Sweeteners Guide

Don’t know your agave from your xylitol? Get the scoop on the most popular sweeteners and how they affect your diet.

Sweeteners Guide

Neotame. Isomalt. Lactitol. They may sound like characters straight out of a science fiction movie, but they’re just a few of the sweeteners lurking in the foods you eat daily.

Many of the baked goods, beverages, processed foods, frozen desserts, candies and baking ingredients stocked in your kitchen are loaded with both artificial and natural sweeteners, often under unrecognizable names.

Some sweeteners are innocent. Others aren’t. Knowing the difference between calorie-free sweeteners like acesulfame potassium and saccharin, sugar alcohols like isomalt and lactitol, and natural sweeteners like honey and agave, is important for your health—and your waistline.

The Lowdown on Sweets

America’s consumption of sweeteners is off the charts. According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture (U.S.D.A.), in 2000, each American ate 152 pounds of caloric sweeteners on average over the course of a year. That adds up to a whopping 52 teaspoons of added sugars per person per day—well above the U.S.D.A. recommendation that the average person on a 2,000-calorie diet have no more than 40 grams—or about 10 teaspoons—of added sugars daily.

Artificial sweeteners have become popular because consumers want to cut calories without giving up the foods they love. But they can derail a healthy diet. Studies indicate zero-calorie sweeteners make it tougher to metabolize food properly and control your body weight.

A 2011 study out of the School of Medicine at the University of Texas Health Science Center San Antonio compared waist circumference in diet soda drinkers to non-diet soda drinkers over approximately 10 years. The diet soda drinkers had a 70 percent greater increase in waist circumference than those who shunned diet drinks. Those who drank two or more diet sodas a day had waist circumference increases that were 500 percent greater.

A 2008 study also found weight gain in rats that were fed yogurt sweetened with saccharin (a zero-calorie artificial sweetener), versus another group that ate yogurt sweetened with glucose, a simple sugar. The rats given artificially sweetened yogurt gained more weight than the group fed the more caloric glucose-sweetened yogurt.

THE STUDY, EXPLAINED: Fake Sugars Cause Weight Gain

So what gives? Your body is hard-wired to associate sweetness with high-calorie foods: Eating sweets tells the brain to prepare to consume a large amount of calories. When you eat foods containing zero-calorie artificial sweeteners that system may break down and throw off your metabolism. As a result, calorie-free fake sugars may retrain your body to crave more food and burn fewer calories than you normally would.

“Artificial sweeteners never take away the addictive taste of sweet in your mouth, which means, eventually, you'll be more likely to grab the real sweetened beverage or food product,” says Kristin Kirkpatrick, R.D., M.S., YouBeauty Nutrition Advisor and Wellness Manager for Cleveland Clinic’s Lifestyle 180 program. 

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