Ultimate Guide to Sugar Substitutes: When to Use Them & How They Impact Our Health

  • Artificial sweeteners are cheaper to produce than regular cane sugar — which means packaged food producers are using them more often than we think. Grocery store products like yogurt, baked goods, protein bars, ice cream, soft drinks, tea, coffee creamer, and many more commonly include artificial sweeteners.
  • Why is sugar bad news? Most likely, because we’re consuming more than ever before in human history (Seriously, sugar intake has increased by around 30% in recent years). Extreme sugar intake is associated with higher inflammatory markers — increasing your chances of autoimmune disorders and gut issues.
  • When it comes to choosing the best healthy sweetener, we look to nature. All-natural sweeteners like maple syrup and honey (in moderation), are not only not toxic to the body but also contain minerals, vitamins, and antioxidants that support our health.

Have you ever eaten a spoonful of yogurt and thought, “That leaves an odd aftertaste.

Maybe you’ve noticed the unique taste — and maybe you haven’t.

Whether your palate is sensitive to them or not, artificial sweeteners are everywhere. You may be consuming them daily without realizing.

Many of them were popularized in the 1970s and praised for their low calories and efficient production cost. Today, they are commonly discussed in a dieting context, but most people aren’t aware of how often they are used in everyday grocery store products.

If you’re not checking your ingredient labels, you are likely consuming artificial sweeteners regularly… and that’s not good news for your health.

Here’s our breakdown of artificial sweeteners: the good, the bad, and the even worse.

Table of Contents:

Is Sugar Actually Bad for You?

Just in case clever marketing and health trends have made you forget, sugar — as in glucose — is necessary for human survival. Our bodies naturally crave and depend on glucose for energy and vitality. But the method in which we consume that sugar can deeply impact our health and wellness — even down to a cellular level.

Processed sugars, for example, are absolutely unhealthy when consumed regularly.

Especially when paired with toxic oils and food additives, they may promote things like:

  • Inflammation
  • A weakened immune system
  • Gut imbalances
  • Candida overgrowth
  • Blood sugar imbalance and insulin resistance
  • High blood pressure

But what alternatives do we have to processed sugars? And are artificial sweeteners the better option?

Despite marketing as “zero calorie” or “sugar free,” artificial sweeteners aren’t the risk-free alternative they’ve been made out to be.

Different Types of Sugar: Natural, Processed, & Artificial

Thanks to heavy processing methods and artificial ingredients, our food vocabulary has expanded in recent years. Understanding the difference between natural sugar, processed sugar, and artificial sweeteners can help you make healthy food choices based on facts. 

Natural Sugar

Found in fruits, veggies, and whole grains (yep, these are all broken down into glucose in the body), natural sugar is anything that hasn’t been processed or refined. Two of our favorite natural sugars for baking or adding to your coffee include maple syrup and raw honey. If you’re craving something sweet, this is the best way to consume sugar (besides eating whole fruit).

Processed Sugar

Regular cane sugar, sugar beets, monk fruit sweetener, stevia, and agave nectar are all considered processed sugars. While they maintain more natural properties than artificial sweeteners, they still lose a lot of vital nutrients during the refinement process. Many of the vitamins, minerals, and fiber are lost — providing very little nutrients to the body.

In some cases, these sugars may drastically spike blood sugar levels, due to the loss of fiber. Cane sugar and sugar beets are great examples.

Artificial Sweeteners 

Although they are marketed as a “healthy” alternative to sugar, this couldn’t be further from the truth. Actually, artificial sweeteners are cheaper to produce, so companies can earn more profit when they’re sold. 

High fructose corn syrup, aspartame, and Splenda (some examples of artificial sweeteners) are made in a lab. They’ve already been linked to numerous medical conditions and should be avoided at all costs. Since some of them taste several times sweeter than natural sugars, they also have the ability to skew your sense of taste when it comes to sweet foods, making you crave more and more to satisfy your sweet tooth. 

