From aspartame to sucralose to xylitol, there are many different types and brand names for artificial sweeteners. Here are tips for spotting them.

By Rania Batayneh, MPH
October 24, 2019

Reading food labels is tougher than ever. As consumers become more and more health-conscious, food manufacturers have found ways to deceive or mislead them: making serving sizes ridiculously small, for example, so that calorie counts look super low; or using multiple types of sugar so that each type shows up lower on the ingredients list. Plus, food labeling regulations can be complex, difficult to understand, and-ever changing—making nutrition panels even more difficult to decipher.

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Artificial sweeteners in particular can be difficult to spot. In the past, foods labeled "diet" or "sugar-free" were where they were usually found. Now many more food products are hiding the sweet stuff. There are many different types of sugar substitutes: high-intensity sweeteners include aspartame, sucralose, neotame, acesulfame potassium, and advantame (along with numerous brand name products for each); plant-based high intensity-sweeteners obtained from either stevia or monk fruit, and sugar alcohols like sorbitol, xylitol, and lactitol. In addition to scanning ingredient labels for these names (and Googling unfamiliar ingredients), here are some tips to help you spot artificial sugars as you shop for groceries.

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Consider the type of food.

If the food seems like it should contain more calories or grams of sugar than it states, it probably contains artificial sweeteners. A whole pint of ice cream with only 280 calories? A cupcake with three grams of sugar? Check the ingredients label.

Is there an aftertaste?

If a product has a weird aftertaste, it leaves a bitter or metallic taste in your mouth or it tastes vaguely of chemicals—check the ingredients label.

Watch out for these buzzwords.

If a food is marketed as "diet" or "sugar-free," or if the brand itself alludes to being low in carbs or sugar, it probably relies on artificial sweeteners for its sugary taste. For example, sugar-free ice cream (come on now!).

Understand what it all means.

As far as the healthfulness of these products goes, that's up for debate. While some argue that they're perfectly safe—and even a healthy choice for many people—others argue that their use contributes to weight gain, metabolic syndrome, and increased insulin resistance, gut inflammation, and addictive eating patterns. As of now, there is no clear benefit to using artificial sweeteners, but there are some long-term studies that at the very least might be concerning for people who use them regularly.

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