They May Taste Similar, but There's a Huge Difference Between Splenda and Stevia

Stevia and Splenda are two alternative sweeteners that couldn't be more different. Stevia is a natural alternative sweetener, sourced from a plant with the same name. Splenda is a branded product and artificially produced sweetener made from sucralose and maltodextrin. Splenda and most other artificial sweeteners are generally thought to be bad for your health if consumed often, while stevia and other natural, alternative sweeteners have well-known health benefits.

Stevia is an alternative sweetener that comes from natural sources, while Splenda is artificially produced. (Image: Luis Echeverri Urrea/iStock/GettyImages)

Splenda and Other Artificial Sweeteners

You're probably familiar with Splenda: a brand that produces artificial and alternative sweeteners. The original Splenda product is sold as a sucralose-based sugar substitute. Splenda, which is made of sucralose and maltodextrin or sucralose, maltodextrin and dextrose, is an artificial sweetener that is about 600 times sweeter than sugar.

Splenda is fairly new to the market of artificial sweeteners; according to the Food and Drug Administration, sucralose-based sweeteners were approved in 1999. Although it's fairly new compared to many other artificial sweeteners, Splenda and other sucralose sweeteners are some of the most popular artificial sweeteners sold worldwide.

Many other artificial sweeteners, like NutraSweet and Equal, which contain aspartame, and Sweet and Low, which has saccharin, have had their effects on health called into question. Products like these were once thought to have negative effects on health and even cause cancer, which removed them from the market until they were proven to be safe. These days, all of these sweeteners are sold and are considered safe to consume, but research continues to dispute the benefits of consuming artificial sweeteners, especially nonnutritive ones.

Splenda, in particular, is being questioned, along with other nonnutritive artificial sweeteners. Although it's marketed as a sucralose-based product, Splenda isn't just made of sucralose, but maltodextrin (and sometimes also dextrose). Maltodextrin and dextrose are used to dilute artificial sweeteners — essentially making them more similar to traditional sucrose sugar (rather than hundreds of times sweeter) and enhancing their textural qualities.

Pros and Cons of Splenda

Splenda is considered to be a modified form of sugar; the main difference is that it isn't digested by your body and therefore won't add calories to your diet or provide you with energy. With fewer than 5 calories and less than 1 gram of carbohydrate in each serving, Splenda is considered to be a zero-calorie sweetener suitable for everyone — even diabetics. The maltodextrin and dextrose it contains mean that it isn't pure sucralose and can be easily used to replace sugar in recipes.

Despite these positives, Splenda is made of artificial sweeteners that aren't considered particularly healthy. Several scientific studies, including a 2017 study in the Frontiers in Physiology Journal and a 2016 study in the Indian Journal of Pharmacology, have questioned the effects of sucralose and similar artificial sweeteners on the digestive system.

The concern is that nonnutritive artificial sweeteners like Splenda can negatively affect the gut microbiome, which in turn affects the gut-brain axis and consequently impacts neuronal function. Splenda — made up of 99 percent maltodextrin and 1 percent sucralose — has only recently been analyzed in this context. According to a 2018 study in the Journal of Inflammatory Bowel Diseases, consuming Splenda regularly may impact your gut microbiome, increase inflammation and cause digestive system issues, as well as increase your risk of developing Crohn's disease.

However, Splenda may be safe for most people — it's those who were already at risk for these problems or people consuming processed foods who are likely to be most affected. The jury is still out, as the research on this subject is so new, but if you have gastrointestinal or immune system issues or believe you are at risk for such health problems, you may want to avoid frequent consumption of Splenda.

Stevia and Natural Alternative Sweeteners

Stevia is a natural alternative sweetener rather than an artificially created product like Splenda. In fact, the word stevia actually refers to any of the sweet components found within the stevia plant, known as steviol glycosides, rather than a specific product or brand. There are about a dozen steviol glycosides, which range from 50 to 400 times as sweet as sugar. All of these can be isolated from the stevia plant, Stevia rebaudiana, a type of sunflower native to South America (specifically, Paraguay).

Natural sweeteners like stevia have become increasingly popular given the health concerns associated with artificial sweeteners, but many are very new to the market. Stevia has been popular since the 1970s, making it new compared to many other alternative sweeteners. Despite this, stevia is already produced and sold throughout most of the world.

Stevia is unique because it can be sold as a plant or isolate. This makes it unlike other natural alternative sweeteners like xylitol or erythritol, which are typically isolates or natural end products. It also makes it unlike most whole-plant alternative sweeteners, like lucuma or monk fruit, as stevia has zero calories.

However, stevia still contains beneficial nutrients, especially if you choose to consume the whole plant, leaves or plant powder. It's more common to obtain specific steviol glycoside isolates, such as stevioside or one of the rebaudiosides, which are the high-intensity steviol glycosides that make stevia sweet and can be sold in crystalline form.

Pros and Cons of Stevia

Stevia has a wide range of benefits that make it an eco-friendly alternative sweetener. Compared to other alternative sweeteners, stevia is affordable and sustainable. It has a lower carbon and water footprint compared to other natural sweeteners, like cane sugar and beet sugar. This makes it easy to grow and affordable, which is why it's currently grown all over North and South America, Asia and Africa.

Many natural alternative sweeteners are known to be good for your health. Even though it's a zero-calorie sweetener, stevia has a wide range of positive health benefits, including:

Many of the health benefits of stevia are tied to specific steviol glycosides, like stevioside. This means that, regardless of whether you're buying stevia leaves or a crystalline isolate, you'll be able to obtain many of stevia's benefits.

The main downside to stevia is that it doesn't taste like sugar. It has a licorice-like aftertaste that could be considered bitter. Many alternatives to sugar cause a range of gastrointestinal side effects, causing symptoms like bloating, gas and diarrhea when consumed in excess. In contrast, stevia actually has anti-diarrheal effects. Beyond the difference in flavor, it has no major reported side effects.

Stevia vs. Splenda

Stevia and Splenda are two very different sweeteners. They can both be considered safe as zero-calorie alternatives to sugar, but stevia is natural and Splenda is artificial.

Ultimately, Splenda is a branded product that was designed to taste, feel and be used like sugar. This means that cooking with Splenda and using it as a sugar replacement is easier than using many other sugar alternatives. Although Splenda is a sucralose-based sweetener, it contains additives like maltodextrin and dextrose. Today, various types of Splenda products exist, but the original version is a zero-calorie, nonnutritive, artificial sweetener that can potentially cause gastrointestinal issues.

In contrast, stevia is a plant, and stevia-based sweeteners can refer to any range of products containing naturally occurring steviol glycosides. It has an array of health benefits and retains nutritional value, unlike Splenda. Stevia is a good alternative sweetener to use in dairy products, desserts, beverages and other foods. However, its bitter aftertaste can make it less preferable to cook with than other sugar alternatives.

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