How Sweet is Too Sweet? The Bitter Truth About Sugars and Sweeteners


By, Jen Hatz MS, RD, CSSD, LDN, CSCS

“I could use something sweet” is a popular statement, sometimes as a promise to ourselves that we deserve some sweetness after a hearty or salty meal, maybe to balance out the challenges or stress we’ve experienced, or as a call for celebration like a holiday or special event. 

We have a beautiful response to sweetness, down to a neurochemical reaction. It feeds this fire of desire for all the sweet things in life to the point that sweetness as the taste perception shares an equal satisfaction as another warm, rewarding, feel-good action or behavior. 

This is where the world of sugar and sweeteners starts: our biologically programmed taste perception of those chemicals and stimuli we’ve come to identify it as “sweet”. The forms and varieties of those sweet-sensing chemicals may be located in other sources beyond what we typically think.

We have plenty of attention, debate, and controversy around this topic specifically with our consumption of sugar, how much is too much, what are the effects, what are the alternatives, and even whether or not it’s safe in any amount. In fact, this topic tends to generate strong opinions, and unsafe behaviors if it’s taken too far to the extreme in either direction: where “safe to consume” can easily become mismanaged while “limit or eliminate” feeds fear and restriction. Much of this goes back to that strong, positive, neurochemical response we feel from the chemical sensing and taste perception, creating a contrast between a psychological effect and a public health concern. 

Some of the confusion and debate starts here, with defining “sugar”:

  • Sugar in most dietary recommendations refers to added sugar, refined sugars, and nutritive (calorie- containing) sweeteners including those added to foods like processed foods and drinks, those naturally occurring like in honey or agave, as well as those present in pressed fruit and vegetable juices. 

  • “Sugar” is also a term used to describe the basic units of carbohydrate foods when broken down into their simplest forms, like glucose, fructose, and galactose. This is where confusion often starts as digesting carbohydrate foods technically breaks down larger chains of molecules into smaller or “simple sugars” like mono- and di- saccharides. (i.e. “it turns to sugar in your body!”

  • Add to this the fact that we refer to our blood glucose as blood sugar, where we rely on stable and steady circulating glucose (“sugar”) that we require to maintain normal functions and now we’ve got a world of confusion on the topic!

In fact, different sources give very different recommendations for sugar intake because they are all viewing different definitions of sugar.

For the sake of this discussion, we’ll go with the FDA and the Dietary Guidelines for Americans, “it is recommended to limit calories from added sugars to less than 10% of total calories per day, which would mean less than 50g of added sugar for a 2000 kcal diet.” 1 Some could argue that this amount still seems high when viewing what counts as “added sugar” versus naturally present sugar in whole food forms. 

They define this further as 

Added sugars include sugars that are added during the processing of foods (such as sucrose or dextrose), foods packaged as sweeteners (such as table sugar), sugars from syrups and honey, and some sugars from concentrated fruit or vegetable juices. They do not include naturally occurring sugars that are found in milk, fruits, and vegetables. For most Americans, the main sources of added sugars are sugar-sweetened beverages, baked goods, desserts, and sweets. 1

With an emphasis on beverages! To put this in perspective, a rice crispy treat contains about 8g of added sugar, whereas a traditional sports drink contains between 35-45g. Liquids composed of added sugars quickly add up, and are rapidly absorbed, both of which are indicated with the worsening effects of metabolic and health implications and are therefore the main target to reduce and eliminate.

Why would we have any recommendations for sugar anyway?

Our bodies and brains require this (blood) glucose, specifically as the primary fuel source. Where does glucose come from? Carbohydrates, specifically plants, where photosynthesis converts energy from the sun into glucose!

It’s not just glucose that we get from these plant foods, but also fructose, another monosaccharide or “simple sugar” found primarily in fruits, honey, and syrup. Another “simple sugar” we get from our foods is galactose, found in milk and dairy, as the only animal-based carbohydrate. (2)

Besides this carbohydrate energy, plants also have fiber and water that we eat and take in. The amount of fiber and water that a plant food has can indicate its concentration of glucose or “sugars” where a plant food with higher amounts of fiber and water may have comparatively less glucose vs a plant food with lower amounts of fiber and water may have comparatively higher concentrations of glucose energy. Think of eating an apple which has its fiber and water still intact versus drinking apple juice which has been refined and condensed.

When we eat and digest a carbohydrate food that contains fiber, we are getting that carbohydrate energy and also feeding our microbiome with that healthy fiber, and regulating our blood glucose response from the slower process of digesting and absorbing. 

Why do some things taste sweeter than others?

Different “simple sugars” like glucose, fructose, and galactose can seem to taste different based on the total concentration present, the context of other ingredients, and our own experience with it. Think of how honey tastes different from agave, and also different from molasses, where the differences in the chemical structure and other existing context or ingredients plays a role in how our taste perception changes or adjusts.

The same goes for all sweeteners, whether naturally occurring or artificial, and we can increase or decrease our tolerance for these chemicals, which is a huge advantage for us to know! If you’ve ever felt like your sweet-tooth was always going to be problematic for you, then rest assured that you are not at the mercy of your biology changing but that you simply need to adjust your foods and drinks to lower your tolerance. 

Lowering your tolerance for sweet-tasting chemicals is the most useful tool to lean into as a long-term shift in your overall health and wellbeing. For some, this can look like gradually weaning off of high concentration beverages like steadily diluting a juice drink over time, or switching from a sugar-sweetened drink to a sugar-free drink, or changing a previous sports drink from the regular full-sugar version to the low or no-sugar version. 


 What are the different types of sweeteners?

