The Skinny on Alternative Sweeteners

candy in bins by Matt Schwartz
Matt Schwartz

Most Americans are eating 122 grams of sugar per day or more, rather than the 30-45 grams most experts recommend.

With the sweet fructose that makes up 50% of sugar linked to increased rates of obesity, diabetes, stroke, heart disease, and even Alzheimer’s, it’s no wonder that many people are turning to alternative sweeteners to replace it. But are they any safer?

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Type of sugar: Sugar alcohols

  • Other names: Erithrytol, glycerol, isomalt, lactitol, maltitol, mannitol, xylitol
  • Origins: Refined from various plants, including corn, mushrooms, and plums.
  • Health concerns: With the exception of erythritol, can cause bloating, diarrhea, and flatulence when consumed in large quantities. Xylitol is known for contributing to dental health, and some studies say it may help combat osteoporosis.
  • Fructose Content: 0%
  • Green America says: A best option in moderation (under 20 grams a day). Avoid if you have irritable bowel syndrome.

Type of Sugar: Honey 

  • Other names: none
  • Origins: Beehives. Can be purchased from local beekeepers or stores that import it from as far away as China.
  • Health concerns: Because of its high fructose content, honey has the same health risks as sugar. It also contains trace minerals and has antibacterial properties. Honey from China may contain lead.
  • Fructose content: 40%
  • Green America says: Organic or local honey is a best option in moderation.

Type of Sugar: Agave Nectar 

  • Other names: none
  • Origins: Agave grows in Mexico, the Southwestern US, and parts of South America.
  • Health concerns: Highly processed agave can contain fructose levels nearly twice that of table sugar. Raw agave has trace amounts of beneficial minerals and fiber. Its fructose level is only slightly higher than that in table sugar. There is no evidence that either processed or raw agave contains harmful components besides fructose.
  • Fructose Content: Processed: up to 90% Raw: 55%
  • Green America says: Raw, organic agave is a good option in moderation. With slightly higher fructose content than refined sugar, raw agave is linked to the same health issues.

Type of Sugar: Raw Cane Sugar

  • Other names: Demerara, muscovado, turbinado
  • Origins: Extracted from sugar cane.
  • Health concerns: Contains the same amount of fructose as table sugar, but has trace minerals, vitamins, and fiber that have been refined out of table sugar.
  • Fructose content: 50%
  • Green America says: Only slightly preferable to refined sugar. With the same fructose content as refined cane sugar, raw sugar is linked to the same health problems. Consume in moderation.

Type of Sugar: Stevia

  • Other names: Rebiana, rebaudioside A, PureVia, SweetLeaf, Truvia
  • Origins: Refined into powder from the stevia rebaudiana plant. Also available in whole-leaf form.
  • Health concerns: UCLA researchers raised concerns in 2008 about stevia’s possible ability to cause mutations in DNA at high levels. High amounts of stevia have resulted in reproductive harm to rodents. These results aren’t conclusive and haven’t yet been demonstrated in humans. Powdered stevia is highly processed.
  • Fructose content: 0%
  • Green America says: The FDA has not approved wholeleaf stevia for use in food. Given the lack of safety data on all types of stevia, avoid or at least limit it.

Type of Sugar: Luo Han Guo Extract

  • Other names: Luo Han Kuo extract, monkfruit extract, mongrosides
  • Origins: Refined from the luo han guo fruit, which grows in China.
  • Health concerns: Several studies point to beneficial health effects of chemical compounds in the extract called “mongrosides,” such as the ability to inhibit hyperglycemia and tumor growth. Little research exists on the long-term safety of mongrosides.
  • Fructose Concert: 0%
  • Green America says: Probably not the most dangerous sweetener available, but given the lack of research, avoid it.

Type of Sugar: High Fructose Corn Syrup

  • Other names: HFCS, corn sugar
  • Origins: Processed from corn that is often genetically modified.
  • Health concerns: Glucose molecules have been changed to fructose to increase sweetness. 5% more fructose than sugar, which is the compound of conern that's linked to health problems. Both HFCS and sugar from sugar beets are derived from genetically modified organisms.
  • Fructose Content: 55%
  • Green America says: Because of the high fructose levels and potential health risks of GMOs, avoid it.

Type of Sugar: Sucralose

  • Other namesL Splenda
  • Origins: A chemical formed by combining sugar with chlorine, so most of it passes through the body undigested.
  • Health concerns: Most studies point to Splenda as fairly safe in moderation. A 2002 study in the Journal of Mutational Research found that extraordinarily high doses were linked to DNA damage in mice. However, Splenda is one of two artificial sweeteners which the CSPI lists as safe.
  • Fructose content: 0%
  • Green America says: The Center for Science in the Public Interest lists as safe. However, Green America recommends avoiding most artificial, chemically processed sweeteners.

Type of Sugar: Neotame 

  • Other names: none
  • Origins: A complex chemical process including many of the same components as aspartame.
  • Health concerns: At this time, research points to it being safe in moderate doses. Consumers don’t always have a choice as to whether to avoid neotame or not: Due to the small doses needed to achieve sweetness, it doesn’t always have to be listed on the ingredient labels, even on organic food.
  • Fructose content: 0%
  • Green America says: The Center for Science in the Public Interest lists as safe. However, Green America recommend avoiding it due to the lack of independent safety testing.

Type of Sugar: Aspartame

  • Other names: Equal, NutraSweet
  • Origins: A complex chemical process involving amino acids and bacteria.
  • Health concerns: A number of rodent studies have found that it may cause cancer, including a 2007 and a 2012 study from Brigham and Women’s Hospital of lifetime soda consumption in men and women found a small link between diet soda and cancer risk and recommended “further research.”
  • Fructose content: 0%
  • Green America says: Although the FDA considers aspartame to be safe, a link between aspartame and cancer is considered still possible by some scientists. Avoid it.

Type of Sugar: Saccharin

  • Other names: Benzoic sulfilimine, Sweet & Low
  • Origins: A complex chemical process.
  • Health concerns: Saccharin has been established as a cause of bladder cancer in rats, but the link between it and cancer in humans hasn’t been proven.
  • Fructose Content: 0%
  • Green America says: Any evidence linking saccharin to cancer is cause for concern. Avoid.






From Green American Magazine Issue