Many sugars and sweeteners are marketed as healthy alternatives to regular sugar.
Those looking to cut calories and reduce sugar intake often turn to these products when searching for an easy substitute to sweeten baked goods and beverages.
However, in some cases, these replacements may do more harm than good when it comes to your health.
Here are 8 “healthy” sugars and sweeteners that may be harmful.
1. Raw cane sugar
Raw cane sugar is obtained from sugarcane, which is a plant native to tropical regions of the world, such as Southeast Asia. It accounts for about 40–45% of total sugar produced in the United States (1).
It’s used to sweeten everything from desserts to hot drinks and is often preferred over other types of sugar due to its versatility, widespread availability, and sweet, slightly fruity taste (2).
However, though raw cane sugar is often marketed as a healthy alternative to regular sugar, there’s no real difference between them.
In fact, both are identical in terms of chemical composition and made up of sucrose, a molecule formed by units of simple sugars, such as glucose and fructose (3).
As with regular sugar, consuming high amounts of raw cane sugar can contribute to weight gain and may promote the development of chronic conditions like heart disease and diabetes (4).
SUMMARY: Just like regular sugar, raw cane sugar is made up of sucrose and can contribute to weight gain and disease development if consumed in excess.
Saccharin is an artificial sweetener that’s often used as a sugar replacement in soft drinks and low-calorie candies, gums, and desserts.
Because your body can’t digest it, it’s considered a non-nutritive sweetener, which means it doesn’t contribute calories or carbs to your diet (5).
Some research indicates that using calorie-free sweeteners like saccharin in place of regular sugar can reduce calorie intake to support weight loss (6).
Nonetheless, saccharin may harm your health as well.
Several animal studies have found that consuming saccharin can lead to alterations in the gut microbiome and may reduce good gut bacteria, which play a central role in everything from immune function to digestive health (7, 8, 9).
Disruptions in the beneficial bacteria in your gut may also be linked to health issues, including obesity, inflammatory bowel disease (IBD), and colorectal cancer (10).
Still, more research is needed to evaluate how saccharin may affect overall health in humans.
SUMMARY: Saccharin is a non-nutritive sweetener that may aid weight loss by reducing calorie intake. However, it may also alter your gut microbiome, which is involved in many aspects of health and disease.
Aspartame is a popular artificial sweetener that’s often found in diet products, such as sugar-free sodas, ice creams, yogurts, and candies.
Like other artificial sweeteners, it’s free of carbs and calories, making it a popular choice among those looking to ramp up weight loss.
That said, some studies suggest that aspartame may be detrimental to your waistline and health.
For example, one review of 12 studies found that using aspartame instead of sugar did not reduce calorie intake or body weight (11).
What’s more, compared to sugar, aspartame was linked to lower levels of HDL (good) cholesterol, which is a risk factor for heart disease (11).
Some people also claim that it may cause symptoms like headaches, dizziness, and depression, though further research is needed on these potential side effects.
SUMMARY: Aspartame is a calorie-free artificial sweetener that’s often added to diet products. One review found that it may not help reduce calorie intake or body weight, compared to regular sugar.
Sucralose is most commonly found in the zero-calorie artificial sweetener Splenda, which is often used in place of sugar to sweeten hot drinks like coffee or tea.
However, one study noted that consuming sucralose increased blood sugar and insulin levels in 17 obese people who usually didn’t use non-nutritive sweeteners (15).
What’s more, some research indicates that this sweetener may have other harmful side effects.
SUMMARY: Sucralose is commonly found in Splenda. Research shows that this sweetener may decrease beneficial gut bacteria, increase inflammation, and lead to weight gain.
5. Acesulfame K
Acesulfame K, also known as acesulfame potassium or Ace-K, is often combined with other sweeteners due to its slightly bitter taste.
Ace-K is usually found in frozen desserts, baked goods, candies, and low-calorie sweets. It’s one of the few heat-stable artificial sweeteners (21).
Though it’s considered safe by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), Ace-K remains one of the most controversial artificial sweeteners.
In fact, some researchers have called for further evaluation of its potential cancer-causing effects, citing the inadequate and flawed testing methods originally used to determine its safety (22).
Though one 40-week study found that Ace-K had no cancer-causing effects in mice, no other recent research has evaluated whether it may affect cancer growth (23).
Additionally, some studies indicate that long-term exposure may harm other aspects of your health.
