This blog was originally written for CalorieControl.org. You can read that post here.
The ingredients we use to sweeten our foods and beverages come from a wide variety of sources and have many different features and names. In some cases, the only thing they have in common is that they all taste sweet! Some are ingredients found on our pantry shelves while others are already in the food and drinks we consume. Some have names we cannot easily pronounce while others are words we use in our everyday speech. And the list goes on.
There are so many terms used to describe the sweeteners available to us that it’s easy to become misled into believing some are better than others. We have all these terms because the ones used by the scientists who study sweeteners are different from those used by the food safety agencies that approve and regulate their use. And the terms used by health professionals who counsel people about the role of sweeteners in the diet differ from the ones used by the companies that sell them to us.
Given the heightened awareness of “added sugars” in our diets with the release of the 2015-2020 Dietary Guidelines for Americans and the expected appearance of “added sugars” on the revised Nutrition Facts label due later this year, it seems like a good time to review just what we mean when talking about the sweeteners we consume.
Calories Not Nutrients
The main way all sweeteners can be classified is by whether or not they contain calories. The scientific terms used to describe this distinction are “nutritive” sweeteners, which contain calories, and “non-nutritive” sweeteners, which do not.
Terms for Non-nutritive Sweeteners
This list includes the terms permitted by the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) for approved food additives and ingredients, as well as those that are Generally Recognized as Safe (GRAS). This list also includes other terms that have crept into common usage but are not clearly defined by any official source.
- Alternate or Alternative sweetener – any sweetener used to replace sugar, like aspartame; may include nutritive sweeteners, such as honey and corn syrup
- Artificial sweetener – derived from plant-based sources or manmade, such as acesulfame potassium (Ace-K), advantame, aspartame, cyclamate, neotame, saccharin, sucralose
- High-intensity sweetener – hundreds of time sweeter than sugar and therefore used in very small amounts, such as acesulfame potassium (Ace-K), advantame, aspartame, monk fruit extract (luo han guo), neotame, saccharin, stevia (rebaudioside A), sucralose
- Intense sweetener – same as high-intensity sweetener
- Low-calorie sweetener –used in such small amounts the caloric value is minimal, such as allulose and aspartame; can be used to describe a no-calorie sweetener combined with a bulking agent that has calories
- Natural sweetener –any sweetener derived from plant-based sources; non-nutritive options include stevia (Rebaudioside A), monk fruit extract (luo han guo), and the polyol erythritol
- No-calorie sweetener –is not metabolized by the body and passes through it unchanged, such as acesulfame potassium (Ace-K), advantame, monk fruit extract (luo han guo) , neotame, saccharin, stevia (Rebaudioside A), sucralose
- Noncaloric sweetener – same a no-calorie sweetener
- Polyol –carbohydrates that are not sugars, but have the taste and texture of sugar with less than half the calories, such as D-Tagatose, erythritol, hydrogenated starch hydrolysates (HSH) isomalt, lactitol, maltitol, mannitol, sorbitol, trehalose, xylitol
- Reduced-calorie sweetener –contain less than 4 calories per gram, like polyols, or products that are a combination of nutritive and non-nutritive sweeteners
- Sugar alcohol – same as polyol
- Sugar replacer – same as alternate sweeteners, artificial sweetener and sugar substitute
- Sugar substitute – same as alternate sweetener, artificial sweetener and sugar replacer; commonly refers to non-nutritive sweeteners in table-top packets
- Synthetic sweetener –not derived from plant-based sources, such as acesulfame potassium (Ace-K), advantame, aspartame, cyclamate, neotame, saccharin
- Zero calorie sweetener – same as no-calorie sweetener
Terms for Nutritive Sweeteners or “Added Sugars”
The terms in bold type are recognized by the Food and Drug Administration as ingredient names. The others also sweeten our foods and beverages and appear on food labels, but are not recognized by the FDA as ingredient names for “added sugars.”
- Agave nectar
- Anhydrous dextrose
- Beet sugar
- Brown sugar
- Cane juice
- Cane sugar
- Carob syrup
- Coconut sugar
- Confectioner’s sugar
- Corn syrup
- Corn syrup solids
- Crystal dextrose
- Crystalline fructose
- Date sugar
- Dehydrated cane juice
- Evaporated cane juice
- Evaporated corn sweetener
- Fruit juice concentrate
- Fruit nectar
- High fructose corn syrup (HFCS)
- Invert sugar
- Liquid fructose
- Malt syrup
- Maple syrup
- Nectars (e.g. peach nectar, pear nectar)
- Pancake syrup
- Raw sugar
- Refiner’s syrup
- Rice sugar or syrup
- Sugar cane juice
- Sorghum syrup
- Table sugar
- White granulated sugar
You may want to print out this list and keep it in a handy place so you won’t be confused the next time you’re reading a food label.
Robyn Flipse, MS, MA, RDN is a registered dietitian, cultural anthropologist and scientific advisor to the Calorie Control Council, whose 30+ year career includes maintaining a busy nutrition counseling practice, teaching food and nutrition courses at the university level, and authoring 2 popular diet books and numerous articles and blogs on health and fitness. Her ability to make sense out of confusing and sometimes controversial nutrition news has made her a frequent guest on major media outlets, including CNBC, FOX News and USA Today. Her passion is communicating practical nutrition information that empowers people to make the best food decisions they can in their everyday diets. Reach her on Twitter @EverydayRD and check out her blog The Everyday RD.