Entering a coffee shop these days can be complicated — there’s at least four different kinds of milk to choose from, varying brews, hot or iced and just when you think all of your decisions are made, a plethora of sweetening methods. The latest on which artificial or natural sweetener is “healthier” to use seems to change daily. Here’s what you need to know about regular sugar versus Splenda:
Added sugar consumption, like the sugar you may add to coffee, is commonly linked to an increased risk of chronic disease. The most common source of excess added sugar typically comes from beverages like soda and sugar-sweetened coffees (especially the fancy ones). The regular sugar we add to coffee is also considered an added sugar, and the recommendation for generally healthy individuals is to consume no more than 9 1/2 teaspoons of added sugar per day total. The average person consumes more than twice that. While it’s OK to use a tiny bit of regular sugar if you’re a generally healthy, active person, if you have a chronic disease (like diabetes) it can be especially detrimental.
Splenda, or sucralose, is an artificial, calorie-free sweetener made from sugar through a chemical process in a lab. Splenda is about 400–700 times sweeter than sugar, and only a very small amount is needed when using it in something like coffee. Unlike sugar, Splenda does not typically raise blood sugar or insulin levels significantly when consumed, so it can help with blood sugar control for those with diabetes. Health concerns for artificial sweeteners often come into question, but Splenda has been shown to be safe for consumption in a recent review of several studies.
As with other artificial sweeteners, the effect Splenda may have on gut health remains to be established, and more research is needed on this front and on general long-term effects of using it regularly. Because of this, I’d also recommend taking a look at how much Splenda you’re using overall. Similar to sugar, a bit in your coffee is fine, but if your local coffee shop can’t keep those little yellow packets in stock because of your usual order, it’s time to think about weaning down a bit.
The key to reducing your coffee sweetener of choice is to do so slowly and steadily. This helps acclimate your taste buds to a new normal. Start out by cutting the sugar or Splenda you use by about 1/4, and stick with that for 3–4 days. Then, cut it back by another 1/4and let that sit for the rest of the week. Continue this process until you get to a place you feel comfortable with — that could be no sweetener at all or it could be half as much as you usually use. With consistency, your taste buds will get used to the new flavors of coffee, and you’ll likely become much more sensitive to sweetness.
Ultimately, there’s not necessarily a better or healthier choice in the sugar versus Splenda debate. Too much of any one thing may not be the best for long-term health and it’s up to you to discern what that means for your coffee in the context of your diet as a whole. If you need help coming up with a personalized plan, a registered dietitian can help you get started.
It can also be helpful to look at your diet as a whole, and other sources of added sugar you may be consuming with regularity, like soda, sweets and processed snacks. One great way to keep track is to use an app like MyFitnessPal to get a sense of your intake. If your sweetened morning coffee absolutely makes your day and the rest of your diet is on the low end of added sugars, then you’re OK. Similarly, if less sweet coffee still gets the job done but you can’t imagine going without your nightly piece of chocolate, that works too. Remember, life and nutrition are all about balance and keeping the big picture in mind.