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Food for Thought Food for Thought

The Sweet and Sour Facts About Sweeteners

October 23, 2014

By Yvette Penner, B.S.
Brigham and Women's Hospital

The U.S. government recently decided that high fructose corn syrup cannot be called "corn sugar." This brings sweeteners — and confusion about sweeteners — into the spotlight. Here are the facts, benefits and potential risks of sugar, high fructose corn syrup and artificial sweeteners.

What's the Difference Between Them?

Sugar is also called sucrose or table sugar. It's made of small solid crystals that come from sugar cane plants or sugar beets. The beets are soaked in hot water to separate out the sugar.

A sucrose crystal is made of two smaller sugar crystals: glucose and fructose (the sugar found in fruits). This means that sucrose is 50% glucose and 50% fructose.

Sucrose can be white (table sugar) or brown (brown sugar). Molasses, honey, evaporated cane juice and maple syrup are liquid sugars. They are made from glucose and fructose, just as sucrose is. Agave is mostly made of fructose.

Every type of sugar is considered a carbohydrate and has calories.

High fructose corn syrup is a liquid sugar that is added to drinks, cookies, breads, dressings, sauces or other foods. In addition to sweetness, it adds texture.

To make the syrup some of the sugar from corn is changed into fructose. The end product is made of the same, small sugar crystals that sucrose is made of: glucose and fructose. Instead of being 50% fructose, as sucrose is, high fructose corn syrup is 55% fructose.

High fructose corn syrup is considered a carbohydrate. It has the same number of calories as table sugar. High fructose corn syrup is no better or worse than sugar for health. Both have calories, so both can cause weight gain.

Artificial sweeteners and sugar substitutes include Splenda (sucralose), Sweet'N low (saccharin), NutraSweet (aspartame), Equal (aspartame), Sweet One (asulfame-potassium), neotame, Purevia (stevia) and Truvia (stevia).

Artificial sweeteners are man-made. And they are 200 to 8,000 times sweeter than sugar. They are typically found in "diet," "light," and "no sugar-added" foods and drinks. Artificial sweeteners are much sweeter than sugar or high fructose corn syrup. So, you need a smaller amount to sweeten foods compared to sugar.

Artificial sweeteners do not add calories to foods so they do not cause weight gain. They have not been proven to be harmful to health.

Sugar alcohol includes the sweeteners sorbitol, xylitol, lactitol, mannitol and maltitol. They are typically used to sweeten sugar-free gums and candies. They only slightly raise blood sugar. Half of the sugar alcohol in a food should be counted as carbohydrate.

The American Dental Association reports that chewing gum with xylitol can help prevent cavities. But beware, sugar alcohols in large amounts are known to cause cramping and diarrhea, so people looking for no-sugar-added candies may prefer other artificial sweeteners instead.

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Which Sweetener Is the Healthiest?

No one type of sweetener is necessarily better than another. Some people like sugar, agave, molasses or honey best because the amounts of glucose and fructose are not changed. And they feel these sweeteners are the most natural. Some people choose artificial sweeteners so they don't gain weight, and can get better control of their blood sugars.

Overall, all sweeteners should be eaten in moderation as they are typically added to foods like soda, juice, cookies, and cakes. These have little nutritional value. The healthiest thing to do is to eat whole grains, vegetables, fruits, lean meats, low-fat dairy products, nuts and beans first. Then you have an occasional, small sweet treat.

The best natural sweetener is fruit. It's packed full of healthy vitamins, minerals, antioxidants, fiber and great taste.


Table sugar

High fructose corn syrup

Artificial sweeteners/sugar substitutes

Taken from sugar cane or sugar beets

50% fructose

Contains 4 calories for each gram of sugar

Made from corn

Chemical structure is changed so the end product is 55% fructose

Contains 4 calories for each gram of sugar


Best choice for people who need to watch their blood sugar

Found in "lite," "no-sugar added," "diet" and "sugar-free foods"

Has "0" calories

Can cause weight gain when eaten regularly

Can increase risk for diabetes and heart disease when eaten regularly

Can cause weight gain when eaten regularly

Can increase the risk for diabetes and heart disease when eaten regularly

Certain types are not approved for pregnant women

May cause weight gain, but has not been proven

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Sweet Ideas

Try these tastey treats:

  • Water with a slice of fruit
  • Plain yogurt with chopped fruit
  • Banana "ice cream"
    • Freeze bananas.
    • Mix bananas in blender until smooth and creamy.
    • Freeze in freezer until hard.
  • Almond cream with strawberries
    • Mix 1 cup part-skim ricotta cheese, vanilla Greek yogurt or plain Greek yogurt with 1/2 to 1 teaspoon of sugar or 1 teaspoon of artificial sweetener and ¼ teaspoon of almond extract.
    • Serve with fresh strawberries and sprinkle with slivered almonds.
  • Fruit salad
    • Chop up 3 to 4 fruits of your choice.
    • Mix together.

Disclaimer: This article is intended for a general adult audience. People with diabetes, pregnant or lactating women, and those concerned about sweeteners and young children should consult a registered dietitian or physician about specific recommendations when using sweeteners.

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Yvette Penner graduated from Cornell University with a B.S. in Nutritional Science. She is currently completing her dietetic internship at Brigham and Women's Hospital. She plans to become a registered dietitian.

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