The Truth about "Sugar Free"

The Truth About ‘Sugar Free’ and Sugar Alternatives

Like many, I have a sweet tooth. Thankfully I’m not alone, given the huge amount of sugar consumed on average (66kg) every year in the USA.

My girlfriend was trying to find a healthy alternative to lollies recently, and she came across “Sugar Free” lollies in a health food store.  We tried some and they tasted like the real thing, so as you do – she bought all the remaining stock in the store, and after finishing that imported another 3.5kg from overseas to Hong Kong (where we live).

The labels are definitely correct when saying “may have laxative effect”, but regular trips to the bathroom aside it got me wondering what is the deal with “Sugar Free”? It sounded way too good to be true, so I delved into the rabbit hole and here is what I found.

I had some key questions I wanted to find the answer to:

  • What does “Sugar Free” actually mean?
  • Are the sugar alternatives actually safe? (I have heard a lot of rumours, and wanted to cut through the rumours to the facts)
  • What are sugar alternatives, and what are their pros/cons?

The Truth About ‘Sugar Free’

The use of ‘Sugar Free’ on labels can be deceptive, and does not mean there are no calories from the sugar alternative component of the product. Depending on the alternative used, the sugar alternative can be anywhere from 0-120% of the calories of sugar, and some alternatives can even contain more calories (such as Agave).

While the law varies from country to country, you should pay attention to the actual ingredients used, and how many calories the product has – this is the most accurate way to understand and control what you consume. There are a lot of alternatives to sugar, and can be hard to wade through all the noise – so I’ll cover a lot of the alternatives in this article with the general pros and cons of each.

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There has been lot’s of noise in the past about artificial sweeteners causing all sorts of health issues, including cancer.  This was mainly due to a single study which occurred in the 1970s which linked saccharin to bladder cancer in lab rats.
However according to major health agencies in the US, there are no health issues associated with artificial sweeteners at reasonable volumes.  There are hundredsof studies on their safe use since this time.  It has been shown the mechanism which the lab rats in the 1970s acquired bladder cancer does not occur in humans, so is not a risk. The Cancer Institute’s stance is these are all safe substances and safe for human consumption and not carcinogenic.

Sugar Alternatives

There are two groups of sugar alternatives (aka. sweeteners), nutritive sweeteners, those that contain calories, and non-nutritive sweeteners, those that have no or very few calories.

Non-Nutritive Sweeteners:

Non-Nutritive sweeteners are those that have zero calories or very few calories, the FDA has approved eight of these sweeteners and considers them safe for human use. Sweeteners can be up to 18,000 sweeter than sugar, so they are used at a lot lower quantities than sugar which means their caloric value is very close to zero.


  • No calories
  • No effect on blood sugar levels
  • Does not lead to decay of teeth


Artificial Sweeteners (Non-Nutritive):

Artificial sweeteners are non-nutritive (zero calories) and are manufactured through chemical processes, keep in mind that while natural sweeteners may sounds safer, however many of them are highly processed and not necessarily safer/healthier. Some of the common artificial sweeteners are listed below:

Saccharin (954)Acesulfame potassium / Acesulphame K (950), Aspartame-Acesulfame Salt (962), Aspartame (951), Neotame (961), Sucralose (955), Advantame (969), Cyclamate (952), Neohesperdine (959), and Alitame (956)

Natural Sweeteners (Non-Nutritive):

Non-nutritive natural sweeteners are derived from plants occurring in nature, however be aware that they can be highly processed (for example stevia is highly processed). Some of the common ones are listed here:

Stevioside / Steviol Glycoside (960), and Thaumatin (957)

Nutritive Sweeteners:

Nutritive sweeteners are natural or artificial sweeteners that do contain calories, however they tend to taste closer to sugar and have a consistency similar to sugar.


  • Less calories (usually)
  • Lower effect on blood sugar level (usually)


  • Not zero calorie

Sugar Alcohols / Polyols (Nutritive):

Contrary to how it sounds sugar alcohol is not a sugar or alcoholic drink, they are sugar like substitutes derived from sugar. On average they contain 50% as many calories as an equivalent amount of sugar, and are broken down differently in the body to sugar.


  • Reduced calories (average over half as many calories as sugar, however can vary a fair bit, all the way from 5% of the calories)
  • Lower impact on blood sugar levels
  • Close taste and texture to sugar
  • Does not lead to tooth decay


  • Can be labelled as “sugar free”, which can be deceptive
  • Excessive consumption can have a laxative effect (confirmed through my own personal research!)

Some of the common sugar alcohols include:

Erythritol (968), Hydrogenated Starch Hydrolysate (HSH) / Maltitol (965), Isomalt (953), Lactitol (966), Mannitol (421), Sorbitol (420), Xylitol (967), D-Tagatose, Glycerol (422), and Polydextrose (1200)

Natural Sweeteners (Nutritive):

Nutritive natural sweeteners are sweeteners derived from natural sources which do contain calories.  The benefits and negatives vary by each natural sweetener.  You should do research before you start using one of the following, as natural does not mean healthy or safe.

Some common natural nutritive sweeteners include:

Agave Nectar, Date Sugar, Fruit Juice Concentrate, Honey, Maple Syrup, and Molasses

The Verdict

The biggest take away from my research is you should know what you are consuming, and understand how it impacts your body. Paying special attention to calories, blood sugar level impact, and healthiness. There is a lot of misinformation out there, and also a lot of a lack of information on labels of food products to explain what you are consuming so you sometimes need to take it on to your own hands.

My girlfriend and I are now on a one month carb-free stint (excluding fruit), can you guess the reason?

In case you couldn’t tell, we at Lucid are passionate about body betterment, neuro-enhancement, productivity & focus. To be kept up to date on any other blogs or infographics, add yourself to our community mailing list.
Aaron Weller

Aaron is the CEO & Co-Founder of Lucid. He brings a wealth of business smarts and startup experience to the team and is heading up the launch of future growth of the company.