What You Need to Know About Sugar Substitutes

Sugar substitutes come in a wide variety. Some are extremely bad for you (read: linked to nonalcoholic fatty liver disease, weight gain, and insulin resistance), while others seem to provide promising results to curb sugar cravings. 

We go by this rule of thumb: the more natural, the better. 

The Most Common Sugar Substitutes, Ranked

The good, the bad, and the even worse. This chart shows which sugar substitutes are worth a try and which ones should stay in the lab.

Our Ranking

Sweetener Name

What You Should Know About It

Where You’ll Find It

Risks or Benefits

Worst High Fructose Corn Syrup

Inexpensive to use in production, high fructose corn syrup has replaced sugar in numerous packaged products since its rise to popularity in the 1970s.

Artificial pancake syrup, candy, processed foods, soda, juice cocktails, ketchup, crackers, chips, canned fruit, and more.

This sugar substitute has been linked to high blood pressure, inflammation, insulin resistance, weight gain, and nonalcoholic fatty liver disease. 

Worst

Splenda

Splenda itself is made in a lab and contains chlorine. But when sold, 95% of the product’s bulk is made from fillers, like dextrose.

Chewing gum, desserts, packaged foods and beverages, gelatin, and ice cream.


Commonly used to sweeten coffee or tea.

Splenda isn’t recognized by the body (which is why it’s considered low-calorie). In studies, it’s linked to diabetes, IBS, leaky gut, and may release carcinogens when heated.

Worst Aspartame

A low-calorie sweetener, aspartame is 200 times sweeter than table sugar. For this reason, the consumption of aspartame could increase sugar cravings over time.

Aspartame is commonly found in chewing gum, packaged foods, desserts, cough drops, and yogurt. 

It’s linked to oxidative stress, cognitive dysfunction, mood swings, migraines, and cardiovascular issues. Just to name a few!

Okay

Erythritol

Erythritol is a popular artificial sweetener because it naturally occurs in the body. Research shows some risks to consuming it, however, it may have benefits for dental health. 

Chewing gum, jam, health foods, processed foods, packaged tea or soft drinks, and ice cream.

A recent study names erythritol as a high-risk sweetener associated with major cardiovascular events. However, some studies have shown erythritol to decrease incidents of dental cavities.

Okay

Stevia

A processed sweetener, stevia is made from the leaves of a South American plant.

Baked goods, health foods, soft drinks, tea, soy sauce, ice cream, and yogurt.

While stevia is a more natural sweetener option, it can cause some digestive issues for people with a sensitive gut.

Okay

Agave

Another processed sweetener, agave nectar comes from the sap of the agave plant. 

Cereal, granola, health foods, teas, gelatin, bread, and sweetened dairy products. 

Agave nectar is low on the glycemic index (meaning no blood sugar spikes). However, it’s extremely high in fructose and may cause liver problems.

Better

Coconut Sugar

Although processed, coconut sugar does maintain some of its natural properties — which is good news for health-minded bakers.

Baked goods, health foods, yogurt, ice cream, protein bars, and snacks.

Coconut sugar isn’t quite as healthy as natural options like honey and maple sugar, but it does maintain trace amounts of minerals, vitamins, and antioxidants despite processing. It’s lower on the glycemic index, too. 

Better

Monk Fruit

For centuries, monk fruit has been used as a medicinal aid — supposed to help with digestive issues. When made into a sweetener, monk fruit is around 200 times sweeter than sugar. 

Baked goods, protein bars, teas, health foods, soft drink substitutes, ice cream, and chewing gum.

While it’s new to the sugar scene, monk fruit may contain antioxidants and gut health benefits. It may also aid in weight loss and decrease inflammation.

Best

Raw Honey

One of earth’s most natural sweeteners, raw honey may be the original sweetener we consumed (and one of the best). 

Protein bars, homemade goods, tea.

Honey is naturally antimicrobial and antibacterial — which is good news if your gut is out of whack. Although it’s a true form of sugar, it doesn’t spike insulin as drastically as cane sugar and may contain antioxidant properties.

