One of the most common requests registered dietitians receive is advice on how to cut back on sugar intake. In fact, cutting back on sugar may be the most impactful change a person can make for their health.
Decreasing Added Sugar Can Help with Weight Loss
Sugar has 4 calories per gram, just like protein. Removing sugar-sweetened beverages and snacks from the diet is one way to lose weight. By doing so, it also may reduce the calories that come from fat often found in these foods as well (think cream, butter, coconut, chocolate, and oils). While cutting out sugary snacks can decrease calories, weight may not be the only motivating factor.
Decreasing Added Sugar Reduces Disease Risk
People concerned about diabetes, heart disease, cavities, and high cholesterol levels also can benefit from swapping their sugar for nutrient dense foods. From obvious sources of sugar like candy and cookies to sugar-sweetened beverages like soda and lattes, it can be hard for some people to pass these treats up. When eaten as a “treat” on a special occasion, sugary foods can be enjoyed. However, when they become frequent flyers in the diet, it’s important to find alternatives.
In addition to the obvious sources of added sugar, "hidden sources" such as bread, ketchup, bbq sauce, and milk can make it feel like sugar is so ubiquitous that it’s impossible to clean up the diet.
Dietitians shared their favorite no-added-sugar or low sugar products with me. Replacing current sugar-sweetened foods with these products may help you meet your health goals. Below is a list of a dozen ideas from condiments to breads to convenient snacks that can be stocked at home or in the office. (Dietitians have confirmed that they do not have a financial relationship or affiliate sponsorship with the products they recommend below.)
First, we discuss whether simply switching to treats made with sugar substitutes can be a solution for your sweet-tooth. To jump to the product recommendations, click here.
What About Sugar Substitutes?
For diet soda drinkers and people who rely on sugar substitutes like sucralose in foods to avoid the consequences of sugar, there is additional information you need to know.
A small study published in Cell Metabolism in 2020 found that drinking beverages that contained sucralose (Splenda) plus a carbohydrate for 10 days reduced insulin sensitivity in adults. In addition, the brain didn't pick up that the body was ingesting something sweet. The researchers concluded that eating or drinking something with sucralose in the presence of a carbohydrate rapidly impairs glucose metabolism, results in longer-term decreases in brain sensitivity to sweet taste, and may mean that there is a disruption in the gut-brain control of glucose metabolism.
A 2023 in vitro study in the Journal of Toxicology and Environmental Health, Part B found that sucralose caused damage to the intestinal barrier cells that lead to leaky gut, DNA breakdown, and the expression of genes associated with cancer, oxidative stress, and inflammation.
There are many ongoing studies on aspartame. A developing area of research is focused on whether aspartame may lead to activating reward pathways without delivering calories to the body, and therefore have unintended consequences such as increased appetite and food cravings. This has been seen in animals, but similar effects have not been seen in humans. In general, aspartame appears to be safe and effective as a sugar substitute with the exception of people who suffer from the rare disorder PKU. You can read more about the science of aspartame here.
Sugar alcohols are neither sugar nor alcohol. Instead, they are a carbohydrate with a chemical structure similar to sugar and end with the suffix "-ol." Xylitol, erythritol, sorbitol, and maltitol are all sugar alcohols.
According to the Cleveland Clinic, these are generally safe and have only 2 calories per gram. Sugar alcohols don't spike blood sugars, but do increase blood sugars slowly. Another benefit is that they don't cause tooth decay.
On the other hand, ingesting more than 10g-15g of sugar alcohols in a day can lead to diarrhea, bloating, gas, and upset stomach. Sugar alcohols aren't fully digested by the body the way sugar is. In fact, people with IBS can experience a laxative effect from sugar alcohols (doctors even prescribe them as laxatives!).
Are Sugar Substitutes Better than Sugar?
Aside from sugar substitute safety, consuming foods made with sugar substitutes are likely to be highly processed foods with saturated fat, sodium, chemical additives, and preservatives. Like sugar, these are all best consumed in moderation. According to the American Heart Association, saturated fat contributes towards heart disease risk, while excess sodium can increase blood pressure, kidney stones, kidney disease, stroke, osteoporosis, stomach cancer, and heart failure. Chemical additives and preservatives in excess may lead to mild effects from headaches to diarrhea.
Bottom Line on Sugar Substitutes
Choosing to drink diet beverages or eat foods with sugar substitutes regularly may prevent severe spikes in blood sugars for people with diabetes, but they have other drawbacks that may affect insulin sensitivity, brain sensitivity to sweetness, weight, the gut microbiome, gastrointestinal symptoms, and chronic disease risk. They can be a good transition for those struggling to eliminate sweet foods from their diet altogether, but they should not be used as a permanent solution to meet health goals.
