• Karla Wolford

The sweet escape: no-calorie sugar substitutes - the good, the bad and the ugly.

Did Valentine’s Day leave you with all sorts of emotions?

We’re not talking dopamine from love, romance and gift giving. We’re talking dopamine from all that other sweetness that you might still be consuming.

Consider this: an ounce of milk chocolate contains about 14.6 grams of sugar (dark chocolate has slightly less). That adds up to a whopping 232 grams of sugar in a pound of chocolate. So if you (or your sweetie) consumes this 1 pound chocolate bar over the next seven days, you’d STILL be consuming more than the recommended daily intake for added sugars every single day.

What’s the recommended daily intake for added sugars? We’re glad you asked. We’ll talk about that as well as non-sugar alternatives that you might be trying to use to feel less guilt about consuming a pound of candy in a week.


There are two large well-known agencies that have issued quantitative recommendations on sugar intake for the average American: the United States Department of Agriculture and The American Heart Association. The American Diabetes Association has issued a more general statement. The most well known advice is from the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) Nutrition Guidelines. These are issued every 5 years so we’ll start there.

USDA Food + Nutrition Guidelines

The most recent publication can be found here which contain this advice:

“Limit calories from added sugars and saturated fats and reduce sodium intake. Consume an eating pattern low in added sugars, saturated fats, and sodium.”

“Consume less than 10% of calories per day from Added sugars.”

So if you eat 2,500 calories a day, 10% of that would be 250 calories. Sugar has about 4 calories per gram, so less than 62 grams of added sugars per day. We’ll go more in depth on this math in a minute.

American Heart Association

The American Heart Association (AHA) has entered the conversation about limiting added sugars to our diets. Why? Because added sugars, while adding additional calories, add no nutritive benefit to our diet, which can lead to weight gain which can lead to obesity, which is not good for the heart.

Without going into too much detail (because there is a lot of detail), another reason they’re chiming in is because one example according to this paper by the AHA, is that relative to other carb sources,”sugar intake appears to be associated with increased triglyceride levels, a known risk factor for coronary heart disease.”

Even the USDA guidelines state: “Strong evidence from mostly prospective cohort studies but also randomized controlled trials has shown that eating patterns that include lower intake of sources of added sugars are associated with reduced risk of Cardiovascular Disease in adults, and moderate evidence indicates that these eating patterns are associated with reduced risk of obesity, type 2 diabetes, and some types of cancer in adults.”

So what does the AHA recommend?

The American Heart Association (AHA) recommends limiting the amount of added sugars you consume to no more than half of your daily discretionary calories allowance. For most American women, that’s no more than 100 calories per day, or about 6 teaspoons of sugar. For men, it’s 150 calories per day, or about 9 teaspoons.

Because the ADA recommendations are generalized, they have no quantity recommendations like the two listed above so let’s recap quick before we move on.

Confusing quantities

The USDA recommends that less than 10% of our calories come from Added Sugars. And the AHA recommends less than 100 calories or 6-9 teaspoons.

These figures are frustrating for a few reasons. One, both the USDA and the AHA have their recommendations in calories or teaspoons while nutrition labels are in grams.

Thankfully we’ve done the research for you and can share this with you. Each gram of sugar has about 4 calories in it. So taking 250 calories divided by 4 grams equals about 62 grams of Added Sugars according to the USDA. If we use the AHA recommendation thats 100 calories divided by 4 calories which gives us 25 grams.

But we need to note the AHA says, “no more than half your daily discretionary calories.” That’s only helpful if you know what “discretionary calories” are. Those are the calories you have ‘left over’ after your nutritive needs have been met.

Not sure what your nutritive needs are? The USDA has a calculator here that helps you see what your requirements are. https://www.nal.usda.gov/fnic/dri-calculator/

Based on a very active 5’ 5”, 130 pound, 34 year old female, here is what she needs to get nutritionally within about 2,500 calories per day.

Carbs - ~300 grams

Fiber - 25 grams

Protein - 91 grams

Fat - 59-103 grams

**Depending on your medical history and other individualized factors your daily intake may look different than this. This is a general example**

If said female gets all of these nutrient needs met in 2,000 calories, she would have 500 discretionary calories left over. The AHA then recommends that only 250 of these calories come from Added Sugars. We believe the discrepancy in calories here is due to the fact that this female is “very active” while the majority of American women are not.

So it ends up in both instances that we have between 100 - 250 calories (or 25 - 62 grams) of Added Sugars we can include in our diet per day.

-You are over that allotted amount if you drink ONE 20oz bottle of Coke.

ONE grande Caramel Frappuccino from Starbucks. (Not even the biggest size!) or ONE 32oz. bottle of Gatorade any flavor.

And this is ok in the USDA and AHA eyes IF you have reached your other nutritive needs first.

American Diabetes Association recommendations

The American Diabetes Association recommends that for people with diabetes, or prediabetes, that they receive an individualized Medical Nutritional Treatment plan. These plans are usually centered around healthy consumption of carbs and reduced weight loss.

