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Ohio State University Extension


All Things Sweet: Sugar and Other Sweeteners

Jenny Lobb, Extension Educator, Family and Consumer Sciences

It is part of human nature to crave the sweet taste of sugar. Sugar is naturally found in many foods including milk and fruit, and it is an important source of energy for certain parts of the body, such as the brain and red blood cells. Sugar and other sweeteners are also added to many foods, including yogurt, crackers, baked goods, cereals, sauces and salad dressings. Sweeteners are usually added to food to improve flavor, but they can also enhance the texture or color of food. 

Types of Sweeteners

Sweeteners are classified in two different groups: nutritive sweeteners (also called caloric sweeteners or sugars) and non-nutritive sweeteners (also called sugar substitutes or artificial sweeteners). 

Photo: Pixabay

Nutritive sweeteners provide calories to the body. In addition to sucrose, commonly known as table sugar, nutritive sweeteners include agave, brown sugar, confectioner’s (powdered) sugar, corn syrup, dextrose, fructose, fruit juice concentrate, glucose, high-fructose corn syrup, honey, invert sugar, lactose, malt sugar, maltose, maple syrup, molasses, nectars, raw sugar and syrup.

Consuming too many calories can lead to weight gain and obesity, regardless of whether those calories come from sugar, sweeteners or other sources of energy. Consuming too much sugar may increase risk for chronic diseases such as diabetes, certain cancers and heart disease. The World Health Organization recommends consuming no more than 10% of daily calories from added sugar. For someone who eats 2,000 calories a day, 10% of daily calories would be 200 calories, or 50 grams of added sugar a day. 

Added sugar is defined as any nutritive sweetener that is added to a food or beverage during processing or preparation. By July 2018, the nutrition facts label must list the amount of added sugar per serving of food. In addition to the amount of added sugar listed on the label, the ingredient list contains the sweeteners that have been added to the food. 

Non-nutritive sweeteners are low- or no-calorie alternatives to nutritive sweeteners. These sugar substitutes may be naturally occurring or artificially made. Naturally occurring sugar substitutes include stevia and sugar alcohols.

  • Stevia is a calorie-free sweetener made from the leaves of the stevia plant, a shrub that grows in South and Central America. It is currently sold under the brand names Truvia, PureVia and Enliten, as well as a handful of generic or store brand names. Stevia is 200–400x sweeter than sugar.
  • Sugar alcohols, such as those listed in the chart below, are sweet substances that come from fruits and/or other plant materials. They are neither sugars nor alcohols, but their chemical structure resembles both sugar and alcohol, hence the name. Sugar alcohols are generally less sweet than sugar, and they contain less calories than sugar: 1.5–3 calories per gram of food versus 4 calories per gram of food for sugar. Sugar alcohols are absorbed more slowly by the body than sugar, so they do not affect blood sugar as harshly. However, because the body doesn’t digest sugar alcohols very well, they can cause bloating or gas or have a laxative effect when consumed in large quantities. 
Types of Sugar Alcohols
Sugar Alcohol Calories per gram Sweetness (sugar = 100%) Uses
Erythritol 0.2 60–80% Bulk sweetener in low-calorie foods
Hydrogenated Starch Hydrolysates 3.0 25–50% Bulk sweetener and thickener in low-calorie and sugar-free foods
Isomalt 2.0 45–65% Candies, wafers, fudge, cough drops
Lactitol 2.0 30–40% Chocolate, candies, baked goods, frozen desserts
Maltitol 2.1 75% Gums, hard candies, chocolates, baked goods and ice creams
Mannitol 1.6 50–70% Gums, chocolate flavoring
Sorbitol 2.6 50–70% Sugar-free candies, gums, frozen desserts, baked goods
Xylitol 2.4 100% Gums, hard candies, cough drops, chewable vitamins, toothpastes, mouthwashes
Photo: Flickr
  • Artificial sweeteners are man-made sweeteners that contain no calories or sugar. Currently, there are six different artificial sweeteners that the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has thoroughly tested and approved for use. These sweeteners are listed in the chart below. Although artificial sweeteners are sweeter than sugar, they are calorie-free because they are not completely absorbed by the digestive system. 

Many people question the safety of artificial sweeteners, even though they have been tested and approved for use by the FDA. The FDA has established an acceptable daily intake (ADI) level for each artificial sweetener. The ADI is the amount that is considered safe to consume each day over the course of a person’s lifetime. The FDA has determined that even for a person consuming high levels of artificial sweetener, the estimated daily intake does not exceed the ADI. 

While there is currently no scientific evidence that artificial sweeteners pose a risk to human health, excessive consumption of artificial sweeteners can cause undesirable side effects such as diarrhea and headaches. Additionally, even though artificial sweeteners are calorie-free, some research studies suggest that artificial sweeteners are associated with increased body weight. Evidence is inconclusive at this time, however, and the use of non-nutritive sweeteners is supported in moderation and as part of an overall balanced diet by numerous reputable organizations, including the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics and the American Diabetes Association.

Types of Artificial Sweeteners
Sweetener Brand Names Sweetness compared to sugar
Acesulfame-K Sunett, Sweet One, others 200x sweeter than sugar
Advantame none 20,000x sweeter than sugar
Aspartame Equal, Nutrasweet 180x sweeter than sugar
Neotame none 7,000–13,000x sweeter than sugar
Saccharin Sweet’N Low, Necta Sweet, others 300x sweeter than sugar
Sucralose Splenda 600x sweeter than sugar
Originally posted Sep 15, 2016.