We love our sweet treats – but traditional desserts, sugary beverages, and even fruit juices and fruit snacks can be loaded with added sugar. Studies show that too much sugar can lead to serious health problems, including high blood pressure, type 2 diabetes, and an increased risk for heart disease and stroke.

One way that we try to cut down on our sugar intake is by using sugar substitutes like Stevia, Splenda, and sugar alcohol. But are these “healthy” sugar substitutes really better for us than added sugar?

Added Sugar, Natural Sugars, and Sugar Substitutes

Sugar occurs in both natural and added forms. We find natural sugars in whole fruits (called fructose) and dairy products (lactose).

The term “added sugar” refers to the practice of adding sugar to different foods before cooking, processing, or eating. On the ingredient list, added sugar sources might appear as granulated sugar, high fructose corn syrup, brown sugar, molasses, fruit juice concentrates, and any ingredient that ends in “-ose,” such as maltose or dextrose.

Sugar substitutes are the sweeteners we use in place of added sugars, and because they aren’t technically granulated sugar, it can be easy to classify them as healthy. They’re also typically zero-calorie and zero-carb, making them a more attractive alternative.

Common sugar substitutes include:

  • Aspartame
  • Stevia
  • Saccharin
  • Sugar alcohols, like xylitol or sorbitol

Sugar Substitutes and Blood Glucose

Since many sources of added sugar are simple carbohydrates, eating too much sugar can quickly raise our blood sugar and increase our risk of chronic diseases like type 2 diabetes over time.

Because we don’t associate sugar substitutes with the cane sugar that we think of when we mention “added sugar,” it can be easy to pass off sugar substitutes as healthy, glucose-friendly alternatives.

But some foods that people consider sugar “substitutes” are actually forms of added sugar themselves or may be just as harmful to our health.

Honey and agave nectar are common examples of this. Many people treat honey and agave as sugar substitutes, but they’re actually sources of added sugar.

Honey might be more nutrient-dense than table sugar, but it packs more calories per tablespoon and has similar effects on blood sugar levels.

Agave nectar, which is very similar to honey, is made mostly of fructose. Higher fructose intake can increase your risk of insulin resistance – which can lead to higher glucose levels over time.

And aspartame is common at your favorite coffee shop next to the sugar packets, favored by many as a zero-calorie alternative to sugar and other sweeteners. However, some studies show that aspartame did not improve weight loss rates and actually lowered HDL cholesterol (the good kind) over time – which can increase the risk of heart disease.

Before you choose a sugar substitute, do your research first and to read the nutrition label. What can this ingredient do to your health, and how much sugar is actually in the food?

Smart Ways to Enjoy Sweets

If you’re looking for a way to add a bit of sweetness to your foods and drinks, stick to the naturally sweet stuff. Whole fruits can add a burst of flavor to plain drinking water, and can make some filling, nutritious desserts (baked apples with cinnamon, anyone?).

Added sugar can be hard to avoid on a day-to-day basis – so it’s important to watch how much you take in. The American Heart Association recommends limiting added sugar to no more than 9 teaspoons per day for men, and 6 teaspoons per day for women.

While sugar substitutes and other forms of sweeteners may seem healthy, they could have negative effects as well. Honey, agave, and, of course, granulated sugar, high fructose corn syrup, and brown sugar can all be harmful to our health – both in the short and long terms.

Find the best naturally sweet treats and sugar substitutes for you by testing your glucose responses to different foods and sweeteners!

Your blood sugar might climb super high when you have some honey in your tea, but it might stay stable when you use a bit of xylitol instead.

Make smarter choices by keeping an eye on your unique glucose responses, and remember to limit your daily intake of added sugar.