Sugar-Free Foods: Good or Bad?

They’re marketed as healthy and low-calorie alternatives to your favorite sugary treats, but are sugar-free foods actually better for you?
Artificial Sugars

They’re marketed as healthier, lower-calorie alternatives to your favorite sugary treats, but are sugar-free foods actually better for you? Well...maybe and maybe not. We've got the details on the good and bad of sugar-free foods.

What’s Replacing Sugar?

Some artificial sweeteners are calorie-free, while others come along with a small amount of calories per serving (but those calories can add up if you eat them often). The most popular sweeteners are still those blue, pink and yellow packets, along with the newest sweetener on the block called stevia. When used as food additives, you’ll see them on ingredient lists as aspartame, saccharin, sucralose and rebiana.

No matter which type you choose, all faux sweeteners are hundreds of times sweeter than sugar. Despite claims that they’re made from sugar or come from a natural plant source, all have undergone some type of chemical process before they reach your lips. Though research is limited, eating too much of these types of chemically treated sugars has been linked to adverse side effects including stomach upset, blood sugar control issues and increased risk of some types of cancer. Some research also suggests that eating excessive amounts of chemically-sweetened foods will entice the brain to want sugary (and typically less healthy) foods more often – not helpful for the quality of your diet or your waistline.

Read more about the specific dangers associated with popular artificial sweeteners and stevia.

Endless Options

Once only used in a limited number of foods, artificial sweeteners are now lurking in everything from diet sodas and juices to cookies and salad dressings. Manufacturers of light ice creams, low-cal yogurts and diet fruit juices often use artificial sweeteners along with added sugars to cut down on calories. So just because something isn’t labeled “sugar-free” doesn’t mean it won’t contain fake sweeteners.

To confuse things ever further, many foods that do use artificial sweeteners exclusively aren’t always lower in fat or calories than their sugar-containing counterparts. Some brands of sugar free frozen treats, candies and cookies have very similar calorie counts despite their lack of sugar.

Special Needs

There is a time and a place for artificial sweeteners. Artificial sweeteners allow for some additional options for those that suffer from diabetes or folks trying to cut back on sugary food overload. But option for sugar-free alternatives shouldn’t be viewed as a free pass to eat sugar-free fare day in and day out for the reasons mentioned above.

Bottom Line: At 15 calories per teaspoon, a small amount of regular sugar here and there can be worked into anyone’s healthy diet. If you do choose to use artificial sweeteners to help with diabetes, weight management and calorie control, do so in moderation and check ingredient lists -- your intake of artificial sweeteners may be more substantial than you think.

TELL US: What’s your take on the faux sugars?

Dana Angelo White, MS, RD, ATC, is a registered dietitian, certified athletic trainer and owner of Dana White Nutrition, Inc., which specializes in culinary and sports nutrition. See Dana's full bio »

You Might Also Like:

Next Up

How to Choose Dairy-Free High Calcium Foods

If you're lactose-intolerant or cannot eat dairy, here are some other ways to boost your calcium intake.

No, Nitrate-Free Bacon Is Not a Health Food

Though they're considered "diet-friendly," nitrate-free processed meats still should be eaten in moderation.

Oreo Goes Gluten-Free

2021 is already looking up.

Gluten-Free Holiday Baking

During holiday baking season, those who are sensitive to or intolerant of gluten needn’t miss out on all the sweet seasonal treats.

This Legendary Gold Card Can Get You Free McDonald’s Food for Life

For a few weeks, you’ll have the chance to snag the elusive card. Here’s how.

What Is Confectioners’ Sugar?

Confectioners’ Sugar. Powdered Sugar. Icing Sugar. 10X Sugar. Is there a difference?

What Is Caster Sugar?

Perhaps you've come across caster sugar in a recipe. Here are some answers to the questions you might have been wondering, including where to buy caster sugar, what the best substitute is and how to make it yourself.

Energy Drinks: Good or Bad?

Here's everything you need to know before you crack open an energy drink.

Is Mayonnaise Good for You?

The famously fatty condiment can still be part of healthy diet.

How to Freeze Baked Goods

Extend the life of breads, bagels and cakes with a few simple tips.