What Is The Healthiest Artificial Sweetener?
Before I get into talking about the healthiest artificial sweetener, there are a couple of disclaimers I’d like to add.
First of all, I am fully aware the words “healthy” and “artificial” don’t really belong together. The whole point of this post is to try to lay out how different sweeteners affect the body.
Also “healthy” does indeed mean different things for different people. The one which is best for you will depend on your own circumstances.
And lastly, let’s just clarify what we’re covering here. By “artificial sweeteners” and for the purpose of this post, I am referring specifically to sugar substitutes.
These are the ones that don’t come under the heading “sugar” on nutrition labels.
That means that I have excluded things like honey, maple syrup, coconut sugar, and dates.
They do probably have more nutritional benefits for most than most of the sweeteners listed here. But they still come under that sugar label, even if they’re not processed or refined sugar.
The Contenders For Healthiest Artificial Sweetener
There are probably more than what I have listed below but for the sake of this post I am going to cover these ones:
Let’s dive in, shall we?
Aspartame is the sweetener that is found in most of the low calorie and diet soft drinks. It is in Diet Coke, Diet Pepsi, Diet Sprite, and so on.
Aspartame was actually discovered in 1965 by accident, during testing for an anti-ulcer drug.
It seems like it is one of the most controversial and most studied food additives on the planet.
Some of the alleged side effects of aspartame include headaches, depression, memory loss, and blindness.
I haven’t been able to find any documented cases of memory loss or blindness as a result of having aspartame. I also couldn’t find any documented cases of aspartame being directly responsible for any of the other side effects.
It has been approved for safe use by over 100 regulatory bodies around the world, and a published double-blind study by the British Food Standards Agency noted there were no side effects in its test subjects, even in participants who had claimed they were sensitive to it.
Another study also looked at the impact of aspartame on gut bacteria and noted no effect or changes.
It doesn’t really have any health benefits as such, although neither does sugar. But it has a much lower calorie value than sugar.
Also, no studies have demonstrated a link between it and raising insulin levels.
I don’t know if it is just in my corner of the world but generally, I haven’t seen as much erythritol sold on its own or available in coffee shops, as I have the other sweeteners on this list.
As a sugar alternative, it seems to have become popular relatively recently and is very popular amongst low carb and keto diet enthusiasts.
Erythritol was first discovered in the 1840s but wasn’t advertised as a sweetener until the 1990s.
You can get it in its own pure form. It is also often used to add bulk when combined with other sweeteners, such as stevia.
It hasn’t had the same controversial history as aspartame but has some documented side effects.
In small doses, this doesn’t happen. But in larger quantities, it can cause bloating, and diarrhoea, and have a laxative effect.
However on the flip side, if you’re diabetic, erythritol may be a good choice, as studies have shown that it doesn’t have an impact on insulin.
And it has been shown to prevent the build-up of dental plaque and can support in fighting tooth decay.
In terms of usage, you can buy erythritol in crystals or powder form. The powdered form is more popular because the full-size crystals can be difficult to dissolve and can stay grainy.
Saccharin was first patented in the 1880s but really become popular in the 1960s amongst American dieters.
If you live outside the US, you might not find it as commonly as other sweeteners here. It is the sweetener in the bright pink ‘Sweet N Low’ brand of sugar substitute.
It was actually banned in the 1980s because of a link to tumours in rats, but it has now been deemed safe for consumption by further studies and is freely available in over 100 countries.
As with the other sweeteners listed here, there are no specific health benefits. As in, your health isn’t going to improve by adding saccharin to your diet.
But it has zero calories so if you are trying to manage your weight, it can help reduce the calories you are getting from sugar.
Studies have also shown it is also safe to consume if you have diabetes.
I am very biased when it comes to stevia. It is my go-to sweetener of choice and for me, it is the healthiest artificial sweetener.
I first heard of Stevia in 2011 when Tim Ferriss mentioned it in his book, The 4 Hour Body.
It is the most “natural” of the artificial sweeteners on this list and comes from the Stevia rebaudiana species of plant.
There is one distinction you will want to understand here. The pure extract, stevia glycoside, is considered safe for use across the world.
The stevia leaf itself and crude extracts don’t have FDA clearance though. So you will want to steer clear of those.
I haven’t found any studies indicating any rumoured or proven negative effects on health.
It is another zero-calorie option for you to consider and doesn’t have an impact on blood sugar levels or gut health.
As I said, I am biased and it is my go-to sweetener.
Apparently, sucralose is the most common artificial sweetener in the world. You’ll find it most commonly under the brand name ‘Splenda’ if you’re in the UK or the US.
From my own experience, I believe it’s also the most popular sweetener in nutrition supplements.
If you’ve ever had a protein bar, protein shake, or any of the other protein-added sweet treats you might enjoy, chances are it had sucralose in it.
Sucralose on its own doesn’t appear to affect insulin levels but the most common forms are not pure sucralose. If you buy Splenda for example, it uses maltodextrin to give it its “bulk” – which is a carbohydrate and can affect your blood sugar levels.
You will want to be more mindful of your sucralose intake though. Some studies have linked it to reducing the healthy bacteria in your gut. From my basic research, sucralose appears to be the only sweetener listed here that has this effect.
Before reading the rest of this part, please note this. Xylitol has been shown to be safe in humans, however, it is poisonous to dogs.
If you have a dog or spend time around dogs, you may want to avoid this one.
On a day to day basis, you can find xylitol most commonly in toothpaste or in chewing gum.
Like erythritol, it can give your dental health a boost by reducing the number of oral bacteria floating around in your mouth.
You’ll also want to note that unlike some of the other sweeteners here, xylitol is NOT a zero or low-calorie option. It has around 40% fewer calories per gram than table sugar.
So it is a lower calorie option than sugar, but you can’t group it in the same category as the zero-calorie options above.
So Which Is The Healthiest Artificial Sweetener?
I kind of already touched on this at the start of this post when I said healthy means different things for different people.
If you have any concerns about artificial sweeteners, speak to a dietitian or medical professional who will be able to give you more specific advice.
You can pick from any of the above apart from xylitol for a very low or zero-calorie option.
For your dental health, erythritol or xylitol seem to be the most beneficial.
For your wallet, aspartame or sucralose appear to be the cheapest.
And if you want to go for the most “natural” artificial option, pure stevia extract will be your way to go.
One More Word On Healthiest Artificial Sweetener
I’m talking about a nuanced and sensitive topic here and there are a few disclaimers or additional points I’d like to add which I have included below.
- I’ve found it challenging to find clear, consistent, reliable information when writing this post.
- If you have any concerns, please consult a medical professional.
- When doing your own research, please refer to actual studies instead of blogs and social media. Yes, I am aware of the irony of posting that on a blog post.
- If you still prefer to avoid artificial sweeteners entirely, I respect and support that.
- I am not qualified to make specific scientific or medical claims myself.