Added Sugar and Artificial Sweeteners: What You Need to Know

Sugar, especially glucose, is important for our body. Our cells use sugar for energy, and our brain primarily runs on glucose, keeping us awake and alert, says UNC Health Rex Cancer Care clinical dietitian Jillian Reece, MS, RD, LDN. But experts agree we’re getting too much of it.

American adults consume 17 teaspoons of added sugar a day, which is more than twice what is recommended for good health. Extra sugar adds unnecessary calories and taxes the body, increasing the risk for obesity, type 2 diabetes and heart disease.

People often use artificial sweeteners to lower their calorie intake, Reece says, but there are conflicting reports about whether they’re good for us. Most recently, the news has focused on aspartame (NutraSweet, Equal) and sucralose (Splenda). Is a little bit safe? Can you use it every day?

Some studies indicate that artificial sweeteners may actually increase calorie intake and cravings for more sweets. Other studies suggest that artificial sweeteners may lead to increased risk of developing type 2 diabetes and affect our gut microbiome.

Much of this research is based on animal studies, and the impact on humans is not clear, Reece says.

What is clear, she says, is that there are ways to reduce calories and satisfy your sweet tooth without adding sugar or artificial sweeteners.

Taste the Natural Sweetness of Fruits and Veggies

Lots of foods are naturally sweet, Reece says, but we may not recognize it if our taste buds are accustomed to foods that have added sugars or artificial sweeteners.

“The more you reduce your sugar intake, the less you’ll crave it,” she says. “It may be difficult at first, but soon you’ll start tasting the sugars present in fruits and vegetables.”

Look for fruits such as strawberries, watermelon, cantaloupe, mangoes, honeydew melons, bananas, grapes and peaches.

“Apples are sweet,” she says, “especially certain varieties, like Fuji and Honeycrisp. Some others are tart but still have sweetness.”

Vegetables such as carrots, sweet potatoes, bell peppers, sugar snap peas and corn can add sweetness to meals or be enjoyed on their own.

Sweeten Beverages Naturally

If you prefer beverages with more flavor than plain water, tea or coffee, you have options besides sugar or artificial sweeteners.

“Flavor your beverages with fruits or herbs,” Reece says. “Try lemon slices in water or tea. Or add cucumber and mint or strawberry and basil.”

Frozen chopped fruits can be a flavorful addition, used like ice cubes in water.

Keep Your Blood Sugar Levels in Balance

Making smart food choices can keep your body in balance and save it from having to work so hard against blood sugar spikes.

Adding whole grains or protein to a sweet fruit or vegetable can prevent the sugars from entering the bloodstream as quickly. The energy lasts longer, and you are less likely to get a spike in blood sugar.

“If you’re having an apple, put peanut butter on it,” Reece says. “If you want oatmeal in the morning, add nuts or seeds with fruit—fresh, dried or frozen.”

If you are using canned or frozen fruits, choose those packaged in natural syrup instead of heavy syrup, which can be loaded with added sugar. “Make a habit of looking at the nutrition labels on processed foods,” she says.

Eating the skin or peel of a fruit or vegetable gives you additional fiber, which slows down sugar absorption.

Extra sugar lurks in packaged flavored yogurt and granolas, so try adding fruits to unsweetened plain yogurt or making your own granola using whole grains, nuts and seeds.

Balance home-cooked meals as much as possible by including lean meat, vegetables, fruits and whole grains, she says. “When you go out to eat, try to keep your meal balanced, too,” she adds. “A lot of restaurants, even fast-food places, have fruit and vegetable options.”

The key to limiting sugar and artificial sweeteners is planning ahead. “It’s hard to make good nutrition decisions when you’re hungry,” she says. “Think about your choices ahead of time, so in the moment you’ll make better decisions.”

Get more nutrition tips from UNC and Rex Wellness dietitians through a monthly Food for Thought webinar series.