“Sugar Free” Does Not Equal Healthy (and more startling facts about artificial sweeteners)

When a packaged food is touted as “Sugar Free,” that oftentimes means the real sugar has been left behind and replaced with an artificial sweetener. This is yet another reason why it is so important to always read ingredient labels. Did you know that artificial sweeteners were literally invented in a lab by food scientists and that some of those sweeteners only entered our food system as recently as a few decades ago? That is practically brand new in a world where people have been eating for tens of thousands of years and – in my book – the opposite of the real, traditional foods I strive to feed my family.

The Sugar Association says these artificial replacements are “chemically manufactured molecules – molecules that do not exist in nature.” And as a result, even though we do our best to avoid white (refined) sugar, I’d personally rather eat that (i.e., the real thing) over artificial sweeteners any day. To see which added sweeteners we’ve decided are real food approved, be sure to check out our “No Refined Sweeteners” mini-pledge.

Some “Sugar Free” Examples

(Clearly I see loads of other problems with these ingredient labels, but I am just sticking to the topic at hand today.)

"Sugar Free" Does Not Equal Healthy from 100 Days of #RealFood #sugarfree


"Sugar Free" Does Not Equal Healthy from 100 Days of #RealFood #sugarfree

"Sugar Free" Does Not Equal Healthy from 100 Days of #RealFood #sugarfree

Recent Headlines

The facts that raise red flags against artificial sweeteners are just startling.

From a Purdue University Study:

“Accumulating evidence suggests that frequent consumers of these [artificial] sugar substitutes may also be at increased risk of excessive weight gain, metabolic syndrome, type 2 diabetes, and cardiovascular disease.”

From TakePart.com:

“We have the abstract of the study and what the laboratory said about leukemia. We don’t have the full data yet. That’s why we put ‘caution’ instead of ‘avoid.’ When there is evidence that something causes cancer, we take that pretty seriously. [Sucralose] caused cancer in the animals. We thought that we should pass that information on, and couldn’t, in good conscious, say it was safe,” says Lisa Lefferts, a senior scientist with CSPI (Center for Science in the Public Interest).

From CSPI (Center for Science in the Public Interest):

“In 2012 an independent Italian laboratory announced (but has not yet published) a study that found that sucralose caused leukemia in mice that were exposed from before birth. That was the same lab that several years earlier published studies indicating that aspartame caused cancers in rats and mice.”

From USA Today:

“Despite claims from Coke and other companies about the safety of aspartame, we still don’t know about its long-term effects,” says Karen Congro, a nutritionist and director of the Wellness for Life Club program at the Brooklyn Hospital Center. “Relying on artificial sweeteners probably causes cravings for sweets and sugar, which can contribute to obesity and poor eating habits.”

From Huffington Post:

According to Kristin Kirkpatrick, M.S., R.D., L.D., “A study in the journal Diabetes Care found that daily consumption of diet soda was associated with a 36 percent greater relative risk of developing metabolic syndrome and a 67 percent greater relative risk of developing Type 2 diabetes compared with non-consumption. Another study in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition found that, in one group of study participants, consumption of artificially sweetened beverages was associated with Type 2 diabetes. The findings are mimicked in rat studies as well. A study in the journal Behavioral Neuroscience found that consumption of products containing artificial sweeteners led to weight gain due to changes in the rat’s normal physiological processes of sweets. In addition to this, the presence of constant artificial sweeteners in the diet means you’re never really letting your taste buds get a break from the sweet taste you love. The more you drink diet soda, the longer you’ll remain trapped in the sugar cycle and continue to crave.” 

Artificial Sweetener Cheat Sheet

Artificial sweeteners come under a variety of different types and brand names, which makes them one of the many confusing aspects of packaged foods.

"Sugar Free" Does Not Equal Healthy from 100 Days of #RealFood #sugarfree

These generic versions are the five FDA-approved artificial sweeteners currently on the market.

Note: Stevia is sometimes classified as an artificial sweetener, but it’s actually derived from the stevia plant. However, it is often sold in a highly processed (powdery white) form, so it is not something we personally use or recommend.