Best

Maple Sugar

Gathered from the sap of maple trees, maple sugar is a delicious sugar substitute straight from Mother Nature.

Maple sugar candy, maple syrup, tea, coffee, health foods, ice cream, yogurt, and baked goods.

Maple sugar has been harvested for thousands of years — there’s a science to it! Maple sugar with no additives contains numerous vitamins and minerals, antioxidants, and could even improve digestion.


Refining Your Palate: Which Sweetener Should You Choose?

The modern food industry is always trying to draw us toward the latest and greatest. A sugar substitute claims to be lower on the glycemic index, lower in calories, and better for digestion — and we all buy in. But after a few studies, we begin to realize the massive health risks of feeding our bodies unnatural foods.

Then another bigger and better sugar substitute comes out of the woodwork… and the cycle begins again.

It’s our belief that we should always go back to nature as our guide to food. Sweeteners that have been used for thousands of years, like raw honey and maple sugar, are not only not harmful to our bodies (in moderation), but they include benefits like antioxidants, minerals, vitamins, and so much more. Can your favorite artificial sweetener do that?

At the end of the day, tried and tested advice around sugar consumption remains the same as it has been for many years. Eat sweet things in moderation — and limit your consumption of processed foods (this will cut down a lot on your sugar consumption). When using sweeteners at home (for baked goods or coffee and tea), opt for healthier options like maple sugar or honey and in some cases, monk fruit or stevia if you have no digestive issues with them and prefer a blood sugar friendly option. 

Your Digestive Health and Sugar Consumption — What You Need to Know

Cane sugar is a traditional food — used across the globe as a sweetener for virtually everything. Why are concerns about sugar just now (as in the last decade or so) coming to light?

One of the reasons is that we’re consuming more sugar than ever before (Seriously, sugar consumption has increased 30% in the last 3 decades).

Another reason is because so many people are struggling with digestive issues and autoimmune disorders — both often driven by inflammation.

Studies show that sugar is inflammatory — and with our consumption increasing, it’s no wonder people are becoming more sensitive.

In addition to watching your sugar intake, one of the ways you can protect your gut and target systemic inflammation is by incorporating butyrate into your supplement routine.

Butyrate is a short-chain fatty acid that your microbiome naturally produces (although most people aren’t producing enough). It’s known to increase insulin sensitivity, making it easier for your body to process the occasional sweet treat. Additionally, it’s been found to reduce inflammation and gastrointestinal discomfort.

References

Witkowski, M., Nemet, I., Alamri, H., Wilcox, J., Gupta, N., Nimer, N., Haghikia, A., Li, X. S., Wu, Y., Saha, P. P., Demuth, I., König, M., Steinhagen-Thiessen, E., Cajka, T., Fiehn, O., Landmesser, U., Tang, W. H. W., & Hazen, S. L. (2023). The artificial sweetener erythritol and cardiovascular event risk. Nature medicine, 29(3), 710–718. https://doi.org/10.1038/s41591-023-02223-9

Saraiva, A., Carrascosa, C., Ramos, F., Raheem, D., & Raposo, A. (2022). Agave Syrup: Chemical Analysis and Nutritional Profile, Applications in the Food Industry and Health Impacts. International journal of environmental research and public health, 19(12), 7022. https://doi.org/10.3390/ijerph19127022

Ahmed, S., Sulaiman, S. A., Baig, A. A., Ibrahim, M., Liaqat, S., Fatima, S., Jabeen, S., Shamim, N., & Othman, N. H. (2018). Honey as a Potential Natural Antioxidant Medicine: An Insight into Its Molecular Mechanisms of Action. Oxidative medicine and cellular longevity, 2018, 8367846. https://doi.org/10.1155/2018/8367846

Ma, X., Nan, F., Liang, H., Shu, P., Fan, X., Song, X., Hou, Y., & Zhang, D. (2022). Excessive intake of sugar: An accomplice of inflammation. Frontiers in immunology, 13, 988481. https://doi.org/10.3389/fimmu.2022.988481

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