For example, one 40-week mouse study noted that regular use of Ace-K impaired mental function and memory (24).
Another 4-week mouse study showed that Ace-K increased weight gain in male animals and negatively altered gut bacteria in both sexes (25).
Still, additional high-quality human studies are needed to analyze the safety and potential side effects of Ace-K.
SUMMARY: Ace-K is an artificial sweetener that is combined with other sweeteners in many foods. Research on its safety has been called into question, and animal studies show that it may have several adverse effects.
Xylitol is a sugar alcohol that’s extracted from birch trees and added to many chewing gums, mints, and toothpastes.
Compared to regular sugar, it has a significantly lower glycemic index (GI), meaning it won’t raise your blood sugar or insulin levels to the same extent as sugar (5).
Additionally, research shows that xylitol may be especially effective at preventing dental cavities in children with minimal risk of adverse effects (26).
However, xylitol can have a laxative effect in high doses and may cause digestive disturbances, including loose stools and gas (30).
It may also trigger symptoms in people with irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), which is a chronic condition that affects the large intestine and causes symptoms like stomach pain, gas, diarrhea, and constipation (31).
For this reason, it’s generally recommended to start with a small dose and slowly work your way up to assess your tolerance to xylitol or other sugar alcohols.
SUMMARY: Xylitol is a sugar alcohol that has been linked to a number of health benefits. Still, in high amounts, it may cause digestive issues for some, including those with IBS. Plus, it’s highly toxic to dogs.
7. Agave nectar
Agave nectar, or agave syrup, is a popular sweetener derived from several different species of the agave plant.
Agave nectar is composed primarily of fructose, a type of simple sugar that doesn’t significantly affect blood sugar or insulin levels (36).
Therefore, it’s often used in sweets and snacks marketed as being suitable for people with diabetes.
Fructose intake may also increase LDL (bad) cholesterol and triglyceride levels, which are major risk factors for heart disease (39).
SUMMARY: Agave nectar has a low GI and doesn’t affect blood sugar levels in the short term. However, it may increase your risk of fatty liver disease, insulin resistance, high cholesterol, and increased triglyceride levels in the long term.
Sorbitol is a naturally-occurring sugar alcohol found in many fruits and plants.
Unlike other sweeteners, it has only about 60% of the sweetening power of regular sugar and contains one-third fewer calories (40).
Sorbitol is known for its smooth mouthfeel, sweet flavor, and mild aftertaste, making it an excellent addition to sugar-free drinks and desserts.
While it’s generally considered safe, it acts as a laxative by stimulating the movement of your digestive tract (40).
Therefore, it’s best to moderate your intake and be especially mindful if you notice adverse effects.
SUMMARY: Sorbitol is a sugar alcohol that contains fewer calories than sugar and is often added to sugar-free foods and drinks. In some cases, it may cause digestive issues due to its laxative effects.
All types of added sugar should be limited
Even healthier varieties of sugars and sweeteners can be harmful when consumed in excess.
For example, raw honey is often considered a good alternative to regular sugar, due to its ability to promote wound healing, lower triglyceride levels, and reduce both total and LDL (bad) cholesterol (44, 45).
Nonetheless, it’s high in calories, loaded with sugar, and could contribute to weight gain over time.
It’s important to note that consuming too much of any type of sugar — even natural sweeteners like honey and maple syrup — could harm your health.
Meanwhile, artificial sweeteners and sugar alcohols are commonly found in foods that have been highly processed and pumped with additives and preservatives, most of which should be limited on a healthy diet as well.
Therefore, it’s best to limit your intake of all types of added sugar, including natural sugars and sweeteners like coconut sugar, honey, and maple syrup.
Instead, enjoy your favorite sweets from time to time alongside a variety of fruits, veggies, proteins, and healthy fats as part of a nutritious, well-rounded diet.
SUMMARY: Even healthier sugars and sweeteners can be harmful in high amounts. Ideally, all types of sugars and sweeteners should be limited on a healthy diet.
The bottom line
Many sugars and sweeteners that are advertised as healthy may come with a long list of side effects.
Though several are lower in calories and carbs than regular sugar, some have been linked to digestive issues, impaired blood sugar control, and alterations in beneficial gut bacteria.
Therefore, it’s best to moderate your intake of all sugars and sweeteners and enjoy your favorite treats from time to time as part of a healthy diet.
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