“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

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

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  1. Assistant to 100 Days (Amy)

    Hi Kim. Lisa’s choices are honey and maple syrup and that is what she uses in almost all of our baking, as well. ~Amy

  2. What are some good sugar whole food substitutes for a picky 3 year old? Like what woul I use to make cinnamon raisin bread?

  3. I have been looking at a lot of your questions and answers.. helped me open my eyes a lot more.. I use the sweetener “Truvia” how does that rate in the bad/good column?

  4. Thank you for posting this article. I am a long term advocate of adjective free food…People who use “diet” products seldom want to hear about the problems with their food choices and therefore it isn’t because I expect to convince anyone…it just does my heart good to know i’m not the “only one” concerned about this stuff. If you’re putting this info out there people who are like minded can take care of themselves.

  5. What about 100% agave syrup? I haven’t seen anything on here about that. It has always been my go to sweetener for tea.

  6. My daughter who is a certified nutritionist something (? lol) told me about Xylitol that she gets at whole foods. They also sell a gum called Spry sweetened with it.

  7. I have a buddy that used to eat 6 of those “sugar free” lo carb candy bars because he said they were “healthier” than the regular bars. I told him candy is candy and should be a treat not a meal. He wondered why he suffered adverse reactions and weight gain from them. Until he went to the Dr. and was told most of those contain Sorbitol which in high doses have a laxative effect to them. I told him he was an idiot but try arguing with one…

    Here is another site that compares all the sweeteners:

  8. During the past year or so, I have found several products that contain artificial sweeteners (mostly Sucrolose and/or Asulfame Potassium – but occasionally Aspartame) that are NOT labeled “sugar free” or “diet”. Had I not read the ingredients list, I would have unknowingly purchased a product with one of the artificial sweeteners I avoid. I wish the FDA would require products containing artificial sweeteners to be clearly labeled, but since they don ‘t, read the ingredients list ALWAYS. Some of the products I found contain sugar and an artificial sweetener; so when you see “sugar” on the ingredients list, keep reading.

  9. I used to drink diet Pepsi. Even warm. As the years went by I noticed an increase of spasms in my legs. They became way beyond the normal Charlie horse.. so severe I could not walk at times. When diet soda is consumed warm the health risks mount drastically. it has something to do with the ester of wood Rosen (turns into a type of formaldehyde when combined with low cal sweetner. Since not using artificial sweetners in any known form I have regained my life back.I have to stay vigilant as labels and contents change and since in a while get in trouble if I eat out but my nightmare us over. It makes me feel like my country has failed me though..

  10. While fishing, my husband & I would drink 6 to 8 diet cokes per day. We were retired so this happened almost every day. I also chewed sugar free gum. My stomach started hurting. My doctor said that I had too many ulcers to count. I also had ulcers in my mouth caused by the gum. We finally decided to give up diet cokes which was hard.

  11. Have been an anti-artificial sweetener advocate since Nutrasweet came out! At the time, I was pregnant with my oldest daughter who know is in college, feeling old, lol, and I started drinking diet sodas to lower sugar intake & supposedly be healthier since I was pregnant & not wanted to gain a ton of weight. This was the only thing that I had changed in my diet & I started getting severe headaches, dizziness, sick to my stomach, and other ailments not associated with particularly being pregnant. After having my daughter,I finally figured out that it was the artificial sweetener when returning to diet items other than sodas such as diet puddings and they also made me sick! These chemicals immediately made me sick & I am a believer that they are making America sick, maybe it takes longer for someone to feel the effects, but I believe they are showing up in the long-term as diabetes, and other diseases that with all of our modern-day means seam to be increasing rather than decreasing. Why? Because it is our food that is making us sick! Love this 100 Foods site & emails & have been adapting this whole foods life slowly but surely in my family! It is working…because when we do stray back to our old ways…..we feel the negative effects!! Wanted to not only share my story, but my purpose for replying was to share 2 things: 1) Even though we are fairly knew to the whole foods idea, I have ALWAYS AVOIDED sugar-free labeled products, but yesterday my daughter made some NON-SUGAR FREE gelatin & despite the fact that the product was NOT labeled SUGAR FREE….it HAD ASPARTAME in the product…..I guess it also had sugar so it wasn’t considered SUGAR FREE, but NOW I guess these chemicals are showing up in NON SUGAR FREE labeled products TOO! Just goes to show you ALWAYS READ THE LABELS for the INGREDIENTS!! My daughter could taste the Aspartame immediately luckily & we pitched the product! 2) Secondly, I wanted to share a link I just saw on Facebook that shows exactly detailed info on how these artificial sweeteners & OTHER CHEMICALS in our foods are doing to people & here is the link for all to read! It’s very interesting: http://oracletalk.com/10-foods-sold-u-s-banned-elsewhere/ Thanks & here’s to REAL & WHOLE FOODS!!

