Download PDF

Ask the Food Doc: Do sugar-free sweeteners aid weight loss?

Dated : 02-Oct-2012
Source :

Editor's note: Bob Hutkins is the Food Doc. He is a professor at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, where he teaches and conducts research in food science and food microbiology. Send your questions on any topic related to food, food safety, food ingredients and food processing to the Food Doc at His column runs monthly.

I drink a lot of sugar-free pop. I also use sugar-free sweeteners for my coffee and iced tea. Some of these sweeteners claim to be natural, whereas others are not. What are the differences between these sweeteners? The big question is whether or not they help me manage my weight.

It wasn’t that long ago that the onlyy sweetener used for pop, coffee and other foods was good, old-fashioned sugar, made from sugarcane or beet sugar. Many other sweeteners are now available, including corn-derived syrups and sweeteners extracted from fruits and other plants. However, nearly all of these sweeteners are classified as caloric or nutritive because since they all contribute calories.

For diabetics, dieters or other sugar abstainers, there was, for many years, only one alternative -- saccharin, developed by accident in a chemistry lab in 1879. Because it contained zero calories and was more than 300 times sweeter than sugar, saccharin became the first noncaloric sweetener. It was an immediate hit, mainly because it was a cheaper alternative. Still, consumers liked their sugar, and saccharin was not used widely until the 1960s. Its popularity led scientists to develop similar sweeteners, and a search that continues even today. As you’ve noted, there are so many of these sweeteners that it has become confusing for consumers to tell them apart or to decide which ones to use.

First, there are the artificial or chemically synthesized sweeteners. These include aspartame (sold under the brand names NutraSweet and Equal), saccharin (sold as Sweet ’N Low), sucralose (sold as Splenda) and acesulfame potassium or ace K (sold as Sunett and Sweet One). All of these sweeteners are FDA-approved and can be found in Diet Coke, Coca-Cola Zero, Pepsi One, Diet Pepsi and other diet pops as well as in the small, single-serving packages.

Currently, there is only one high-intensity sweetener that is naturally derived -- Stevia (sold as Sweet Leaf, Truvia, and PureVia). It is extracted from the leaves Stevia rebaudiana, a South American shrub. Like most artificial sweeteners, Stevia has zero calories. The search is on for other natural sweeteners, so expect to see more of these products in the near future.

Because these sweeteners are 200 to 600 times sweeter than sugar, it takes just a few milligrams to equal the sweetening effect of a teaspoon of sugar. To give consumer packages some volume, a small amount of corn sugar or cellulose usually is added as a bulking agent.

The sweeteners do differ with respect to their applications in food. While most perform just fine in acidic foods (like pop), some are sensitive to high temperature and cannot be used for baking. Others may impart off-flavors, such as bitter, metallic or licorice.

Finally, it may seem counterintuitive, but there is real debate about whether the use of these sweeteners actually helps individuals reduce their calorie consumption and ultimately lose weight. Recently, the American Heart Association and the American Diabetes Association suggested that while pop and other sugar-rich foods do contribute extra calories in the diet, substituting sugar with noncaloric sweeteners does not necessarily lead to an overall reduction in calories ingested. This is explained, in part, as the “compensation effect” -- whereby people tend to consume those “saved” calories another time or from another food choice. The best examples are ordering a Big Mac and large fries, along with a diet pop, or having chocolate cake for dessert and then adding Sweet and Low to your coffee. Whether this compensation effect is psychological, biological or both is not yet known, but it does seem to explain why many sugar-free dieters don’t lose weight.