New ideas about nutrition flood our news feeds daily and sometimes make it difficult to be sure of best practices. Over the past few years, the noise surrounding sugar and its substitutes has gotten louder. And if you have a sweet tooth like me, this can cause a lot of confusion! While we don’t know all there is to know about sweeteners, there are some key myths I hope to iron out for you so that the next sweetening selection at your grocer goes smoothly! Let’s break it down by types of sweeteners.
First we have good ‘ol table sugar (or sucrose). This is a natural product made from sugarcane plants and sugar beets. A pure carbohydrate, sugar is not only sweet but gives us a temporary boost of energy when we eat it. Besides the extra calories that come with it, sugar is perfectly safe in moderation. However, it can raise blood sugar levels quite quickly - a red flag for people with diabetes. Sugar also speeds up tooth decay!
High-fructose corn syrup and crystalline fructose often replace table sugar in processed foods and beverages. Because these are digested by the body in a different way than table sugar, some believe they are bad for our health. Research has given mixed results, but no specific health issues have been linked to either product as of yet. My best advice? Eat fresh and limit processed foods and sugary drinks in your diet whenever possible!
As our global quest to eat better continues, new sugar substitutes keep popping up. These food additives mimic the sweetness of sugar without all the calories and sometimes with a little nutrition to boot. These substitutes can be divided into two categories: chemical based artificial sweeteners and natural sweeteners.
You are probably familiar with most of the artificial sweeteners available in stores. These chemical-based sweeteners include acesulfame potassium (Sweet One), aspartame (Equal, NutraSweet), saccahrin (Sweet’N Low), and sucralose (Splenda). Packing double to triple the sweetness of sugar with virtually no calories, artificial sweeteners are welcomed by many a calorie-counter. They are also a good alternative when managing diabetes and hypoglycemia. Plus, unlike our dear friend table sugar, they do not cause tooth decay.
But let’s not dance around one of the biggest elephants in the room: artificial sweeteners have been rumored to cause cancer. This belief comes from an early study that showed bladder cancer in lab animals when exposed to the chemicals cyclamate and saccahrin in combination. Cyclamate has since been taken off the market. To this day, no research hasfound any proof of cancer in people due to cyclamate (or any of the FDA-approved artificial sweeteners listed above).
There is also information out there claiming artificial sweeteners can indirectly lead to weight gain due to an insulin-related response. This is simply not true.
You may have also noticed the sales of natural sweeteners continue to grow. These products claim to be the healthiest alternative in the world of sweeteners. They often do contain nutrients that artificial sweeteners and table sugar do not. However, they are not always calorie-less.
Common calorie-containing natural sweeteners include agave nectar, blackstrap molasses and raw honey. They are a source of nutrients like potassium, iron, and magnesium – something you just don’t get from sugar or artificial sweetener. However, if you are watching your calories, these types of sweeteners should be used in moderation. Raw honey is especially dangerous for people with diabetes.
The leaves of the Stevia plant serve as non-calorie containing natural sweeteners that have been making the carb-conscious and people with diabetes happy around the world. Stevia is also a source of vitamin c, fiber, iron, magnesium, protein, zinc and more! Commonly nicknamed sweetleaf, a little can go a long way with double-triple the sweetness of sugar. Truvia is a popular powdered form of this herb commonly sold in stores.
Sugar alcohols are also calorie-free. Made from the fibers of fruits and vegetables, they have no calories but are only half as sweet as table sugar. For this reason, they are often combined with other artificial sweeteners for taste. These sweeteners are not digested in the body as quickly as table sugar - making it a safer option for people with diabetes. However, this characteristic can also lead to upset stomachs. Popular sugar alcohols include xylitol, mannitol, and sorbitol. Erythritol is a little bit sweeter and not as likely to cause stomach problems. Next time you are at the store, take a look at food labels for these ingredients.
Do it yourself! If you like the sound of natural sweetener, you may not need to run to the natural foods store and buy often expensive products. In a word: fruit. Strawberries and cool-whip is not one of the most popular healthy dessert options for nothing! Try citrus lemons or limes in water or tea for a natural zest. Berries and bananas can also sweeten up bland cereals, oatmeal, and toast.
While there are pros and cons for all the types of sweeteners on the market today, moderation is the key. My advice to you is to find a medium that balances your health concerns, finances, and taste preferences…and always use sparingly!