    1. In the late 90’s I had a ton of medical issues and felt absolutely horrible. I had headaches, numbness and tingling in my arms and legs, panic attacks, and many other symptoms. I truly believed I was dying and didn’t know why. Every test the doctors did on my heart, brain, and everything else came back negative. As I was eating a “light” yogurt one morning I happened to read the ingredients. I wondered what aspartame was so I went to the computer and did some research. I had known for years that Nutra Sweet gave me headaches and I avoided it but I had no idea that it was now in foods under other names like acelfame K and acelfame potassium. My doctors didn’t believe that this was the cause of my problems but I was convinced it was. I decided to do only “real food” way back then and became fanatical about reading labels and not eating any pre-packaged or processed foods. It took about six months but that is the only change I made and ALL of my symptoms disappeared. Lately I have also noticed that many products are sneaking in artificial sweeteners. It is so important to ALWAYS read the labels. We used to buy cocoa mix once in a while but when I went to buy another can I read the label and found aspartame in the ingredients! Don’t assume that you know a product is “safe” because you have bought it for years! There are posts on this that say there is no evidence…but there are thousands of stories like mine about what this stuff does to people. Instead of being believed we are seen as crazy…but I know what my experience was and you will never convince me that artificial sweeteners aren’t toxic.

  12. Funny our Hospital system which is the largest in the state of Indiana took all of the regular pop out of the hospitals and we now only have fruit juices and sugar free pop. You would think they of all people would research this more . People just think if something happens to them we can save them. Well guess what …. we can’t …don’t bankrupt yourself or your family just because you can cut the crap out of your diet. yes it is hard to give up sweets and I am guilty of it too but I have tried to get away from “low cal” , sugar free etc stuff. We also gave up meat and dairy….

    1. Teri, it’s funny you say about your hospital system replacing all sodas with sugar free drinks……..guess what, our school system did the SAME with all of the soda machines in all of our schools years ago….funny I agree they probably thought this was saving our kids from the sugar & weight gain. But ironically it hasn’t helped at all with the childhood obesity problems…..if anything, I would be willing to bet that other health issues have increased as a result. I may even just ask our health nurse if headaches, & stomach problems have increased?? It would be interesting to note. Of course my children have AVOIDED artificial sweeteners & I pack their lunches, but there are lots of kids who do NOT have a choice! Just wanted to thank you for sharing this because it has sparked my attention to the fact that something needs to be done about this in our schools…..these products need to be removed! Thanks!!

    1. Assistant to 100 Days (Amy)

      Hi Susan. I do not know much about it, really. From the little research I have done, it seems that what is available is highly processed and also contains added sweeteners. ~Amy

  13. Great post! Our family doesn’t do any artificial anything…at least knowingly…but it’s hard to keep track sometimes, because it seems like everything has something artificial in it – including chewing gum. Amazing! It’s a great reminder that we have to be more diligent in what we buy…buying or not buying is making a statement or “voicing” our approval/disapproval.

  14. I had a dear friend of mine die of Pancreatic Cancer over a decade ago. Despite being a surgical nurse, she was a diet-soda addict. I’m not sure how we (mutual friends) ended up making the connection, but I swore the stuff off way back then and haven’t looked back.