So based on the three organization's recommendations above people have begun to move towards zero calorie sweeteners.

But are zero calorie sweeteners really better for you?

Let’s start by looking at what a zero-calorie sweetener really is. A zero-calorie sweetener is commonly referred to as many different things: sugar substitute, noncaloric, low-calorie, no-calorie, and artificial sweeteners.

These High-Intensity Sweeteners are sugar substitutes commonly used to sweeten and enhance the flavor of foods and beverages. People (and companies) choose these sweeteners in place of sugar for a number of reasons, including that they contribute few or no calories to the diet. Because high-intensity sweeteners are many times sweeter than table sugar (sucrose), much smaller amounts of high-intensity sweeteners are needed to achieve the same level of sweetness as sugar in food and beverages.

High-intensity sweeteners that have been approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) at the time of the 2015 Nutritional Guidelines release included saccharin, aspartame, acesulfame potassium (Ace-K), and sucralose. Since then the FDA has approved Neotame and Advantame. They have also added Steviol Glucosides and Luo han Guo to its list of high-intensity sweeteners although they are not FDA approved yet, they only have GRAS (Generally Recognized As Safe) status.

The USDA notes replacing added sugars with high-intensity sweeteners may reduce calorie intake in the short-term, yet questions remain about their effectiveness as a long-term weight management strategy. And in their scientific statement, the AHA states that drinking more sugar sweetened beverages can lead to an increased intake of calories from food by 10%. Which, given a small increase of 10%, or 50 calories, can lead to a small, but incremental weight gain of 5 pounds per year.

Further, the USDA says based on the available scientific evidence, these high-intensity sweeteners have been determined to be safe for the general population. This means that there is reasonable certainty of no harm under the intended conditions of use because the estimated daily intake is not expected to exceed the acceptable daily intake for each sweetener.

The FDA has determined that the estimated daily intake of these high-intensity sweeteners would not exceed the acceptable daily intake, even for high consumers of each substance.

There is an in depth overview of these non-calorie or High-intensity sweeteners on this page of the FDA’s website which outlines the acceptable daily intake per kilogram of bodyweight. Another significant annoyance in conducting sugar research for one’s health because as one of the only countries to use the Imperial measurement system, WHY is our governmental agency using Kilograms and not pounds?! One can only assume it is to convolute and confuse us.

We can only assume that the USDA and the FDA have absolute faith that manufacturers that use these high-intensity sweeteners will never include more than the daily intake in their products as they are NOT required or even recommended to list the serving size or how much of their high-intensity sweetener is included in their products. They simply list it as an ingredient on the ingredient list and move on about their day. (Ingredient lists, Natural ingredients, natural flavors, etc is a blog post all on it’s own!)

The FDAs assumption (or decision based on scientific evidence that may or may not have been provided to them) is that we would never be in danger of ingesting more than the daily intake because these high-intensity sweeteners are so sweet, that the amount required is sometimes 1/64th of the sugar equivalent. The chances of us reaching the Acceptable Daily Limit or even exceeding it would require extreme, bordering on the impossible, excess consumption.

Experiments and Proceed with Caution

We ran multiple hypothetical scenarios with the Acceptable Daily Limits of multiple high-intensity sweeteners and it’s true that based on the numbers we used, a person would have to ingest an astronomical amount of Diet Coke or Bang energy drink in order to even reach the Acceptable Daily Limit.

However, everything is hypothesized. We had to estimate the amount of sucralose in a can of Bang energy drink. (We took 3.7 times the grams of sugar in a Red Bull since it has 3.7 times the caffeine and divided that by the sweetness of sucralose (1/64)). The point is that we will never know how much of these high-intensity sweeteners are being used in products because no one is required to tell us. And this is just one ingredient on a list among dozens.

Historically our country has used Lead in paint, arsenic to treat low libido, as well as apomorphine and shock treatments to treat being gay.

Not everything endorsed by hospitals and the government is in our best interest. Manufacturers usually don’t care about keeping you safe, they care about making money. Don’t put all your faith in sucralose or the companies that use it in their products. Research that has been done might study things like weight loss, or some other minute detail and completely overlook the gut microbiome or neurological implications Many of these high-intensity sweeteners are very new and need to be studied more.

Remember how we mentioned that 6 of 8 high-intensity sweeteners were approved by the FDA and two had GRAS (Generally Recognized as Safe) Status? GRAS status is a self-approval system which the findings of may or may not be submitted to the FDA before being used in food.

So before you throw all your eggs in the Stevia or Monk Fruit basket - remember that the people using those ingredients are the ones who said it was safe, not the government or your doctor.

As the Crossfit model states: Eat meat and vegetables, nuts and seeds, some fruit, little starch, and no sugar. Keep intake to levels that will support exercise but not body fat.

No sugar does not mean ‘use sugar substitutes.’

Look for Part 2 of this blog post in the coming weeks where we break down these high-intensity sweeteners one by one.

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