As a whole, Americans consume far too much sugar and need to significantly reduce their intake to maintain a healthy lifestyle. When it comes to sweeteners, there are both natural and artificial substitutes on the market. “Sugar substitutes can be a good option for sweetening foods with less calories.” says Rachel Begun, MS, RD, spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. You can enjoy most sugar alternatives in moderation and within an overall healthy eating plan.
With the number of natural and artificial sweeteners growing every day, consumers can easily become confused by what’s out there and what’s right for them. Here’s our guide to sugars and substitutes:
“We were all on low-fat diets — and now sugar is what’s spiking our blood sugar and really making us fat,” says Julie Daniluk, RHN, co-author of "Sweet Health: How Natural, Unrefined Sweeteners Can Satisfy Cravings and Help you Prevent Inflammatory Diseases" (2013). Daniluk cautions, a calorie is not a calorie. A calorie from sugar directly causes insulin spikes that cause inflammation and will make you gain weight faster than calories from other foods.
The white stuff (table sugar/sucrose) is derived from natural sources such as sugar cane and sugar beets, and then processed and added to our food supply. It’s in everything from salad dressings and condiments, to most packaged foods, even savory ones. Tomato sauces, canned goods and most prepackaged foods are loaded with it.
One teaspoon contains 20 calories. The latest data says men shouldn’t consume more than 120 calories of sugar; women no more than 100. (That’s six teaspoons for the men, and five for women.) The average can of soda contains nine to 11 teaspoons of sugar. Now you see why sugar substitutes are a billion-dollar business.
Other natural sugars
Stevia: An herb from Latin America, Stevia only recently became popular in the U.S. It tastes 30 times sweeter than table sugar. When it’s refined into a white substance, Stevia loses its back note of licorice, and most of its aftertaste. "It’s calorie-free and it is the safest sugar substitute because all the others are chemicals that can have serious health side effects,” says Daniluk. The aftertaste can be a problem for some, but can be completely hidden behind lemon. Not recommended in coffee, since coffee won’t mask the flavor. Try it in lemon ginger tea.
Honey: A natural sweetener from bees, honey heals. “When unrefined and unpasteurized it contains B vitamins, minerals like manganese and iron, but the coolest part is it contains antibiotic properties,” says Daniluk. It’s antimicrobial and is high in peroxide, which helps to kill any microbe that it comes in contact with. Cooked honey however, removes the peroxide, and the health benefits drop. “It is also considered to better promote blood sugar control,” says Begun. Aim for use in teas and smoothies. It contains about 32 calories per teaspoon and is 20 percent sweeter than other sweeteners — so you’ll use less.
Agave: An extract from a cactus in Mexico, this delicious sweetener has gained a following, but the sudden interest in the sweet substance has created issues for bats, which eat agave. Seems we’re harvesting food that bats need to survive and as a result, we are destroying bat populations, which pollinate food. What’s more, if you eat too much agave, it can be hard on the liver because it must metabolize fructose into glucose. There is concern that cheap agave may be cut with corn syrup, so look for organic sustainable brands. Calorie-wise, it’s the same as honey and it’s sweeter, so you don’t need as much. “It’s seen as the vegan substitute to honey but we may be hurting bats,” says Daniluk. Agave contains 30 calories per teaspoon.
Coconut or palm sugar: A delicious natural sugar to bake with, coconut sugar is harvested by collecting the nectar or sap from flowers of the coconut palm tree. It’s a decent source of minerals and vitamins. You can substitute tablespoon for tablespoon in baking and it doesn’t cause environmental devastation, though it’s pricey because of the collection process. It contains about the same calories per teaspoon as sugar (20).
Artificial sugar substitutes
Aspartame: About 200 times sweeter than sugar, aspartame is a low-calorie chemically created sugar substitute. It contains an enzyme that can be problematic to sensitive people who don’t metabolize it properly, explains Begun. Many people also report headaches. It shouldn’t be used in baking because it loses sweetness at high temperatures. It’s found in diet products and low-calorie pre-packaged foods and drinks and is marketed by brand names Equal and NutraSweet.
Sucralose: A chemically created sugar substitute that is 600 times sweeter than sugar, Sucralose is calorie-free and is a combination of sucrose attached to chlorine. Since your body can’t break down chlorine, it can’t absorb the calories. “Problem is, it kills the bacteria in your bowels just like it kills the bacteria in your swimming pool,” says Daniluk. It’s a weight loss product, but Daniluk cautions it may be doing damage to your bowels at the same time. Diet foods may contain sucralose, especially those marketed to diabetics. Read labels carefully. Splenda is the marketed brand name. A study published in the International Journal of Occupational and Environmental Health found that mice fed sucralose daily developed blood cancers like leukemia. Because of those findings, the Center for Science in the Public Interest has now cautioned consumers to avoid the sweetener.
Saccharin: The oldest sugar substitute still available, saccharin is more than 100 years old. It is a synthetic sweetener 300 times sweeter than sugar, and some studies show it may cause cancer. It is calorie-free and has a bitter diet-like aftertaste. Because it passes through the body without raising blood sugar, it has been marketed to diabetics for many years. Daniluk equates saccharin as the bottom-of-the-barrel sweeteners. The brand name is Sweet’N Low. “There are so many other great-tasting alternatives out there; you don’t have to rely on chemicals anymore,” says Daniluk.
Related sugar stories on MNN:
- Sugar nutrition facts
- 12 tips for kicking the refined sugar habit
- How cutting out refined sugar changed one woman's life
- How sweet it is: A sugar terminology guide