If you’re wanting to cut back on your sugar and/or caloric intake while still enjoying the taste of sweet-tasting foods and drinks, you might look to zero-calorie sugar substitutes. What are zero-calorie sugar substitutes, and how can you use them?
Some examples of good zero-calorie substitutes for sugar include sucralose, aspartame, steviol glycosides (Stevia), saccharin, and acesulfame-K.
If these all sound Greek to you, don’t worry – we’ll explain what they are, their common names, and much more!
What are zero-calorie sugar substitutes?
Zero-calorie sugar substitutes are those that provide sweetness without having any sugar or calories. Often, zero-calorie sugar substitutes are considered artificial sweeteners. Just like their name implies, they are created artificially and don’t occur naturally.
Another popular class of sugar substitutes are sugar alcohols. Sugar alcohols can occur naturally in some foods like fruits, but to be used as a sugar substitute they are isolated and therefore considered artificial sweeteners by some.
Sugar alcohols are poorly digested, which means they don’t provide as many calories as regular sugar. They aren’t necessarily zero-calorie depending on how much you use – but most serving sizes are small enough that they provide negligible calories (e.g. 20 calories per 2 teaspoons of xylitol).
There are several potential benefits of using zero-calorie sugar substitutes. Not everyone is a fan of them (like anything in the health and nutrition world!), but those who choose to use them tend to do so for reasons like:
- Zero-calorie sugar substitutes can help reduce your total caloric intake as well as your sugar intake. This can be helpful for weight loss, managing health conditions like type 2 diabetes, and reducing the risk of dental caries (cavities).
- Low-carb dieters (like the ketogenic diet) rely on zero- and low-calorie sweeteners to help keep their carbohydrate intake within the goal while still enjoying “sweets”.
One of the main concerns people have about zero-calorie sweeteners is related to their safety. A common conception is that zero-calorie sweeteners are unsafe or unhealthy to consume.
While everyone is entitled to their nutrition beliefs and preferences, here’s what we do know about artificial sweeteners.
- They must be approved by the United States Food and Drug Administration (FDA) or considered GRAS, which stands for “generally recognized as safe”.
- The six high-intensity zero-calorie sweeteners that are FDA-approved are:
Potential side effects
There aren’t any universal adverse side effects from using zero-calorie sugar substitutes in moderation. Some people might be sensitive to them and claim that they trigger headaches, stomach aches, or other symptoms, but this seems to be highly individualized.
If you consume sugar alcohols (which again, are not necessarily zero-calorie), a common side effect is stomach upset, such as increased gas, bloating, and diarrhea – especially if you consume a lot. The reason sugar alcohols can cause these symptoms is because they are poorly absorbed by your digestive tract.
Some studies have linked the use of zero-calorie sugar substitutes with weight gain, but it’s difficult to determine if they cause weight gain.
Like anything that tastes sweet, it’s a good idea to limit your intake of regular sugar as well as sugar-free foods, since both might contribute to sugar cravings because they taste sweet. In addition, zero-calorie sugar substitutes are often included in low-nutrient foods like sugar-free drinks or desserts, so they don’t necessarily add any beneficial nutrients to your diet.
Top 5 zero-calorie substitutes for sugar
Without further ado, let’s get to our top five recommended zero-calorie sugar substitutes!
- Sucralose (Splenda)
Splenda is one of the most popular no-calorie sweeteners used in sugar-free or reduced-sugar foods and drinks. You can buy Splenda in single-serving packets, or in bulk to be used in baking.
Fun fact – sucralose is derived from regular sugar (sucrose), but doesn’t contain any sugar or calories!
- Aspartame (Nutrasweet)
Another popular zero-calorie substitute for sugar is aspartame. Aspartame doesn’t stand up to high temperatures, so it’s best for lower-heat uses, such as sweetening cold drinks.
- Steviol glycosides (Stevia, Truvia)
Stevia is considered a natural zero-calorie substitute for sugar. It’s made from the stevia plant and is at least 200 times sweeter than table sugar, so you can use less of it to achieve the same desired level of sweetness!
- Saccharin (Sweet N’ Low)
Saccharin is used in sugar-free products like sugar-free drinks, candies, jams, and other products. You can buy Sweetn’ Low in individual packets or in bulk for baking.
Keep in mind if you use Sweetn’ Low in recipes as a sugar substitute, you won’t need to use as much as the recipe calls for since it’s around 500 times sweeter than sugar. Also, some people describe saccharin as having a “bitter” aftertaste.
- Acesulfame-K (Ace-K)
Acesulfame-K is combined with aspartame to make Equal, a popular zero-calorie sugar substitute. It’s also a popular ingredient on its own to make sugar-free foods, drinks, and non-consumable products like mouthwash and toothpaste.
Because everyone has different taste preferences, it’s difficult to objectively determine which sugar substitute tastes the most like regular sugar. Some popular sugar substitutes include sucralose (no-calorie sweetener) and erythritol (low-calorie sugar alcohol), which many people tolerate well without describing any bitter aftertaste.
Do zero-calorie sugar substitutes cause cancer?
Some studies show an association between certain zero-calorie sugar substitutes and cancer risk. However, these studies don’t prove a causal relationship, meaning it can’t be determined if the use of these sugar substitutes causes cancer. Any zero-calorie sugar substitute on the market has been deemed safe for human consumption when used in moderation.
As with anything, use your judgment about which types of foods and drinks you choose to include in your diet, knowing the potential risks and benefits.