Posted: May 26, 2014 9:00 AM
 
Balancing healthy eating with sweet treats can be challenging. Relying on artificial, calorie-free sweeteners seems like an easy answer, but the chemical sweeteners have their own critics. Check out the pros and cons of four different zero-calorie sweeteners.
Photo credit: Zeljko Santrac/ E+/ Getty Images

Why use artificial sweeteners

Trying to tailor your diet to balance health with the foods you love is difficult. If you're looking to lose weight, substituting artificial sweeteners for sugar seems like a great way to eliminate some calories from your diet. Diabetics avoid blood sugar spikes caused by sugar but may want to sweeten their foods. Calorie-free sweeteners line shelves at grocery stores and can be used for anything from morning coffee to baked goods, but it can be difficult to know how to choose the right one.


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Aspartame

Aspartame is the sweetener used in NutraSweet and Equal. Seventy percent of aspartame use is in diet sodas. Aspartame alone doesn't work in baked goods, and some people suffer from an aspartame sensitivity that causes headaches and dizziness.


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Sucralose

Splenda is made with sucralose, and 20 years of research have proven it safe for consumption. Splenda can be used in baking, though bulking agents add calories not counted in the nutritional information. One of the negatives for Splenda is a common complaint that it tastes like a chemical, more so than other artificial sweeteners.


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Saccharin

Saccharin, marketed as Sweet 'N Low, is a hyper-sweet alternative. Three hundred times sweeter than sugar, it can be used in baked goods, though not in a one-to-one ratio. Saccharin was removed from the carcinogen list in 2000, but the sweetener is made from petroleum, which makes some consumers uncertain about its safety. Pregnant women should know that saccharin can cross the placental barrier.


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Stevia

Stevia is extracted from a plant, which lends itself to being considered a natural sweetener. It's considered an artificial sweetener because of the refining process used in the commercial forms of Stevia, like Truvia. The FDA doesn't regulate stevia because it's considered a dietary supplement. Though it's considered artificial because of the process used to refine the Stevia into powdered form, it's still created from a plant. Stevia leaves themselves are only slightly sweeter than sugar, though the extracts are on par with the super-sweet artificial sweeteners previously discussed. Calorie counters who want to avoid chemicals may find a bit of wiggle room by using Stevia extracts as calorie-free, close-to-natural alternatives to artificial sweeteners.

Before you shake on the sweetener

Even with a range of choices, there are arguments for avoiding calorie-free sweeteners.

  • Artificial sweeteners are actually sweeter than sugar, and regular use can trick taste buds into expecting the ultra-sweet flavor. After regular indulgence in calorie-free sweeteners, people may overeat treats with actual sugar because they're looking to match the sweet taste to which they're accustomed.
  • Trying to trick your body into thinking you're eating sugar can backfire. While your mouth might enjoy the sweetness of diet sodas or treats sweetened without sugar calories, your body isn't experiencing the carbohydrate intake of real sugar. Without that energy boost, sugar cravings can actually increase.
  • Using artificial sweeteners masks the true flavors of foods. When you're watching your calorie intake or trying to clean up your diet, it's important to find healthy foods to fit into your lifestyle instead of simply looking for short-term fixes. Try small portions of fruit for sweetness or consider drinking coffees and teas without added sweetness.
  • Using a small amount of natural sweeteners, like honey or agave, might add a small amount of calories to your diet, but they're a natural solution to a sugar craving.

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