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Types of Sweeteners: The Good, Bad, and OK

Are all artificial sweeteners the same? What is a sugar alcohol? How are they labeled? Find answers to these questions and more.


Types of Sweeteners: Their Uses  and Health Concerns

If you are unfamiliar with what exactly artificial sweeteners are, their caloric effect, what titles they go by, or their health-concerns, here is a page that lays it all out. To summarize, there are four main types of sweeteners:


  1. Artificial Sweeteners. For these, sweeteners are synthetically made. The sweetener is artificial even if it is synthetically made from a naturalThis term, to be honest, does not mean much. It simply means... More substance. They are basically calorieA unit commonly used to measure the amount of energy that is... More free.
  2. Sugar Alcohols. These sweeteners are naturally found in fruits and vegetables, but can also be made. They are not alcoholic, don’t be fooled by the name, and have fewer calories than sugar.
  3. Novel Sweeteners. These are simply mixes of sweeteners.
  4. Natural Sweeteners. These are found naturally in the environment and are not synthetically manufactured.

See also: What’s on the Nutrition Label?


(The label of a Sobe Lifewater bottle)
An example of confusion between carbohydrates and calories in artificially sweetened drinks

Nutrition Facts Confusion

Often, when eating or drinking something with artificial sweeteners, sugar alcohols, or novel sweeteners, you may or may not notice that the carbs and calories don’t add up. Carbohydrates have 4 calories per gram, technically. Every gram of sugar is 4 calories.


However, sugar alcohols break this rule, and should technically be in their own category. For example, isomalt and lactitol are 2 calories per gram, xylitol is 2.4 calories per gram, maltitol is 2.1 calories per gram, sorbitol is 2.6 calories per gram, hydrogenated starch hydrolysates are 3.0 calories per gram, mannitol is 1.6 calories per gram, and erythritol is has 0 calories. This can mess people up because these sugar alcohols are labeled as “Carbohydrates” unless the manufacturer chooses to do otherwise.

See also: How are Nutrients and Calories Rounded?


An example of this is Quest Protein Bars. They are so sweet, but have hardly any net carbs (the amount of total carbohydrates minus the amount of fiber). That is due to the average Quest bar containing not only sucralose, but also stevia and erythritol. But since all most people hear is how low carb and calorie they are, they fly off the shelves because they taste good too.


So What Should I Eat?

Sadly there’s no “do this and you will be healthy” or “as long as you don’t do this you are fine” answer. The world simply does not have enough data and has not done enough research to come to much conclusive evidence about good vs. bad. We just cannot say for certain that “___” is worse for you than regular sugar or that “___” is the cause of cancer / American obesity / a weak immune system, etc. Some sources will tell you to only eat natural sugars like honey and nectar, citing that hunter-gatherers and early humans have lived off them for centuries and stayed fit. Others will show studies that had a few individuals eat five times the recommended amount of a substance daily for a year and felt no side effects, so it’s a no-brainer to choose the calorie-free sweetness.

See also: How to Understand and Apply the Nutrition Facts


My two cents? Don’t go chasing after the perfect product. A little sugar here and there won’t kill you, and why not experiment with a tiny bit of stevia once in a blue moon. But if I had to wrap it up in one sentence, it would be this: Just eat plain old food.

Having done this for years, let me tell you, there is nothing perfect out there. Your protein bar may be amazing in every respect, but contains a sweetener that may or may not be harmful to your health. You find a new protein bar that’s all natural, so it must be good for you, but tastes awful, or has too much fruit added and turns it into a sugar bar, or the texture is bad, or it’s too expensive, or the protein it contains is low quality, or it doesn’t have enough fiber. Then there’s a substitute for boring old H20, zero-calorie soda! But it might put you at a greater risk to be overweight than regular soda. You get the idea. Make your own food.

See also: Get to Know Your Nutrients


Convenience all-too-often comes at a price, not only from you wallet, but from your health.


To Summarize

Many food and drink manufacturers will lure you in with their low carb / carb free / low-calorie / calorie free products. DO NOT just glance at the nutrition data, but actually look in the ingredients before even considering a “magical” product that seems to have everything about it perfect. Chances are there are a few things that are less than good for you.

Double check products that seem too good to be true before buying them.

See also: Who Decides What a Serving Size is, Anyway?


Thanks for reading!




Electronic Code of Federal Regulations. Title 21, Chapter I, Subchapter B, Part 101, February, 2016. Accessed September 15, 2016.

Mayo Clinic, Artificial sweeteners and other sugar substitutes, August, 2015. Accessed September 15, 2016.

Quest Nutrition, 2016. Accessed September 15, 2016.

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