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One of life’s most common food battles is the fight against eating too many sugary foods. Finding the courage to turn down the donuts, cookies, candy, or desserts in order to comply with your nutrition plan, cut back a few pounds, or simply appease your loved ones is difficult to say the least. I’ve heard the struggle from many of my patients, and of course from my own experience.
In this never-ending battle there’s nothing more appealing than hearing the two little words, “sugar free.” Whew! A delicious looking treat you can indulge in guilt free! Or can you? If the triple chocolate mousse brownie really doesn’t have sugar, why doesn’t it taste like a brick? What kind of sweetener is involved, and is it better or worse for my health?
There are many misconceptions about what the best sweeteners or sugar substitutes are, and I’ve heard them all. So I want to clear up all the confusion and give you the real run down on what sweeteners may help you avoid the extra calories and which are best to avoid at all costs.
While all sugars and sweeteners should be consumed in moderation, I’ve found some sweeteners to excel above and others to fall completely behind in terms of nutritional benefits. So, lets get started.
Yes, stevia makes the top of the list and it is number one on my list for many reasons. Stevia is a natural substitute made from the leaves of the stevia plant. It contains no sugar or calories, it has anti-inflammatory and anti-tumor properties, and it doesn’t raise blood sugar levels. In fact, stevia has been found to assist with glucose regulation. Research has also shown that stevia cultivation and production conserves more energy than any other sweetener, which is simply an extra bonus. A natural sweetener and good for the environment, sounds like a win to me. (1, 2, 3)
I recommend stevia for those patients who ask for an alternative to sugar as I believe that it is the best sweetener for everyone. Especially for those who are diabetic or sticking to a low calorie diet, stevia is the best option. (4)
Honey is another sweetener with amazing benefits. It’s an even blend of glucose and fructose, it’s anti-bacterial, anti-inflammatory, and a great antioxidant. Honey is especially helpful for many medicinal purposes such as to soothe a sore throat or cough, to relieve stress, or even to help sleep more soundly. Although honey is high in carbs and calories, it is more of an actual food than sugar is, and the benefits can outweigh the excess calories. (5, 6)
It is also good to keep in mind that not all honeys are created equal. There are many different qualities of honey. Higher quality, organic raw honeys are going to be healthier and more beneficial than more processed brands that include added sweeteners.
Dates are next on my list, another amazing and healthy food that serves as a sweetener. Dates are great because you can buy them whole and blend them into a paste, or can also be bought as a syrup. Dates contain a wide range of essential nutrients including vitamin B6, copper, iron, potassium, manganese and magnesium. It is also an antioxidant, anti-inflammatory, gastroprotective, overall a high energy food source and amazing source of minerals. I consider it one of the most ideal foods. (7, 8, 9)
Coconut sugar is made from coconut tree sap, and is mostly sucrose with included nutrients and minerals such as inulin, potassium, magnesium, potassium, and prebiotic fiber. Coconut sugar is less processed than other sweeteners because the sap is essentially extracted and placed in heat to dry. It is still a high calorie sweetener so that should be taken into consideration.
Pure maple syrup actually goes through minimal processing, which makes it an excellent natural sweetener. The only processing after extracting the sap from the maple tree is a boiling to evaporate out any excess water, and then a filtering process to take out any sediment. Maple contains calcium, potassium, and zinc, calcium, and magnesium. Although maple syrup does have a distinct flavor that may not mix well with all recipes, it’s definitely a sweetener that I recommend. It’s worth a try. (10, 11)
Raw cane sugar is basically your every-day table sugar, just not as processed or refined. Raw cane sugar is extracted from the sugar cane plant and retains some molasses and moisture from the plant, so you consume less sugar and calories per serving. While sugar cane does have great benefits including anti-inflammatory properties, antioxidant activity, and cholesterol-lowering abilities, most of these benefits are lost in the processing. (12)
Brown sugar is made from some of the molasses that has been left over from the refining process of sugar cane. This molasses is added back into the sugar after it has been completely processed, which is where the darker color comes from. It’s a step above your regular table sugar simply because the molasses contains minor amounts of trace nutrients that are completely stripped from table sugar. The remaining nutrients, however, are really not enough to be of any benefit. (14)
Brown rice syrup is made of brown rice that has been fermented and heated until it forms a syrup. The fermentation process breaks down the sugars making them easier on the digestive system. One thing to keep in mind though, is that if the syrup is fermented with barley then it does contain gluten. So keep an eye out for that if you’re on a gluten free diet. It also has a high glycemic index and has been linked to obesity and other diseases. (15, 16, 17)
A recent study also showed that some products sweetened with brown rice syrup were found to contain traces of arsenic, but this would only be harmful if taken in large doses. It is most dangerous for children, so I definitely recommend to carefully check labels and help your children avoid it as much as possible. (18, 19)
And finally we get to the classic granulated white sugar. Although it hasn’t made it to the naughty list, I do consider it to be the least beneficial of all the good sweeteners.
Granulated white sugar is your everyday table sugar. This is generally made from sugar cane or sugar beets. It does have the mildest flavor of all sweeteners and it blends easily making it ideal for baking or beverages. It’s generally the most available and common type of sugar, but it’s also the most refined and chemically processed. Too much of this type of sugar has been linked to many gastrointestinal disorders. (20)
Agave is a common sugar substitute that most don’t realize can actually be worse than table sugar. Agave can get up to almost 90% fructose, which is just more than you need to be dealing with. It’s most often found in a syrup form, and is a lot sweeter than table sugar. Although agave may have a lower glycemic index than your regular table sugar, this minor fact really isn’t enough to redeem its other negative points. (21)
Aspartame is an artificial substitute that is sugar-free and non-caloric, found most often in diet sodas. This sweetener is made entirely of chemical compounds and really can’t be considered a food. It is on EPA’s list of potential carcinogens, and could be linked to a risk of leukemia. (22, 23)
Spenda is very similar to aspartame in that its sugar-free non-caloric, and it’s made of chemical compounts. It’s essentially a sucralose. Studies have found that it has “numerous adverse effects”, including altering and reducing the beneficial bacteria in your gut, increasing the acidity of your digestive tract and decreasing absorption of certain nutrients and medications. (26)
You may have heard High Fructose Corn syrup described as a natural sweetener; don’t believe a word of it. Corn syrup is produced of genetically modified corn and is last on my list of sweeteners for a reason. It has many adverse effects such as being harmful to the metabolism, can cause early aging, liver disease, and has also been linked to increased risk of obesity. Although it can be tricky to avoid in today’s world where corn syrup has grown so prevalent, the best rule of thumb is to stay as far away from it as possible. (24, 25)
Now that you have a defined list of sweeteners and sugar substitutes, ranked from best to worst, you know what to look for when you check labels on your food. That being said, this list shouldn’t give you the liberty to go out and consume all the stevia, honey, and dates that you want. Everything is better in moderation, as even the healthiest of foods are most effective when balanced with other wholesome foods that work together to make a wholesome diet. So keep the sweets to a minimum, and keep their rank in mind, and you’ll soon be able to navigate the sweetener world with ease.