The most beneficial action for your health is to limit sugar and sugar substitutes to special occasions.
Dietitians' Favorite No-Added-Sugar or Low Sugar Products
Here are RDs’ product suggestions for those who want a guide to get started on their low sugar health journey.
Christine Milmine, RDN, Owner of Plant Powered You LLC:
Dave’s Killer Bread “Powerseed” is one of my favorite breads! It is vegan, organic, and has hearty whole grains. This bread is unique in that it’s sweetened with fruit juice, but does not taste overly sweet. I personally love to pair it with some creamy avocado!
Jennifer McKinley Smart, MS, RDN, CSR, Owner of Smart Nutrition LLC:
I love Trader Joe’s Green Goddess Salad Dressing. It’s made from avocado and other natural ingredients. I use it for salad dressing, but I also love to drizzle it over baked salmon for a little extra flavor.
Janet Peterson of Fit 4 Health, LLC:
Home-made bread (or from a bakery). No sugar. So good. [Try a bread ] with spelt to increase fiber and taste.
Lisa Andrews, MEd, RD, LD, Owner of Sound Bites Nutrition:
I’m a huge fan of Spice World Squeeze Ginger. It’s convenient for stir-fries, marinades, salad dressings and more!
Summer Yule, MS, RDN:
I love Lily’s no sugar added chocolate chips for baking sweets with less sugar! They’re also perfect for making chocolate-covered strawberries. Dip the strawberries in melted dark chocolate, let harden, and drizzle with white chocolate on top. So good!
I like the Snack Pack Chocolate Pudding with no sugar as it is to satisfy the taste buds and also increase the serotonin levels with the release of the happy hormones.
Biswas completed a project on plant-based sweets using natural sugars and shares her findings in the Hale Nutrition Guide on Facebook here: https://www.facebook.com/hng.always/
And here are my favorite no-added sugar snacks:
Colleen Wysocki-Woods, MS, RDN, Owner of ZEST Nutrition:
Larabar may be the one bar out there that does not have any added sugar or sugar substitutes. They are completely reliant on dates, other fruit, and spices to add sweetness. My personal favorite is the Peanut Butter Cookie bar. (They are gluten-free and vegan, too!)
Montezuma’s Absolute Dark Chocolate with Almonds are 100% cacao (with the exception of the almonds!). It can be an acquired taste, but the nuts make this bitter chocolate much quicker to love than the Absolute Black bar by Montezuma and other brands’ 100% cacao bars. Trader Joe’s has stopped carrying the Absolute Black with Almonds, and has opted to only carry the Absolute Black bar. I have requested they bring it back. Otherwise, you can order it online from the UK for a reasonable shipping price.
Mariani’s Probiotic Prunes are not only a naturally sweet treat, the dried fruit is an excellent source of fiber, and boasts vitamins, minerals, and probiotics. A serving size of these gut health enhancers is 5-6 prunes, but it’s hard to stop there.
Popcorn flavored without palm oil is a healthful snack because the whole grain can satisfy any salty craving. Quinn is one of the few brands made without palm oil. What’s the problem with palm oil? Palm oil exploits the environment, poor labor communities in developing worlds, and is a nasty saturated fat that can contribute to high LDL cholesterol, triglycerides, and heart disease. For those interested, read more on palm oil from Marion Nestle here. Opt for a popcorn flavored with butter or oils such as oleic, canola, olive, sunflower, or safflower and then sweeten with cinnamon once it comes out of the microwave.
Pamela’s Baking & Pancake Mix (gluten-free) is a fantastic way to make quick-breads like pancakes, waffles, and muffins with no added sugar.
Silk plant-based milks come in several no-added-sugar varieties including unsweetened almond milk, soy milk, and cashew milk. Silk sent me coupons to try their milks and my husband actually prefers the Silk Unsweetened Almond Milk texture to other brands.
LaCroix and Hint are no-sugar sparkling and still flavored waters, respectively. While carbonation can wear away enamel on teeth and increase risk for gum sensitivity and cavities, an occasional sparkling water can hit the spot for those who are recovering soda drinkers. Hint is a still water targeted towards children. It uses natural flavors to provide a fruity taste to otherwise plain water.
Let us know in the comments if you have other recommendations!
If you’d like to discuss more ways to meet your nutrition goals, schedule a virtual Initial Assessment with a Registered Dietitian at: www.ZESTNutritionService.com