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Packages of Equal and Splenda.Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

Can products containing artificial sweeteners raise your blood-sugar level?


Artificial sweeteners have been available in Canada for many years. The most common one is aspartame, which was the first to be approved for use in foods, in 1981. Aspartame and other artificial sweeteners can be sold either as tabletop sweeteners or added to beverages, yogurts and low-calorie desserts.

While both aspartame and sucralose can be found as tabletop sweeteners as well as in food products, acesulfame potassium can only be added to packaged foods. Cyclamate and saccharin are only permitted as tabletop sweeteners.

All of these products are made differently, but they are similar in that they provide an intense sweet taste that offers an alternative to sugar for people interested in reducing their sugar or caloric intake. In addition, none of them contain carbohydrates, an important consideration when answering this question.

A carbohydrate is a nutrient that is broken down into sugar in the body to provide energy. Foods that contain carbohydrates include fruits and some vegetables (carrots, corn, peas, squash, potatoes, for example), grain products, milk and milk alternatives, and of course sweets and desserts. When a person eats a carbohydrate-rich food, say an apple, the carbohydrate is digested and broken down into glucose (the smallest form of sugar) and then absorbed into the bloodstream. This raises the blood-sugar level.

Artificial sweeteners themselves do not raise blood-sugar levels. Most of us would never know whether foods containing sweeteners have had an effect on our blood-sugar level. But for people with diabetes this is a more complicated issue. They may select a food made with an artificial sweetener to avoid added sugar, but the food may also contain carbohydrates that could boost blood sugar.

In artificially sweetened yogurt, for example, it is actually the carbohydrate in the product that raises the blood sugar, not the artificial sweetener. If a product has no carbohydrates and your blood sugar has gone up, think about what other foods you ate at the same time. If you drank a diet pop with a high-carbohydrate meal, it is most likely that the extra carbohydrates in the meal raised the sugar and not the diet pop.

Take a look at the Nutrition Facts panel on packaged foods to learn about the carbohydrates in the portions you are eating.

If no carbohydrates are listed, the product will have no effect on your blood-sugar level.

Jennifer Buccino is a clinical dietitian and educator at The Hospital for Sick Children in Toronto.