It’s no secret most of us could cut back on sugar. In fact, according to the American Heart Association, American adults eat an average of 77 grams of sugar per day — that’s more than three times the recommended daily amount for women (which is about 25 grams of added sugar).
If you’re trying to slash your sugar count, artificial sweeteners may sound appealing. But it’s not that easy. Here’s what you need to know about how your body responds to natural and artificial sugar.
In general, there are two main types of sugar: naturally occurring and added.
Naturally occurring sugar can be found in foods like fruit (fructose) and milk (lactose). Unlike the table sugar you stir into your coffee, these sugars exist naturally in your foods, and don’t have to be added in.
Meanwhile, added sugars include any natural sugar (white sugar, brown sugar, honey) or processed sweetener (high-fructose corn syrup) added to foods or beverages during processing or preparation.
Whether natural or processed, sugar contributes extra calories and zero nutrients to your diet. If you overdo it, all those extra calories can lead to weight gain and inflammation, putting you at risk for chronic health problems like diabetes, heart disease, high blood pressure and high cholesterol, according to Brittany Poulson, RDN, a Utah-based certified diabetes educator.
Unfortunately, many of our favorite foods and beverages are loaded with added sugar. You’ll find them in items like soft drinks, baked goods and flavored yogurts, but beware: They also hide in surprising places, such as soup, ketchup and bread.
Artificial sweeteners are synthetic sugar substitutes. They were initially created for people with diabetes, and/or those who were concerned about their blood sugar levels for other medical reasons, says Leah Kaufman, MS, RD, a certified diabetes educator in New York City.
Compared to naturally occurring and added sugar, artificial sweeteners — also known as sugar alternatives and non-nutritive sweeteners — are low- or no-calorie. Common artificial sweeteners include aspartame (brand names NutraSweet and Equal), saccharin (Sweet’N Low), sucralose (Splenda) and stevia (Truvia and PureVia).
Replacing sugary foods and drinks with artificially sweetened options may help lower calories and reduce your risk of chronic health problems like heart disease and diabetes. “Artificial sugars are a good option for people with diabetes to help lower their carb intake while still allowing them to enjoy sweet foods and beverages,” Poulson notes.
Defining sugar as ‘natural’ versus ‘artificial’ can be tricky, however, because the term ‘natural’ isn’t regulated by the FDA, according to Poulson. Some artificial sweeteners are created from naturally occurring substances. Stevia, for example, is touted as an all-natural herbal sweetener, while sucralose actually comes from sugar.
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Even if your taste buds can’t tell the difference between natural and artificial sweeteners, your body sure can.
For example, research suggests your brain isn’t fooled by artificial sweeteners: “Your brain will not respond to artificial sugars the same way it would if you were to have a chocolate chip cookie or a piece of cake,” Kaufman says.
According to Kaufman, consuming sugar activates the reward pathways in your brain, leading to the release of feel-good chemicals like dopamine. Artificial sweeteners, on the other hand, only partially activate reward pathways. The reason? They offer the sweet flavor our bodies crave, but not the calories (read: energy) we need for survival.
This means you probably won’t feel satisfied after eating an artificially-sweetened cookie, which may make you binge on real sugar later, Kaufman says. The result: An increased risk of health issues. “There have been some observational studies that link low-calorie sweeteners to weight gain, risk of Type 2 diabetes, and other cardiometabolic diseases,” Poulson says. However, research cannot prove low-calorie sweeteners were directly to blame, and more studies are needed.
Your body also digests natural and artificial sugar differently.
Natural sugar goes through the normal process of digestion: It is broken down and absorbed by the stomach and small intestines before being released into the bloodstream. From there, the sugar (in the form of glucose and/or fructose) is sent to cells to be used for energy. “Once our cells have all the immediate energy they require, the remaining [sugar] is converted to and stored as glycogen in the liver and muscle cells,” Poulson says. Your body can pull from these fuel stores when no immediate fuel is available.
“In addition, the liver also uses fructose to create and store fat,” Poulson says. “When the liver has no more room to store these sugar units as fat, there is a build-up of fat globules, which results in a ‘fatty liver,’ or non-alcoholic liver disease.”
Meanwhile, some artificial sugar travels through our digestive system undigested, according to Poulson. Artificial sweeteners made with sugar alcohols (you’ll find these in foods labeled ‘sugar-free’), in particular, are hard to digest, and can cause issues like bloating, intestinal gas, and diarrhea.
Whether you choose natural or artificial sweeteners (or both), your best bet is to use them sparingly. Limit added sugar, in particular, to no more than 100 calories (6 teaspoons) per day for women, and no more than 150 calories (9 teaspoons) per day for men.
When you’re craving something sweet, reach for naturally sweet foods like fruit, as it offers beneficial nutrients like vitamins, minerals and fiber, Kaufman says. Naturally sweetened foods are also less likely to cause a sugar crash, she adds.
Instead of replacing your favorite sugar-sweetened soda with the ‘diet’ version, try sparkling water; add a splash of 100% fruit juice if you want some flavor. “That way, you still get the fizz without the added or artificial sugars,” Poulson says.
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