Sugar and sweeteners can be categorized first based on whether or not they provide calories, termed “nutritive” vs “non-nutritive” and then categorized further based on naturally occurring versus artificial.2


  • Nutritive (provides calories): glucose, fructose, galactose, sucrose (Sugar), lactose (milk and dairy), maltose, starch, maltodextrins, fructans

    • “Traditional sweeteners” include honey, maple syrup, agave, molasses, carob, beetroot, and more [these may contain additional bioactive compounds based on their natural form like plants, roots, leaves, etc] These may be easier to manage for overall intake and lower glycemic potency2

  • Non-nutritive (does not provide calories): 

    • Non-nutritive natural: stevia, allulose 

    • Non-nutritive artificial sweeteners: aspartame (Equal), sucralose (Splenda), acesulfame-K (Sweet One), saccharin (Sweet ‘N Low),

    • Nutritive polyols (sugar alcohols): maltitol, erythritol, mannitol, sorbitol, xylitol3

High potency sweeteners are popular among products as a way to capitalize on the sweet taste perception without excess amounts of the ingredient itself, as seen with ingredients like high fructose corn syrup to pack a high potency of sweet. 3This can become problematic with excessive consumption as you’ll see below, and has also been a driving force for alternative sweeteners as replacements for the sake of blood glucose regulation, calorie regulation, and overall metabolic health preservation. This is where non-nutritive sweeteners come into play.

Here’s what you need to know:

  • While there is only limited knowledge at this point, an area of research that is rapidly growing is understanding the role of sugar and sweeteners in our blood glucose response, adjusting our taste perception, and changing our gut microbiota, with questions or concerns based on how shifting our microbial populations may impact overall health and immunity.5

  • Currently, there are small changes noted in response to sucralose, stevia, and saccharin and with the potential for sugar alcohols like maltitol and xylitol to increase Bifidobacteria.5

  • What is more concerning when it comes to changes in blood glucose response, taste perception, and changes in gut microbiota is fructose consumption and specifically in the presence of chronically elevated intake.5

  • Fructose in high concentrations in the form of free fructose like in sodas or products consisting largely of high fructose corn syrup are the primary concern whereas fructose in comparatively small amounts present naturally in whole fruits is deemed appropriate, safe, and advised.5

High amounts of fructose and changes in gut microbiota, inflammation, and gut dysbiosis are linked with neuroinflammation, whereas SCFAs related to prebiotic fiber intake are linked with reducing neuroinflammation shown in animal studies.6

Should I be worried about too much sugar for my health?

Short answer: yes. Long answer: you should be focused on having the most appropriate amount of total carbohydrates in your diet, coming from a variety of carbohydrate foods like fruits, vegetables, whole grains, legumes, potatoes and tubers all of which provide fiber while limiting or eliminating excessive amounts of added or refined sugars specifically in the form of liquids and sweetened beverages.

 The silent culprit for the majority of metabolic, inflammatory, and oxidative stress-related health disparities is not because you had a slice of cake at the wedding, but because of chronic intake of sugar-sweetened drinks like juices, sports drinks, sodas, sweetened teas, lemonades, energy drinks, alcoholic drinks and all those flavored syrups and mixers added to coffee and other beverages. This includes fresh pressed or squeezed juices, even if it’s 100% fruit juice, due to a high concentration of those ‘simple sugars or simple carbohydrates’ that are also digested and absorbed rapidly. 

When in doubt, ask yourself:


  • Is this a naturally sweet food or drink, or has it been sweetened?

  • What is it sweetened with? (Is it a nutritive or calorie-containing sweetener, or non-nutritive calorie-free sweetener?)

  • How much fiber do I have compared to sugars from this food or drink?

  • Is there another option I can have, or is this portion and circumstance acceptable as an exception to my normal diet (ex: is this a slice of cake at a wedding or is this a juice or lemonade as your usual drink with lunch?)

Small amounts of sugar in food-based forms like a handful of berries, a square of dark chocolate, a yogurt with a touch of honey, eating a whole banana as-is instead of blending it with juice and a variety of other fruits, are all incredible ways to gain that sweet satisfaction that your body and brain love and thrive on, without pushing your overall sugar intake to excess. 



FDA. (2023, November 6). Virtual Public Meeting and Listening Sessions on Strategies to Reduce Added Sugars Consumption in the United States.1

“The role of sugars and sweeteners in food, diet and health: Alternatives for the future.” ScienceDirect.2

“Sweetener Potency – an overview.” ScienceDirect Topics.3

“A Comparison of Psychophysical Dose-Response Behaviour across 16 Sweeteners.” PMC.4

About O2X Specialist Jen Hatz:

Jen Hatz is an O2X Nutrition Specialist. Jen is an entrepreneur and founder of The HII Method, an original problem-solving method using a holistic, integrative, and innovative approach to assessing and optimizing health, wellbeing, and performance. She has a multidisciplinary background as a Registered Dietitian and Certified Specialist in Sports Dietetics with a Master’s in Nutrition, a Certified Strength and Conditioning Specialist with a Master’s in Exercise Physiology, a Bachelor’s degree in Psychology, and in future pursuit of a PhD in Neuroscience. Her work includes focus in collegiate, professional, and Olympic athletics, with a specific emphasis in football, as well as clinical and wellness assessments, app development, health technology device design, and supplement engineering and design. Through her experience, she recognized a need for individualized holistic approaches that encourage well-rounded growth and development physically and mentally. 

About O2X Human Performance:

O2X Human Performance provides comprehensive, science-backed programs to hundreds of public safety departments, federal agencies, and the military. O2X works with clients to elevate culture, improve mental and physical wellbeing, support healthy lifestyles, and reduce healthcare costs associated with injuries and illnesses. Driven by results and cutting edge research, O2X programs are designed and delivered by a team of Special Operations veterans, high level athletes, and hundreds of leading experts in their respective fields of human performance.