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  • Writer's pictureRyan Allen

An overview of sugar substitutes

Sugars, and especially added sugars, are up there with the most important things to watch out for on any nutrition label. Overconsumption of sugars has accompanied advances in food technology, processing, availability/accessibility, etc. and led to epidemics of obesity, type 2 diabetes, and overall metabolic syndrome. Eating healthy clearly requires being mindful of sugar consumption, but of course we all occasionally crave something sweet. In fact, we are evolutionarily hardwired to do so.

Enter the idea of the sugar alternative. A lot of misconceptions exist about various sugar substitutes and sweeteners that are out there right now. Without getting into some of the controversial research and/or opinions on these compounds, I’d like to provide a quick introduction to them, and explain generally what they are and how they work.

The first general class of these sugar substitutes is probably what people are most familiar with: non-nutritive sweeteners. This means that the sweetener either is not caloric at all, or it is so sweet that it only needs to be used in super small quantities (effectively “zero”-calorie). Most of these are what you see at the coffee shop in the small, colorful packets: aspartame is in “Equal,” sucralose is in “Splenda,” and saccharin is in “Sweet’N Low.” Other non-nutritive sweeteners include natural sources like stevia and monk fruit. I actually don’t mind the taste of almost all of these, but I must say that monk fruit is the only one that really tastes like sugar itself. The others are sweet and I still enjoy a lot of them, but they have a bit of a different taste to me.

Second is the popular sweetener category of sugar alcohols. I’ve been seeing these everywhere nowadays in packaged, sugar-free desserts at the store. The one I see the most of is erythritol, followed by sorbitol and lastly xylitol. Structurally, these molecules look similar to sugars, as carbohydrates with several hydroxyl (-OH) groups. This is the basis for their “alcohol” terminology; they have nothing to do with the alcohol that most think of. Functionally, erythritol is about 90% excreted unchanged, again making it very low-calorie. Sorbitol is hardly even absorbed, and xylitol produces a very mild glucose response. As a brief aside, interestingly, xylitol has also been recommended for use by dentists to prevent cavities. Xylitol use in gum, mints, or toothpaste blocks bacterial growth because the bacteria cannot utilize this molecule as an energy source. This allows different bacteria to outcompete those that typically cause decay.

Now comes, in my opinion, the most interesting of the sugar substitutes. Allulose is a molecule that doesn’t fit into either the sugar alcohol or non-nutritive sweetener category, but stands alone. Some of you may have noticed this sweetener being mentioned on the Zone 7 Instagram the other day, as we received a story mention from a friend and reader thanking us for introducing him to it. Allulose is not only my preferred sweetener in terms of taste, but also health. This is not to suggest that I doubt the safety or mechanisms of action of any of the other sweeteners. Rather, allulose simply has a fascinating, seemingly safe mechanism, along with some intriguing evidence on its blood sugar impact.

To start off, allulose is in fact a sugar; it looks almost exactly like fructose, only differing in the orientation (think of it like the “angle”) of a single bond. For this reason, it is relatively new as a sugar substitute because until 2019 it was designated by the FDA as an “added sugar.” What was not clear prior to then was that remarkably, such a small molecular distinction can have such a profound effect on the destination of a compound. It turns out that allulose is essentially not even metabolized, but fully excreted. This would suggest that allulose consumption probably does not result in any significant blood sugar elevation.

Figure 1: An example of my Dexcom G6 continuous glucose monitor (CGM) data two hours post-allulose consumption.

It doesn’t quite stop there, though. There have actually been meta-analyses showing that allulose can lower blood sugar spikes by taking glucose along with it when it leaves the body. In my own experience, with my continuous glucose monitor (CGM), I’ve seen that allulose does virtually nothing to my blood sugar. This is really impressive, because almost everything I eat results in some sort of spike. But with allulose consumption, any peak is blunted at best (Figure 1).

Lastly, for what it’s worth, I prefer the taste of allulose to most sugar alternatives out there right now. It naturally tastes, feels, and looks like sugar because well, it basically is sugar. I’ve used it to make various desserts, my mom now enjoys it in her coffee, and it certainly seems to be growing in popularity. While allulose would be my sugar substitute of choice both in terms of taste and safety (and I definitely do recommend you give it a try), I have experimented with virtually all of these sweeteners myself and continue to use them. To be clear, some of these molecules still have limited evidence at this time, and I am in no way implying that it’s a good idea to consume them liberally. However, I would comfortably say that they all likely have much less potential to be detrimental to long-term health than the real enemy: sugar.


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