Most of us know that a diet high in sugar equals a high number on the scale (along with a wide range of other health risks), but what about the low or zero-calorie sweeteners that seem to make it possible to keep your sweet tooth without tipping the scales? The saying “too good to be true” applies in most situations. A lot of sugar substitutes can not only sabotage your weight loss, but are also made with some scary chemicals that make sugar look like it’s a superfood. So what’s safe? What’s not? How can you satisfy your sweet tooth without sacrificing your health?

Here’s the skinny on sugar substitutes:

  • My cardinal rule when it comes to sweeteners (and really anything I put in my body) is if it was made in a lab… don’t eat it. “Artificial” is a dead give-away for something that’s been through the ringer of scary chemicals. Aspartame (Equal or Nutrisweet), saccharin (Sweet’N Low, SugarTwin), acesulfame potassium (Sunett, Sweet One), and yes, sucralose (Splenda) all qualify as artificial sweeteners. Besides the health risks linked to these substances including things like neurological disorders and cancer, your body still recognizes these like sugar, which leads to a spike in appetite. Although these are “zero calorie” they can cause you to crave more food, which doesn’t do you any good in the long run. Photo Credit here.

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  • Sugar alcohols, commonly seen as sorbital and xylitol, are carbohydrates that can occur naturally but can also be manufactured (enter scary chemicals!). These are a better choice than artificial sweeteners, but make sure you realize that they do contain calories, and some evidence suggests that high amounts can cause digestion issues and again, can cause you to crave more food.
  • Stevia and tagatose (Naturlose) are considered novel sweeteners as they don’t necessarily fit into any other category. The thing to recognize here is the misleading information about these sweeteners. Stevia extracts, which come from the stevia plant, are appealing because they sound natural. What’s more natural than something that comes straight from a plant? What they don’t tell you is that these sweeteners are often refined and chemically-treated. Tagatose is similar to fructose and can develop naturally, but is also manufactured. The bottom line is that these low calorie sweeteners are a safer choice than artificial, but not necessarily risk-free. Your best bet is to get an organic version if you’re going to be using one of these. Photo Credit here
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  • Natural sweeteners such as pure agave nectar, maple syrup, and honey are the “safest” sweeteners on the market, and can be lower in calorie than table sugar. However, you have to watch out for versions that are highly refined and processed, and keep in mind that your body breaks these down in the same way as sugar (not great news for the scale). When consumed raw they are not refined or processed like regular table sugar, so you can rest assured that you’re satisfying your sweet tooth without sacrificing your health (with moderation).

Take this information and be mindful of the sweeteners you choose. I try to use as many natural sweeteners as possible in place of regular sugar, and I keep single-serving packets of organic stevia in my purse for sweetening up things like tea or coffee on the go. Remember that eliminating all of these from your diet is nearly impossible (and talk about torture!). The key (as with any guilty pleasure) is moderation, moderation, moderation!

Read more facts about these sweeteners from the Mayo Clinic here.