What to Know About ‘Low Sugar’ Foods

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Sally Kuzemchak, MS, RD - Blogs

Registered dietitianAUGUST 18, 2020

Ever bought a “low sugar” instant oatmeal or “less sugar” soda in an effort to cut back on the sweet stuff? Those products were probably sweetened with a combination of a regular sweetener like sugar and no- and low-calorie sweeteners like sucralose or stevia. It’s a combo that lets manufacturers reduce the total sugar but keep the sweet flavor–while masking the bitter aftertaste that some sugar substitutes can have.

Sales of foods and drinks like this are on the rise, according to a new study. Between 2002 and 2018, sales of products sweetened with both regular sweeteners and sugar substitutes increased 30 percent, according to the researchers. Products containing rebaudioside A (like stevia) and sucralose (brand name Splenda) saw the biggest jumps, while older sweeteners such as aspartame and saccharin declined.

Sweeteners like sucralose and aspartame are intensely sweet but contribute either no calories or very few. As a group, they’re sometimes referred to as “artificial” sweeteners, but since some (like stevia) come from a plant source, that’s not entirely accurate. So they’re often called “non-nutritive” sweeteners instead.

In the study, beverages were the most commonly purchased item made with both regular and non-nutritive sweeteners, but I’ve also seen this duo in other products like instant oatmeal packets and dried cranberries.

There’s no doubt that non-nutritive sweeteners are controversial. The FDA says they’re safe, but the internet is full of scary personal anecdotes. It doesn’t help that the scientific evidence is confusing too. Some studies have linked them to increased risk for overweight and type 2 diabetes, while other studies have found the opposite.

As a dietitian, I think non-nutritive sweeteners can be useful to some people–for example, those with diabetes who need help with blood sugar control but don’t want to give up soda. But if you’re looking to these sweeteners for weight loss, it’s less clear whether they’re helpful or not.

What about the personal stories swirling around these sweeteners? If you have negative reactions like headaches or bloating after consuming them, it makes sense to avoid something that doesn’t agree with you. On the flip side, if you enjoy a packet of Splenda in your morning coffee without issue, that’s fine too.

What I worry more about is the constant desire for sweet foods and drinks. When you’re used to sweet drinks, plain water or even lightly-sweetened drinks may lose their appeal. Ditto for naturally sweet foods like fruits and vegetables.

While I’m happy that companies want to use less sugar in their products, I wish they’d simply reduce the overall sweetness a bit instead of swapping some or all the sugar for sugar substitutes. Then perhaps our collective taste buds would adapt and come to like a more subtle sweetness.

Since I’m not a fan of the flavor of non-nutritive sweeteners (even when they’re paired with sugar), I try to avoid them. But it’s not always clear from the front of the package that a product contains them. Phrases like “lower in sugar” and “less sugar” are clues. But to know for sure, you’ll need to flip over the package and check the ingredient list for terms like sucralose, acesulfame potassium, and saccharin.


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