Sugar can be found in some pretty surprising foods on the market–from ketchup to peanut butter, even savory things like canned soup. The American diet is exceptionally sweet, but too much sugar can yield negative effects, including obesity, acne, and increased risk of illnesses like heart disease and diabetes. With the rise of health issues related to excess sugar, and more data coming out on what that looks like, lots of sugar free alternatives have hit the market, promising the ability to avoid those negative effects while still being able to enjoy sweet treats. Although these alternatives are technically “sugar free,” they also bring their own unique downsides. Is a sugar free alternative really the healthier choice, or is it just as bad as raw, natural sugar?
According to Pamela Barton, R.H.N., NNCP, Founder of Butterfly Nutrition, sugar free alternatives may be enticing, but they’re not the healthy alternative you think they are. “People hear so many times that sugar is bad for them. In an attempt to eat healthier it sounds enticing to find “sugar free alternatives'' on the shelf and it helps soothe the guilt. That’s why these products are so popular,” she says, “In a lot of cases, reducing sugar intake is a good idea. But it’s not necessarily healthier or better for you to grab the sugar free alternative to the same food. Evaluating what we are eating in the first place would be the better approach to reduce sugar intake.” If you have the intent of eating healthier, focusing on adding whole, natural foods to your diet is the better bet than just eating sugar free substitutes, which may defeat the purpose.
Sugar free foods may not have any real sugar, but they use additives to keep the sweetness that are just as harmful, like aspartame and sucralose. “These substances can cause neurotransmitter damage in the brain in susceptible people and they are gut disruptors. While trying to reduce sugar, we are setting ourselves up for another disaster in our brain and gut,” Barton says. Your gut health is at the baseline for many functions in your body, and having an unhealthy gut has been linked to everything from anxiety and depression to food intolerances and acne.
Another taste enhancer often found in sugar free foods is fat, and a diet too high in certain fats can also have negative effects. “Oftentimes sugar free foods contain higher amounts of fat, usually trans fats or high amounts of saturated fats. These substances are not health promoting when consumed in larger quantities.” To put it simply, when you eat sugar free foods, you are just swapping one “bad” ingredient for another “bad” one.
Are there some sugar alternatives that are worse than others? Barton says that a good rule of thumb when grocery shopping is the less processed the food, the better. “[It’s best to avoid] artificial sweeteners, dyes, preservatives, trans-fats, and saturated fats. Read the label and if you can’t pronounce the ingredient or there are more than 5 ingredients in the box, leave it on the shelf.”
Sugar free alternatives may seem like an enticing option for eating healthy while getting to enjoy all your signature sweet treats, but it might just be too good to be true. Ultra processed foods can have a number of negative health effects on the body, including disrupting gut function. However, it’s important to note that all things can be enjoyed in moderation—rather than eliminating sugar completely and substituting it with sugar free alternatives, try following a diet that focuses on whole, natural foods, but also allows for enjoyment of sweets here and there. Finding balance, whatever that looks like for you, is the key to a sustainable, healthy lifestyle.