Tell the FDA

Did you know that you can report adverse reactions or other problems associated with FDA-regulated food products? I am not sure how much it really helps, but it certainly can’t hurt. Find the correct number for your state on the FDA website. Be sure to let them know if you or someone you know has had trouble with artificial sweeteners and/or artificial food dyes.

We’d love to hear your thoughts about artificial additives in the comments below.

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  • Comments

    1. Carol |

      I am borderline diabetic and am fighting to reverse my numbers. I cannot use sugar and eschewed it from my diet. Monk fruit is my choice and at this point I have to stick with that.

      • Rachel |

        I made chocolate chip cookies with monk fruit sweetner and they were delicious. I left out the chocolate chips but just made that same batter and added some oatmeal. I loved them

    2. Dawn clem |

      I haven’t yet found an artificial sweetener that does not cause me headaches.

    3. Nichole |

      Has anyone used Lucuma powder?

    4. Mary |

      Is there any form of Stevia that is safe and how do we know? I started drink a sparkling water flavored with Stevia and has good flavor. I thought this was good. I am having a hard time breaking the soda addiction without having something with real flavor in it and not a ton of calories. It is so defeating. I drink SOBE Lifewater which has “Purified Stevia Leaf Extract” in it. What should it say if it is the good kind of Stevia if there is such a thing? It says on the bottle that there are no artificial sweeteners in it. Some teas are bland or have too many calories. It is discouraging.

      • Brandy |

        Try la croix water, it’s flavored, no sweetener, and its carbonated

      • Rachel |

        I order an organic 100% pure stevia from Amazon, it is not cut with acura lose as is ALL stevia I found for sale in stores. The stuff is so powerful that a pinch even smaller than a pencil eraser is enough to sweeten 8-10oz drinks.


        • Rachel |

          Sucralose not acura lose

    5. Mrs_MG |

      Today, I looked for fruit juice concentrates. Unfortunately, there are very few that don’t have added sugar or sweeteners. The ones that almost got me were “no added sugar” fruit juice concentrates (Robinsons). But knowing a bit about Robinsons products, I suspected that claim. After a bit of web searching, I found the ingredients list, and sure enough, there is “no added sugar”. That is, no natural sugars have been added. But plenty of unnatural sweeteners have been added.

      Here are the ingredients for “Robinsons Double Concentrated Summer Fruits No Added Sugar” per Waitrose:

      Water, Fruit Juices from Concentrate 20% (Apple 18%, Strawberry 0.8%, Plum, Blackcurrant, Cherry 0.3%), Acid (Citric Acid), Natural Colours (Anthocyanins), Acidity Regulator (Sodium Citrate), Sweeteners (Sucralose, Acesulfame K), Natural Flavourings, Preservatives (Potassium Sorbate, Sodium Metabisulphite), Stabiliser (Cellulose Gum)

      Sucralose, Acesulfame K — maybe not “sugar” but definitely added sweeteners!

      And for “Robinsons Double Concentrate Orange & Pineapple No Added Sugar” ingredients:

      Water, Orange Fruit from Concentrate (16%), Pineapple Juice from Concentrate (4%), Acid (Citric Acid), Acidity Regulator (Sodium Citrate), Natural Flavouring, Sweeteners (Aspartame, Saccharin), Preservatives (Potassium Sorbate, Sodium Metabisulphite), Stabiliser (Cellulose Gum), Natural Colour (Carotenes).

      Now it’s Aspartame and Saccharin — eeek!!

      So, obviously, the “No added sugar” on the front doesn’t even come close to “unsweetened” pure juice concentrate. They are out there, but difficult to find. Suma, for example, sells an organic apple juice concentrate with just — wait for it — concentrated apple juice! Now, if I could only find an orange juice concentrate with only concentrated orange juice. (*sigh*) Wish me luck!

    6. Elizabeth |

      Hi! I was wondering how you felt about carbonated water? I like Perrier and only drink the regular kind because of the “natural flavors” in the lime and grapefruit flavored ones. So is carbonated water ok? And are natural flavors ok? I have stayed away from natural flavors because I didn’t think they were the best thing for me!

      • Amy Taylor (comment moderator) |

        Hi there. Carbonated water is fine. If you need a little flavor add a squeeze of your own lemon, limes, oranges, etc. :)

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