Refined Sugar Or Artificial Sweeteners? Which Is Better? Which Is WORSE?

is sugar or sweetener worse for you

Sugar and sweeteners. Pretty much any, and every diet and health fat or health kick seems to immediately jump to the idea of eliminating or greatly reducing refined sugar from your diet. But is sugar or sweetener worse for you?

Just for the purposes of right now, we’re focusing specifically on refined sugar and artificial sweeteners.

There are natural sugars as well. Honey, maple syrup, and fruit often seem to get excluded from this conversation. And that’s something that I’ll look at in future.

Why We Make A Big Deal About Refined Sugar

There are a few reasons why when we’re looking at diet and fitness and weight loss and health, refined sugar seems to be one of the first things that we look at.

It’s very easy to overeat or overindulge in foods that have a higher sugar content.

They are more tempting, they’re more satisfying and so portion control tends to feel a little bit more difficult. And if you have a sweet tooth like me, it’s definitely an Achilles’ heel.

Refined sugar also pretty much has no nutritional value.

I don’t like using the term “empty calories”, but there are no actual upsides or physical health benefits to having refined sugar.

And of course, it can also have a knock on impact on your health. It’s going to cause blood sugar spikes, but then it can also induce an inflammatory response in the body.

So the above do combine to have a detrimental effect on health.

But having said that in the context of an overall balanced and nutritious diet, some refined sugar is not going to – I mean it’s less than optimal or less than perfect – but it’s not going to derail your health or fitness goals.

The only disclaimer I would add to that is if you say you’ve been told by a qualified professional that you need to cut it out, that’s a separate topic.

But for sort of general population, a little bit is going to be fine in moderation.

And What About Artificial Sweeteners?

The most common ones, aspartame and sucralose, tend to be in drinks and coffee shops. You also have sugar alcohols, like xylitol, maltitol, and erythritol.

And just before we go any further, I need to emphasize something on xylitol. It’s highly toxic and often lethal for dogs. So if you do have dogs, I’d recommend steering clear.

It’s become very popular on social media and in blogs to demonize artificial sweeteners and claim things like they cause cancer, or induce headaches or a host of other side effects. But let’s look at each one, then let’s look at the truth about it.


Aspartame is the most common one in diet drinks, like Diet Coke and Diet Pepsi. And if you get it in a shop or in a coffee shop, it’s going to be the one that’s normally in the pink packaging.

It’s about 200 times sweeter than sugar.

And it’s been approved as safe for use by over a hundred regulatory bodies across the world.

There is a common claim going around that it can cause cancer. There have been no studies on humans ever to prove that.

And the only study from memory that linked aspartame with cancer was in rats and they were being given the equivalent amount of aspartame as if you were to have something like 150 cans of diet Coke per day for the rest of their life.

Some people claim that these kinds of side effects are being suppressed by food and drink companies because they want to make money. But then that would also beg the question why would they not just use that to their advantage and actually use that to sell more of the sugary stuff? So I don’t buy into that claim.


Sucralose is over 300 times sweeter than sugar and is usually found in the yellow packaging. At least in the UK, Splenda’s the most common one.

There haven’t been any studies that prove any negative health side effects. Most sucralose is bulked up with starch like maltodextrin. That’s what Splenda uses.

And gram per gram, a hundred grams of Splenda is going to have about the same number of calories as a hundred grams of sugar. But in that example, a hundred grams of Splenda is going to be so much more in terms of volume than a hundred grams of sugar.


Xylitol. Sugar alcohol. I already covered that it’s toxic to dogs. Sugar alcohols can have a laxative effect on the body if taken in excess and they can cause digestive issues like diarrhoea and stomach upsets and bloating. If you have a tolerance for that, then there are no sort of other longer-term or chronic health issues related to it.

And for some people, it’s easier to build up their tolerance of sugar alcohols.

Xylitol is often found in chewing gum and toothpaste, and some studies have linked it to having actually a positive impact on your dental health.


Erythritol also has a laxative effect as it’s a sugar alcohol. Some studies have shown it can help reduce a buildup of plaque, it can help reduce tooth decay, and it can also help remove the bad bacteria from your mouth and your throat.

That doesn’t mean you stop brushing your teeth by the way.


The last one of the main ones I’ve seen is maltitol.

And it’s a weird one because I’ve only seen it commonly in very specific use cases. And that is a sugar-free spread. So you’re probably familiar with Nutella, which is chocolate and hazelnut, but it’s mainly sugar and Palm oil.

Generally, the most common places I’ve seen maltitol is in that kind of spread, but the sugar-free version.

And it’s also occasionally in some protein bars.

Again, aside from the laxative effect, I haven’t seen any studies which suggest a negative impact on long-term health.

A Quick Word On Stevia

The one I haven’t talked about here is Stevia, which is 100% natural, and derived from plants. And I’ll come onto that as a separate topic when I talk about natural sweeteners and also natural sugar.

So Is Sugar Or Sweetener Worse For You?

In terms of overall health, there is no sort of upsides to your physical health to having refined sugar, but the enjoyment of food does play a part as well.

And if you can find that balanced relationship with those sort of treat foods in the context of a balanced diet, you’re not going to be doing your health too much physical damage in the long run.

Unless you’ve been advised by a medical professional, you probably don’t ever need to eliminate it entirely. If you have a weight loss or fat loss goal, then sweetener might be a better option just because you’re getting that sweeter hit for fewer calories.

But just bear in mind a lot of the time foods which use a sweetener, they’re not as satisfying so they’re not necessarily going to hit that sweet spot. No pun intended. But they’re not going to hit that sweet spot. So you might actually end up having more to try and compensate for that.

And it’s also worth bearing in mind that some sugar in the context of a balanced diet and a specific eating plan might help you stick to that eating plan better.

So that’s a long-winded way of saying balance and moderation are what we want to aim for.

is sugar or sweetener worse for you

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