Go to any diner or deli, and you'll likely see a container filled with white, pink and yellow packets on your table. Those little yellow packets are filled with Splenda, the brand name for the artificial sweetener sucralose. As the brand explains, this "fake sugar" is made from real sugar (sucrose) that has its three hydrogen-oxygen groups replaced with chlorine atoms.
The result? "Sucralose doesn't have the digestibility properties that sugar has. Therefore, it passes through the body almost undigested," explains Kristin Kirkpatrick, R.D., manager of wellness nutrition services at the Cleveland Clinic Wellness Institute. Splenda notes that 85 percent of the sweetener isn't absorbed by the body. The sweetener contains no calories or carbohydrates either, but it is about 600 times sweeter than table sugar.
In recent years, nutrition-conscious consumers have been pushing for natural calorie-free sweeteners. The fact that sucralose comes from regular sugar may make it sound like it's natural. However, sucralose is not considered a natural sugar—it's an artificial one.
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Sucralose is a versatile sweetener, so you'll find it sweetening up many foods, including diet drinks, chewing gum, gelatin and frozen desserts. It's also heat-stable, making it suitable for cooking and sugar-free baking, notes Kirkpatrick. That means you won't just find it in those little packets to add to coffee, but you can also buy a bag of granulated sucralose at the grocery store to use in recipes at home.
Follow the directions when you're cooking with the artificial sugar instead of simply sweetening coffee or tea. For instance, when baking, use 1/2 cup of sucralose for 1 cup of regular white sugar in your recipe.
For one, Splenda says that their sucralose tastes the most like sugar without the bitter aftertaste of other artificial sweeteners, so many people may be choosing it for the flavor. Plus, it holds up to heat, whereas some other sweeteners don't, making it easier to incorporate in foods.
People turn to calorie-free options when trying to lose weight. Those with type 2 diabetes may also sub artificial sweeteners for regular sugar when they want to eat something sweet without affecting their blood sugar.
The American Heart Association (AHA) recommends limiting foods with added sugars and says that one way to reduce calorie intake is to replace regular sugar with artificial sources, like sucralose. That said, the AHA points out the limitations of this—namely, that it's not clear if using these sweeteners actually helps someone eat fewer calories or they simply reward themselves with additional food later in the day.
The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) notes that more than 110 safety studies on sucralose led the organization to approve its use in 1998. That said, even though your body may not absorb calories from sucralose, that doesn't necessarily mean that nothing happens after you consume it.
In fact, 2013 research points out that some parts of sucralose may be metabolized in the digestive tract, which can lead to a variety of health problems. That's why many experts like Kirkpatrick don't recommend their patients use sucralose.
"Officially, sucralose is considered safe by the FDA. However, multiple studies show concern for how sucralose may negatively impact gut microbiota, insulin levels and weight," she says.
Recent mouse studies also link Splenda to gut inflammation in mice with Crohn's disease (an inflammatory bowel disease), notes Kirkpatrick. Of course, these are animal studies, so they're limited in what they can tell us about potential risks in humans.
Kirkpatrick also points to a 2017 study in the Canadian Medical Association Journal that reviewed the data on artificial sweeteners like sucralose and aspartame and concluded that the evidence doesn't prove that these sweeteners can actually help with weight loss. In fact, they may do the opposite. More alarmingly, the researchers point out that regularly eating these sweeteners is associated with an increased risk of high blood pressure, metabolic syndrome, type 2 diabetes and heart problems.
Certainly, the International Sweeteners Association disagrees with the conclusion of that study, stating that the data relied on—from observational cohort studies—aren't a reliable way to assess risk of health outcomes. It's important to speak with your doctor about what's right for you.
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People also switch to noncaloric sweeteners to reduce their desire for the sweet stuff, but that belief doesn't make sense, Kirkpatrick says.
"Sucralose is excessively sweeter than regular sugar and will continue to deliver that sweet sensation to the tongue," she says. "I often tell patients that swapping any artificial sweetener for the real stuff is like cutting a cigarette habit by taking on cigars instead," she says.
A better alternative when you're craving sweets is to choose sweet-tasting fruits and vegetables (starchy picks like sweet potatoes), which deliver a gentle sweetness with vitamins, minerals and digestion-slowing fiber, she says.
Other ways to keep your sweet tooth in check? Gradually reduce the amount of sweetened foods you eat. If you normally buy flavored yogurt with added sugar, start stirring in some plain yogurt to cut the sweetness. If you put ketchup on everything, consider going for mustard instead or using it less often. Try these 6 swaps to slash added sugar from your diet.