    1. Mrs. Fuller,

      Thanks for sharing!! I also had a friend who was obese & she started eating ONLY “diet” foods plus she exercised she did lose a good bit of weight but she was on a strict caloric intake type diet also using ONLY these DIET products. Your comment helped me put two and two together and it makes perfect sense….but when my friend went through this she also at the same time got sooo sick & ended up in the hospital & almost dying from pancreas problems. She was out of work forever and suffered financial issues from this as well….looking back it had to be all of the DIET products making her sick!! I haven’t talked to her in a while but I can’t wait to talk with her to see if she had made any connections with the DIET products causing her problems. On a side coincidental note, I know another “Mrs. Fuller” as she was my daughters science teacher in their high school & she was both their favorite teachers!! Thanks!

  15. THANK you for posting this. I lost my Mom to Leukemia/Lymphoma a few years ago and even then, they suspected artificial sweeteners and other processed foods (as well as medications and exposure to radiation through x-rays and such) as a cause for what my mom had. Ever since then, we have been anti-artificial sweetener. Sometimes, obviously, we do not catch it in things but do the best we can.

    People think I’m nuts but I’ve seen the long term effects of these type of substances. I’ll stick to food without it thank you!

  16. It’s so frustrating how most people aren’t bothered by this. “Oh, I’ve heard that, but I just can’t live without my diet Coke!” They do such a magnificent job of lying/marketing.

  17. Question: if it is stevia in the liquid form is it safer then? I have my tea sweet and use stevia to sweeten in but I’m just not sure if any other sweeteners besides honey, which has too many calories for me.
    Another questions I have is, I bake cupcakes and cookies etc for my children’s birthdays holidays etc., and I wonder what can I use in place of regular sugar or brown sugar? I’ve made muffins with honey but some children I know are allergic so I can’t always rely on that. What do you suggest when baking sweets?

      1. Okay..thank you. And I can substitute coconut sugar for regur sugar in anything?? We do not have a Kroger or a whole foods where I live but we do have a Publix and one natural
        Heath food store. Maybe I can find it there. Thanks!

      2. I’m pretty sure it’s a 1:1 substitute. I remember the ratio being on the coconut sugar bag. I’ve never been to a Publix, but Kroger is our mainstream grocery store. It carries lots of natural alternatives now-a-days, so I’m sure many mainstream stores do. Coconut sugar is more expensive at Whole Foods than at Kroger. It’s not cheap, but quality food rarely is. It’s still sugar…so moderation is key, but I have used it with great success in baking. I also use cane sugar in baking. And honey (as you noted). It’s actually rare that I use cane sugar, and I never ever use white sugar anymore. Ever. There are definitely great substitutions out there for white sugar!:)

  18. Can anyone recommend a good fever reducer for kids that doesnt have sucralose in it? My little guy was recently sick, and all the acetaminophen & ibuprofen at my local pharmacy had some sort of artificial sweetner in it.

    1. Jen, the “wet sock treatment” definitely has no sucralose in it! I’ve used it on my son (he was 16 months at the time) and it is very effective for breaking a fever. First, wet some cotton socks in cold water, put them on and cover them up with dry wool socks. Google this for some more specific instructions. This way you also avoid having to use ibuprofen or acetaminophen. Win-win!

    2. Assistant to 100 Days (Amy)

      Hi Jen. I am not aware of an OTC child’s fever reducer that does not have an artificial sweetener, only dye free. ~Amy

  19. Before I started clean eating, I could not find a single brand of hot cocoa mix in my grocery store that did not have sucralose in it. Even the ones with sugar in it had added sucralose!

    1. Darla, at Costco the other day I saw Carnation Simply Hot Chocolate. It has only five ingredients, none of which are an artificial sweetener or soy! Cocoa, sugar, milk ingredients, vanilla and salt. A step in the right direction, at least!

  20. This information needs to be out there. We avoid artificial sweeteners at all costs. My husband interned years ago at Frito Lay and these sorts of things are definitely not created by foodies or chefs, all chemical engineers. Yuck!! He said if everyone got to see inside these plants then we would all be avoiding it. They only create/sell it because folks buy it.

