The downsides to excess sugar consumption are well-known. The problem, of course, is that sugar tastes really good to us and is a common ingredient in almost everything. Hence the development of artificial sweeteners: products meant to deliver the tasty experience of sugar without the caloric implications. Substitutes like “Splenda” and “Stevia” market themselves as being zero-calorie alternatives to sugar and tout their lack of health risks. Knowing whether this is actually true, and which of the two is the better option for your health, requires a bit of exploration.
All About Stevia
Stevia is made from the leaves of the Stevia rebaudiana plant. It’s known for its sweetness and has been consumed in South America for several centuries. When extracted and processed, Stevia possesses around 150-200 times the sweetness of an equivalent amount of sugar.
Although it contains glucose, Stevia possesses no calories. This is because the glucose in Stevia is tied up in a glycoside molecule. Your tongue reacts to the glycoside like it would glucose—in other words it tastes the sweetness—but your body processes it differently once ingested. Normally, glucose is absorbed into the bloodstream during digestion. The time it takes your body to break down the glycoside, however, means that the glucose is past this point by the time it gets freed. The glucose is instead eaten by bacteria in your colon and never reaches the bloodstream. Everything leftover can’t be processed by your body and gets excreted in urine.
Stevia is known for sometimes having a bitter aftertaste. This is due to one of the non-sugar components of the glycoside. Anyone using Stevia in cooking is always urged to be careful about the amount, since too much makes the bitterness too strong for the sweetness to cover up. Glycosides react differently to heat than straight sugar, so it is unsuitable for certain recipes.
The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) does not permit whole Stevia (the leaf) or crude extracts for use as a food additive. Their main reason for this is that they have unresolved concerns that these forms can have negative effects on blood pressure, blood glucose, and cardiovascular, reproductive, and renal health if consumed in large amounts. What the FDA does permit is the use of highly refined and purified forms of Stevia as an additive, up to 330 milligrams for an adult, but states on its web site that it doesn’t consider these to be “true” Stevia due to their composition. Crude or whole Stevia is commercially available as a dietary supplement, which the FDA cannot regulate.
Whether or not Stevia actually has side effects is still up for debate. Some studies have found that it can cause the issues the FDA cites in its refusal to approve crude or whole forms of the product. Other studies have found that Stevia has shown anti-pathogenic effects. To date, no definitive study has proven the matter one way or the other.
Bottom line: In its highly processed form, Stevia is an FDA-approved sweetener with no calories that may taste bitter if you use too much. It can be used in cooking, but not as a universal substitute.
All About Splenda
Splenda is a sugar substitute made by refining real sugar to produce sucralose, a highly potent sweetening agent. In its pure form, sucralose has about 600 times more sweetness than an equivalent amount of sugar.
For labeling purposes, Splenda can be called a “zero-calorie” sweetener and sucralose can pass through the body virtually intact. However, much of what is found in a Splenda packet is not actually sucralose. As mentioned, sucralose is spectacularly sweet—much more than most people can tolerate. Splenda is therefore largely made up of various bulking agents, like dextrose, to dilute the sweetness and some of these elements are retained by the body. The reason Splenda can be labeled as “zero-calorie” is because it contains less than five calories per common serving (around 3.3 calories per gram), meaning the overall caloric content is mostly negligible.
As the commercials are fond of telling people, Splenda largely tastes the same as regular sugar, but there are those who claim to be able to detect the difference. Splenda behaves similarly to sugar when heated, so it can be used as an effective substitute in cooking.
In terms of safety, the FDA lists 0.6 grams of sucralose as the maximum suggested intake. Reaching this limit is not a significant concern for most people—0.6 grams of sucralose translates to 31 grams of Splenda. Since the recommended serving of Splenda is just a single gram, it would take a great deal to overdose.
In the ‘90s, there was some concern that Splenda could be a cancer risk along with anecdotal reports of it being a migraine trigger. Following a comprehensive review of over a hundred different studies, it was determined that sucralose posed no health risks.
Bottom line: Splenda is a substitute with a low, but non-zero calorie count that can be fully swapped for sugar in cooking. It has no known health risks, and tastes a great deal like real sugar.
Which to Use?
The decision as to whether to use Stevia or Splenda largely depends on personal needs or preferences. For diabetics or those concerned about additives, Stevia may be the best choice, since Splenda contains more additional elements as a means to dilute its raw sweetness. For those who enjoy baking, Splenda is likely the stronger option, since it can be more easily substituted for straight sugar measurement-for-measurement. In contrast, Stevia requires a separate conversion table and is not suitable for certain recipes, such as those that call for carmelization. Splenda also tastes closest to real sugar, which can be a minus or a plus depending on how you find sugar’s baseline flavor.
Ultimately, Stevia and Splenda are close enough that you can use either without any real health effects. Try them both and discover which you like more!
Read Next: Is Splenda (Sucralose) Bad For You?
Sources for Today’s Article:
“Additional Information about High-Intensity Sweeteners Permitted for use in Food in the United States,” U.S. Food and Drug Administration web site; http://www.fda.gov/Food/IngredientsPackagingLabeling/FoodAdditivesIngredients/ucm397725.htm, last accessed September 10, 2015.
“How Safe Is Sucralose?” NHS Choices web site; http://www.nhs.uk/Livewell/Goodfood/Pages/the-truth-about-sucralose.aspx, last accessed September 10, 2015.
“Is Stevia an ‘FDA Approved’ Sweetener?” U.S. Food and Drug Administration web site, last updated September 9, 2015; http://www.fda.gov/AboutFDA/Transparency/Basics/ucm214864.htm, last accessed September 10, 2015.
“Splenda vs. Stevia,” Diffen web site, http://www.diffen.com/difference/Splenda_vs_Stevia, last accessed September 10, 2015.
Bruso, J., “Splenda vs. Stevia,” Livestrong.com, May 6, 2015; http://www.livestrong.com/article/430504-splenda-vs-Stevia/.
“What refined Stevia preparations have been evaluated by FDA to be used as a sweetener?” U.S. Food and Drug Administration web site, last updated June 8, 2015; http://www.fda.gov/AboutFDA/Transparency/Basics/ucm214865.htm, last accessed September 10, 2015.
“Why the FDA Won’t Approve Stevia Use,” Livestrong.com, January 3, 2013; http://www.livestrong.com/article/559044-why-the-fda-wont-approve-Stevia-use/.