesterol, insulin levels, and glucose levels while sweetening our food.

This extract, which is around 200 times sweeter than table sugar, is frequently blended with additional sweeteners like erythritol, dextrose, or maltodextrin, which introduces calories. Stevia also has a mild licorice flavor that some people find distasteful. In addition, less refined forms of stevia leaf have not yet been approved by the FDA as they haven’t undergone as much testing.


Thaumatin is a protein extracted from West African Katemfe fruit, sometimes labeled as talin. It is much less commonly used than stevia or monk fruit extract. Although thaumatin is sometimes used as a nonnutritive sweetener, it enhances flavors other than sweetness. Its flavor is distinctive, and perception takes longer than average for the flavor to either build or dissipate from the palate.

Man-Made Artificial Sweeteners

Artificial  and natural sweeteners

Scientists and food manufacturers have searched for safe, sweet alternatives to sugar for hundreds of years. From combining specific amino acids to restructuring sugar itself, science has developed several alternatives to sugar, some more successful than others. Here we cover six man-made artificial sweeteners approved by the FDA.

Acesulfame Potassium 

Acesulfame potassium, often called Ace-K, is a calorie-free sweetener with a slightly bitter aftertaste. To mask the aftertaste, manufacturers often blend it with other sweeteners, most commonly sucralose and aspartame. Although the FDA lists this compound as safe, many people have questioned the validity of the original 1970s findings, believing that it disrupts hormones and may act as a carcinogen.


Aspartame has been approved as a nonnutritive sweetener for several decades. Rather than being composed of sugar, this sweet-tasting substance combines two amino acids—aspartic acid and phenylalanine. It has been used in everything from tabletop sweetener packets to toothpaste. This high-intensity sweetener is about 200 times sweeter than sucrose but has a slightly bitter taste, and extended exposure to high temperatures reduces its sweetness. Aspartame is often blended with other sweeteners to enhance the overall taste and hide the bitterness.

While this substance has been deemed safe in most circumstances, it should be avoided by individuals with the rare hereditary disease phenylketonuria (PKU). These individuals must control their intake of all sources of phenylalanine, one of the main components of aspartame. Other common foods high in phenylalanine are dairy foods, nuts, and meats.


Advantame is a relatively new artificial sweetener, first announced publicly in 2008 and approved by the FDA less than a decade ago. This substance is derived from aspartame and vanillin, an artificial vanilla extract flavoring. It is around a hundred times sweeter than the aspartame it stemmed from and an astounding 20,000 times sweeter than sugar. Aspartame can be dangerous for individuals with the rare genetic condition phenylketonuria (PKU), but advantame does not cause the same build-up of phenylalanine and is, therefore, safe for those with PKU.


This aspartame analog was invented by French scientists working for the NutraSweet company in 1992. Known also by its tradename, Newtame, it is 8000 times sweeter than sucrose by mass and has no notable off-flavors as many other sweeteners do. It was approved by the FDA in the United States as a flavor enhancer and nonnutritive sweetener in 2002 and was approved by the EU in 2010.

Because so little substance is needed to sweeten foods and drinks, it is considered safe for diabetics and those with phenylketonuria.


Saccharin has been used since 1879 and is between 500 and 600 times sweeter than sucrose. This white crystalline powder is created by oxidizing the chemicals phthalic anhydride and o-toluene sulfonamide. Food manufacturers frequently use saccharin as it has a long shelf life, but it is often combined with other sweeteners to disguise its bitter, metallic aftertaste. While saccharin is considered safe by current health organizations, in the 1970s, it was linked to bladder cancer formation in laboratory rats. Later observational studies suggested that this cancer risk did not translate to humans.


Sucralose is a restructured version of sucrose that cannot be broken down in the digestive tract, so it does not increase blood sugar levels. It is an exceptionally stable sugar substitute 600 times sweeter than sucrose and works well in any temperature product, from frozen desserts to baked goods. A few studies have indicated that sucralose can be detrimental to the microbiome in your gut by reducing the number of good bacteria present.

Sugar Alcohols


Sugar alcohols are often used as sugar substitutes as well, but while artificial sweeteners contain no calories, sugar alcohols contain about 2 calories per gram and can sometimes contribute to spikes in blood sugar. In addition, sugar alcohols are more likely to cause GI distress and can sometimes have a laxative effect. It is important to note that sugar alcohols are not generally pet-safe. Xylitol is particularly dangerous if ingested by dogs or cats, and even a small amount can lead to severe liver damage and a potentially fatal drop in blood sugar.

Frequently seen sugar alcohols include:

  • Erythritol
  • Hydrogenated starch hydrolysates
  • Isomalt
  • Lactitol
  • Maltitol
  • Mannitol
  • Sorbitol
  • Xylitol

Artificial sweeteners have become more popular and more varied in the last few decades. There are now many different sugar substitutes available for those who wish to use them, but they are not without their drawbacks. Some have higher or lower melting points, making them inappropriate for cooking; others include bitterness or an aftertaste; others may cause gastrointestinal distress or interfere with weight and caloric intake. Selecting a suitable sugar substitute to use in any given situation will depend on several factors. These can include what ingredients you are combining with it, how you plan to use it, and personal preference.

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