A Buyer's Guide to Sugar Substitutes
The good, the bad and the unacceptable.
Here’s a rundown of some FDA-cleared sweeteners—which have also earned the go-ahead from major health organizations, like the American Heart Association. To get FDA approval, manufacturers must submit dozens of tests to prove safety, and establish maximum intake levels (called Acceptable Daily Intake, or ADI). However, some groups, like the Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI), quibble with the quality of these studies, which are usually conducted by the manufacturers themselves, or companies they hire. A handful of sweeteners, such as stevia leaf extract, are classified by the FDA as GRAS—Generally Recognized as Safe. Even though “natural” sugar substitutes like these are often perceived as healthier options, GRAS sugar substitutes usually don’t have as much safety data as approved additives. And with the science changing all the time, it’s worth using any of them sparingly. See the guide below for information about each sweetener.
“NATURAL” SWEETENERS: Stevia Leaf Extract (Rebiana)
• Stevia in the Raw
Regulatory status = FDA GRAS status
ADI for adults (number of packets) = 9 packets
Where you’ll find it
Tabletop sweeteners (also sold in blends with sugar, such as PureVia or Born Sweet Zing, at 8 to 10 calories per teaspoon).
Coveted as a natural alternative sweetener, this no-cal extract from the leafy, green stevia plant has a licorice-y, slightly bitter aftertaste, so it often appears in blends. The FDA has only approved highly purified stevia extracts (Rebaudioside A, or Reb A) for use as sweeteners, because safety data is lacking on whole-leaf stevia’s effects on the cardiovascular, urinary and reproductive systems. Whole stevia leaves, or products containing “crude stevia extracts” or “whole leaf stevia”—which are sold at some health-food stores—are not approved by the FDA.