Artificial Sugar vs. Real Sugar: What’s The Difference?

These days people are paying more attention to sugar intake both to achieve their goals of losing weight and for other health reasons. In light of this, companies are creating your favorite foods and treats in “diet” or “sugar-free” versions. These products often don’t taste the same (the after taste is a common difference), but for the most part, you get to satisfy your sweet tooth without the health effects or calories of their sugary counterparts. Many consumers view these options as healthier versions of the foods they enjoy, but what are all these added sweeteners and how does your body react to them?

The most common type of sugar is sucrose, also known as table sugar which comes from sugar cane and sugar beets. Other types of sugar include Galactose, Glucose, Lactose, Maltose, Sucrose, and Xylose (Silverman). Majority of these sugars are found in natural foods but what makes them potentially harmful and dense in calories is the addition of enzymes and changing the molecular arrangement. When making these changes you create what is commonly known as high-fructose corn syrup. The risk that comes with eating excess amounts of foods containing this modified sugar is weight gain and damage to internal organs such as your liver. The liver is the only organ that can metabolize fructose in significant amounts. When your liver gets overloaded, it turns the fructose into fat. There are ways to avoid these effects such as using sugar substitutes. 

Sugar substitutes are sweeteners used in place of regular table sugar (sucrose). One of the most common sugar substitutes is an artificial sweetener. Although they are called artificial sweeteners many come from natural substances, such as herbs or sugar itself. 

Common artificial sweeteners include;

  • Acesulfame Potassium (Sunnett, Sweet One)
  • Aspartame (Nutrasweet, Equal)
  • Neotame 
  • Saccharin (Sweet ‘N Low, Sweet Twin, Sugar Twin)
  • Sucralose (Splenda)
  • Stevia/Rebaudioside (A Sweet Leaf, Sun Crystals, Steviva, Truvia, PureVia)

These sweeteners are most commonly used in processed foods such as. 

  • Soft drinks, powdered drink mixes, and other beverages
  • Baked goods
  • Candy
  • Puddings
  • Canned foods
  • Jams and jellies
  • Dairy products

Adding artificial sweeteners to certain processed goods is what allows companies to be able to label certain products as “diet” and “sugar-free”. Like most things you use, there are always benefits and disadvantages. 

According to the article “Pros and Cons of Artificial Sweeteners.” written by Mayo Clinic staff, using artificial sweeteners aid with;

  • Weight control. These sweeteners have virtually no calories. To put into perspective 1 teaspoon of sugar has 16 calories. So if one of your favorite drinks has 12 teaspoons of sugar, your saving 192 calories by drinking a diet version. One thing that is uncertain when it comes to weight loss is the long-term effectiveness (Pruthi).
  • Diabetes. Unlike real sugar, artificial sweeteners are not carbohydrates so these sugars do not typically raise blood sugar levels(Pruthi).

Just like anything else you consume you can always consume too much. A common problem is consumers believe that because there is no sugar they can eat more servings than suggested. However, low sugar doesn’t always mean low in calories. Extra calories from overindulging in these products will add up and ultimately hinder your weight-loss progress. Also, a recent study from the University of Texas-San Antonio suggests that consuming large amounts of these sweeteners can cause the consumer to crave processed foods with empty calories as opposed to whole nutrition-dense foods (Regoli). 

How does the body process, artificial sweeteners? Our brain and digestive systems react differently when artificial sugars are consumed. When eating sugar we typically feel good. We get excited to have cookies, brownies, ice cream and we feel happy when eating these sweets. The reason we feel that way is because sugar opens are “Reward Pathways” also known as series of connections in the brain that deliver neurotransmitters that release chemicals such as dopamine (Myuz). When consuming artificial sweeteners these pathways are only partially open. This tricks the brain which could potentially lead to overeating of foods with a higher calorie count due to increased cravings and not feeling fully satisfied.

Not only does it affect our brain processes sugars but how these sweeteners are digested is different as well. When digesting real table sugar, it enters your bloodstream once it is consumed and increases your blood sugar levels. This is when our pancreas releases insulin to regulate these levels. Once regulated the pancreas turns the sugars into something our bodies can use. The problem with artificial sweeteners is that they do not increase blood sugar levels leaving the pancreas with nothing to respond to. Over time this can lead to changes in other organ functions and can affect your metabolism (Myuz).

With that all being said, artificial sweeteners can be a great alternative to consuming real sugar. Just like most things, they should be consumed in moderation. Over consuming these sweeteners is what will lead to these drastic body function changes and could lead to the concerns discussed earlier. One thing to remember also is that consuming real table sugar is ok too. What your decision comes down to is what option best suits your goals and the outcome you’re wanting to achieve. If your goal allows you to have a double scoop of chocolate cookie dough ice cream go for it! If not just stick to some sugar-free Jell-O.

Myuz, Hunter, and Michael Hout. “Trick or Treat? How Artificial Sweeteners Affect the Brain and Body.” Frontiers for Young Minds, Frontiers Media S.A., 29 Mar. 2019, https://kids.frontiersin.org/article/10.3389/frym.2019.00051#KC5.

“Pros and Cons of Artificial Sweeteners.” Mayo Clinic, Mayo Foundation for Medical Education and Research, 25 Sept. 2018, https://www.mayoclinic.org/healthy-lifestyle/nutrition-and-healthy-eating/in-depth/artificial-sweeteners/art-20046936.

Regoli, Natalie. “18 Advantages and Disadvantages of Artificial Sweeteners.” ConnectUS, 22 May 2019, https://connectusfund.org/7-advantages-and-disadvantages-of-artificial-sweeteners.

Silverman, Jacob. “How Sugar Works.” HowStuffWorks Science, HowStuffWorks, 12 Mar. 2019, https://science.howstuffworks.com/innovation/edible-innovations/sugar1.htm.