  21. I’m wondering what you think of the new monkfruit sweetener. I realize it’s ultra processed, but do you think it ranks closer to stevia than the other artificial sweeteners?

    1. Assistant to 100 Days (Amy)

      Hi Stephanie. Probably, but I’ve not done much research on it. I did notice that it is combined with dextrose. ~Amy

  22. I am so so glad you brought this up. People so often think that “sugar free” or “reduced sugar” means that nothing was added to sweeten the product – but this is so false! I get frustrated with my daughter’s preschool – they have a healthy food/no sweets policy, but on days when they do cooking projects they use things lIke “sugar free jello.” Gross! I’d so much rather she have sugar.

  23. Beware of agave. Unless you are very sure of where it comes from, all the research I’ve done on it says that it has actually been known to be corn syrup bottled with the label agave. I choose to stick to local honey and raw maple syrup….just in case.

    1. Assistant to 100 Days (Amy)

      Hi there. I’m just going to copy you on a reply I did above: “For healthy individuals (those without blood sugar conditions), we recommend using honey, maple syrup, and 100% fruit juice concentrate. Beyond that, keeping in mind that sugar is sugar and should be used in moderation, consider using small amounts of a less processed real sugar rather than turning to something artificial. Also, here is an post from Food Babe that helps sort out the issues with stevia: https://www.100daysofrealfood.com/2013/04/25/stevia-food-babe-investigates/. ” Hope that helps. ~Amy

    1. Assistant to 100 Days (Amy)

      Hi Christie. For healthy individuals (those without blood sugar conditions), we recommend using honey, maple syrup, and 100% fruit juice concentrate. Beyond that, keeping in mind that sugar is sugar and should be used in moderation, consider using small amounts of a less processed real sugar rather than turning to something artificial. Also, here is an post from Food Babe that helps sort out the issues with stevia: https://www.100daysofrealfood.com/2013/04/25/stevia-food-babe-investigates/. ~Amy

  24. I have to agree that even though the research has not been completely validated, my life is more important than cutting a few calories. I don’t completely stay clear from them, but they are a rare part of my diet. For those with diabetes, definitely consult your doctor for alternatives. However,I would suggest to exercise and eat healthy carbohydrates (vegetables and moderate to small quantities of fruit) with an occasional real dessert. This, with insulin and exercise would likely be enough to keep your blood glucose down.

  25. IMO, whether or not the studies cited are conclusive, why take the risk on artificial sweetners? I appreciate the work done here and am a strong advocate for “keeping it real”.

  26. I am in my late 50’s and was attributing my short term memory loss to my age. As soon as I stopped drinking Diet Coke, I found my memory was greatly improved.

  27. One thing I can say is this: For those who are metabolically challenged, stick with liquid Sucralose but keep in mind that you have to be mindful of how much you use each day. I have been on Keto for 7 months had have lost 55lbs so far and counting. I keep my calorie ratios at 70% fat (dairy, coconut, olive, macadamia, avocado, and animal), 25% protein (animal and plant), and 5% carbohydrates coming from fiber, vegetables and low glycemic fruits. As Insulin Resistant, I have lowered my A1C from 6.6 to 4.2 in a matter of 3 months.

    You can make all sorts of substitutes but the real focus here is real food. Steak, seafood, wild game, chicken, turkey, fish. Pair it with buttered vegetables (yes, real butter is heart healthy, not that processed margarine crap.) Bacon. Very Dark Chocolate. Berries. Heavy Cream – Shall I go on?

    If anyone is interested in losing weight, feeling better and doing it all just for the cost of weekly groceries, please visit http://www.reddit.com/r/keto.

    Seriously. Free. It’s a community of people who are looking to get well again through natural and very low carb eating. Feel free to read and if you want, sign up, which is also free to do.

    Unless you like paying Weight Watchers for something you can do on your own. That’s your decision to make.

    Diabetics, 100+lbs to lose to “Hey, I just want to lose a few pounds to trim up.” – C’mon over. Be polite, have a sense of humor and check us out. :) You won’t be disappointed. Read the FAQ for how to start out and ask questions.