Sugar-Free – Is there more behind the label?

It’s no surprise that we automatically reach for the “sugar-free” food or beverage on the shelf in a bid to be healthier. But before that, read on to understand the true meaning behind the term “sugar-free” and learn to make informed choices.

What are sugar substitutes?

Any form of sweetener that is used to replace table sugar (sucrose) can be termed as a sugar substitute. These sugar substitutes can be classified into two categories – natural & artificial sweetener.

·       Natural sweeteners

These sugar substitutes are often promoted as healthier options, but often undergo processing and refining as well. Common natural sweeteners include:

- Coconut sugar

- Honey

- Molasses

- Maple syrup

- Palm sugar

While these natural sweeteners are touted as healthy due to the additional nutrient content, they contain the same amount of calories and are absorbed the same way as regular sugar, hence raising blood sugar levels. Hence. intake of these sweeteners should be considered the same as table sugar.

·      Low-calorie sweeteners

These sugar substitutes are usually derived from plants.  While the sweetness receptors on our taste buds recognize these sweeteners as sweet-tasting, they are not broken down and are absorbed by our body differently as compared to sugar, due to the different structure. Hence, these sweeteners provide a sweet taste with much less calories, and without negative consequences on blood sugar levels.

While these sweeteners do contain calories, they are usually labelled as “zero-calorie” because they provide intense sweetness with usage at just a small amount of negligible calories.

Popular non-nutritive sweeteners include:

- Erythritol

- Allulose

- Monk fruit sweetener

- Xylitol

- Stevia 

While low-calorie sugar substitutes are beneficial for weight management and diabetics as they are low in calories and do not raise blood sugar levels, studies have raised possible health concerns:

1.     Increased Appetite & Cravings for Sugar

Regularly consuming sweetened food products, even if they have been substituted with sugar substitute, may increase appetite and cravings for sweet foods in general. Increased consumption of these foods may also displace intake of natural foods, which are lower in calories and nutrient-dense. In the long run, frequent intake can lead to weight gain and malnutrition.

2.     Gut Health

Maintain a healthy gut by having the right balance of good and bad bacteria composition is key towards optimal physical and mental health. The composition of gut bacteria varies by individual and is affected by lifestyle habits. Sugar substitutes have been found to reduce the composition of beneficial bacteria. In some studies, sugar substitutes also disrupted the gut bacteria balance and caused poorer blood sugar control among consumers.

Moderation and Shopping Smart is Key:

Sugar substitutes are beneficial if you are trying to gradually reduce sugar intake and manage weight. However, it is important to generally reduce sweetness levels of foods and minimize consumption of both sugar and sugar substitutes. Instead, whole foods such as fruits, vegetables, grains and protein should be the basis of your diet as well, rather than processed foods.

At the same time, read food labels carefully and understand the meaning behind it:

- No sugar or sugar-free: The product does not contain sugar, but may contain natural or artificial sweeteners and sugar alcohol.

- No added sugar: No extra sugar was added during processing. However, the original source might have contained sugar (for example: fructose in fruit juice). Sugar substitutes may have also been added.


Zuanne, Nutritionist
Anna Hoo Clinic


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