Is “Sugar-Free” Really Better?

While we know by now that excess sugar is bad for our health, the nutritional value of foods and drinks labeled as “sugar-free” gets a little more confusing. While many people love to use those little pink packets to sweeten their drinks or buy anything with the word ”Diet” stamped on the front, sugar-free foods may not be as helpful to health as once thought. 

Currently, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has approved six artificial sweeteners as safe for human consumption: 

  • Saccharin (found in Sweet’N Low)
  • Aspartame (found in NutraSweet and Equal)
  • Sucralose (found in Splenda)
  • Neotame (also found in NutraSweet)
  • Acesulfame-K (found in Sweet One)
  • Advantame (used primarily in the food and beverage industry)

There are also natural sweeteners that don’t contain sugar, with stevia being the most well-known. These non-nutritive sweeteners provide zero (or very few) calories and no sugar but are hundreds to thousands of times sweeter than table sugar.

Because of this excessively sweet taste, sugar-free foods and drinks can sometimes trick our taste buds. These sugar-free sweeteners can reduce satiety signals and alter metabolic signaling, increasing appetite and hunger and altering taste preferences. This also alters our nutrient-sensing pathways that regulate hormones and fat storage. 

These metabolic alterations and sugar-free trickery are likely why a high intake of artificial sweeteners has been linked to weight gain. Despite the wide use of sugar-free foods and drinks to lose weight, it can actually backfire. In addition to changing hunger hormone signaling, artificial sweeteners may cause weight gain because they increase sugar cravings. As the substitutes are exponentially sweeter than regular sugar, repeated exposure raises the threshold of sweet taste preference — leaving you wanting more and more of the sweet stuff. 

The bottom line? Sugar-free foods and drinks can reduce caloric and sugar intake; however, there are some downsides to be aware of. Although they do not contain sugar, artificial sweeteners can alter metabolism and increase body weight by disrupting satiety signals and hormones and causing sugar cravings. Overall, it’s fine to consume sugar-free foods occasionally, just like it’s okay to eat real-sugar-containing foods at times. Just don’t overdo it!

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