The Benefits / Detriments of Sugar Replacements

Many people today have a difficult relationship with sugar. Sugar is known to cause numerous health problems, and for this reason, it is usually substituted with different artificial sweeteners, or stevia, yacon syrup, monk fruit, erythritol and the like.

But the question arises – are these replacements healthy or not, and are they better for our health than consuming sugar?

Not All Sugar Replacements are the Same

Not all of these sweeteners are similar in their health effects. Some are better than others. The Food and Drug Administration has accepted only a few artificial sweeteners: Saccharin, aspartame, acesulfame, sucralose, and neotame and one natural sweetener — stevia. But this does not make them necessarily healthy sugar replacements.

Manufacturers usually process the natural stevia leaves and add many chemical additives to it, which means that it can no longer be considered a natural product.

For these reasons, you need to be careful when choosing any sugar replacements by reading the ingredients label and understanding what these ingredients are. 

Another new artificial sweetener is Swerve, which is made from erythritol (a sugar alcohol like xylitol, mannitol, and sorbitol), oligosaccharides (short-chain carbohydrates that cannot be broken down by human digestive tracts thus are calorie-free), and natural flavoring. But although some of these sweeteners are made from partly natural products, are they still good sweetener alternatives or is there something better that can be used?

In this article, I will examine the benefits and detriments of artificial sweeteners in comparison with natural sweeteners and come to conclusions and solutions.

The Benefits / Detriments?

Artificial Sweeteners Have Fewer or No Calories

The main appeal of these sugar replacements is their lack of calories, and they are also consumed in smaller quantities than sugar as they are many times stronger than regular sugar. This, however, does cause a problem. When the body receives the sweet taste of these sweeteners, but, does not get the accompanying calories, a message is sent to the brain that the energy expected from the sweet food consumed did not arrive. This then leads the brain to send a message of hunger. This message arrives about 20 minutes after consumption of the artificial sweetener. This leads to an imbalance in brain biochemistry, and an intense hunger feeling is released which leads us to go in search of high-calorie foods to fulfill the missing needs that the brain thinks we should have received. Therefore, these low-calorie sweeteners do not really offer the benefit of being low calorie in the long run.

Furthermore, because of their sweetness, artificial sweeteners stimulate food cravings and sugar dependence that affect any weight loss and habit change attempts.


The previously mentioned sweeteners approved by the FDA are considered safe, but science claims that more research is still needed. [1] Research studies showed that these replacements do not cause cancer in humans as they do in rats and mice [2], but the Center for Science in the Public Interest has assigned the artificial sweeteners saccharin, aspartame, acesulfame its lowest rating of “Avoid” foods as many cancer researchers state that these past studies had serious design flaws.

Furthermore, these sweeteners are still linked to obesity and diabetes, as you’ll see in the next section.

Increased risk of diabetes and obesity

As artificial sweeteners do not have carbohydrates, they are unable to raise blood sugar levels in the way sugar can. At least, that was a general opinion. However, studies have shown that artificial sweeteners can also link to diabetes and obesity, albeit they cause them in different ways than sugar does. [3] Artificial sweeteners cause some adverse changes in our metabolism by interfering with learned responses that generally contribute to glucose and energy balance in the body. 

In the end, research shows that both sugar and artificial sweeteners lead to obesity and diabetes, only in different ways.


Studies conducted on rats exposed to cocaine have shown that, when given a choice between cocaine or saccharine, most mice chose the sweetener. [4] This goes to show the very addictive nature of these sweeteners. Ongoing exposure to these sweeteners forms taste preferences that lead to their addictive consumption on a regular basis leading, in the long run,  to excessive food consumption as a result. 


Some of the more natural sugar replacements such as monk fruit and stevia, although sweet, have a very different taste from sugar. While some people enjoy this often bitter-sweet taste, often people do not like the taste, especially the aftertaste that both of these natural products have. This leads most manufacturers to add other sweeteners, for example, maltodextrin or dextrose, which change the sweetener’s nutritional profile making it undesirable for health purposes.


It is evident that there is no clear consensus on sugar replacements. However, sugar replacements do exhibit many problems that are traditionally associated with sugar, making their status as suitable replacements, debatable. 


My personal recommendation as a health expert is to eliminate all forms of sugar replacements completely, unless you can get used to the natural after taste of stevia or monk fruit in their natural form. Use real sugar alternatives moderately instead.

When sweet-tasting foods are reduced drastically from the diet, including the elimination of sweet sugar replacements for a period of three weeks, the body forms new taste buds with different taste preferences thus reducing a person’s chances of becoming overweight and obese.

Although difficult to do, start by reducing sweetened beverages either sweetened with sugar or sugar replacements and aim to go for teas that you can sweeten with small amounts of honeycomb or coconut sugar. You can also sweeten porridge and deserts with cinnamon powder or vanilla flavor instead of sugar. You may also use fresh stevia leaves. 

In the beginning, all of these changes may feel awkward. But they will have a fundamental effect on your health and weight.

Even if the only change to your diet that you make this year is to cut out all sweetened foods and beverages including foods sweetened with sugar substitutes, this one change will have an immense effect on your health and weight.

Start slowly and most importantly, if you choose to consume foods that are not all natural, please take the time to read the food labels to know whether there are hidden sugars, and sugar substitutes found including in so called natural sweeteners like stevia and monk fruit. I must mention that although the FDA did permit stevia as a sugar replacement, only  the use of a highly purified stevia is permitted in the US making it an unnatural sweetener.

If you DO like the aftertaste of stevia plant, it is best to grow the plant on your window sill and use the leaves whenever needed.

One sugar replacement that can be used to sweeten cold foods, but cannot be used for baking or cooking is Yacon syrup. This natural food has 1/3 of the calories of sugar and can be used to sweeten foods for people who are not sensitive to the class of fibers known as fermentable oligo, di, and mono-saccharides and polyols. Although slightly pricy, make sure you get 100% pure yacon syrup to prevent the negative effects of other added sugar replacements often combined with the syrup.

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Galit Goldfarb


[1] Artificial sweeteners as a sugar substitute: Are they really safe? Arun Sharma, S. Amarnath, M. Thulasimani, and S. Ramaswamy. 2016 May-Jun; 48(3): 237–240. doi: [10.4103/0253-7613.182888]

[2] Artificial sweeteners and cancer risk in a network of case-control studies. Gallus S1, Scotti L, Negri E, Talamini R, Franceschi S, Montella M, Giacosa A, Dal Maso L, La Vecchia C. 2007 Jan;18(1):40-4.

[3] Artificial sweeteners produce the counterintuitive effect of inducing metabolic derangements, Susan E.Swithers. Available online 10 July 2013

[4] Intense sweetness surpasses cocaine reward. Lenoir M1, Serre F, Cantin L, Ahmed SH. 2007 Aug 1;2(8):e698.

[5] Yang Q. Gain weight by “going diet?” Artificial sweeteners and the neurobiology of sugar cravings: Neuroscience 2010. Yale J Biol Med. 2010;83(2):101-8.