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Sugar, Sugar (or Not?): Health Guide to 7 Common Sweeteners
We love to love it and love to hate it: the sweet stuff, in all of its various forms. But with so many choices and conflicting reports about each one's pros and cons, how do you know — especially if you're trying to lose weight — whether to opt for a packet or food product containing a sugar substitite (and if so, which one) or good ol' sugar?
Start with this guide to seven common sweeteners and what’s known about their dietary effects.
1. Artificial sweeteners (saccharin, aspartame, sucralose, acesulfame K ...)
Synthetic sugar substitutes such as saccharin, while calorie-free, have been under fire recently as more studies show a link between artificial sweeteners and weight gain. Case in point: A Purdue University study showed that rats that ate saccharin-sweetened yogurt ate more calories and gained more weight than rats that ate regular glucose-sweetened yogurt.
The reasoning behind the calorie indulgence: Animals become trained to expect the taste of sweet to be filling, so when it isn’t, they still crave the sweet calories and tend to eat more. Although not tested on other sugar substitutes such as aspartame, sucralose and acesulfame K, experts believe results would be similar.
Most of the data we have now on artificial sweeteners is based on animal testing, says Leslie Bonci, R.D., director of sports nutrition at the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center. “Still, the human brain is also aware that it’s not getting true calories,” she says. Also, because artificial sweeteners are so much sweeter than sugar, experts theorize that when we use these sweeteners, our taste for sweet continues to grow stronger.
“It’s important to remember that lower-calorie isn’t necessarily healthier,” says Christine Mastrangelo, R.D., owner of Boston-based New England Nutrition Associates. Yet on the flip side, calories do matter and do add up — even calories from “natural” sweeteners.
Bottom line: Consuming these sweeteners may be OK in moderation; but if you strive to eat mostly natural foods, keep reading.
2. High-Fructose Corn Syrup (HFCS)
This is actually a misnomer, because HFCS is not corn syrup, Bonci says. The International Food Information Council defines HFCS as a combination of fructose and glucose, which are both single sugar molecules (aka monosaccharides), produced from corn.
From ketchup and bread to sodas and fruit juice, the highly processed HFCS is ubiquitous in our food supply. Why? It extends the shelf life of foods and can be made very cheaply.
Some experts blame HFCS for high obesity rates in children, while others link consumption of HFCS with adverse health effects that may lead to conditions such as diabetes. However, these theories have not been scientifically proven. What is known about HFCS is that it adds calories but little nutritional value.
Bottom line: Look at the ingredients list. If HFCS is in the top five, keep shopping. And try to choose 100% juice rather than juice drinks made with HFCS.
Plain white table sugar (sucrose), contains 16 calories per teaspoon. Whether or not it’s “natural” depends on how you look at it. It comes from sugar cane and is made without the need for molecular changes as in HFCS; but it is refined and bleached. So if you’re looking to emphasize minimally processed foods, you might opt for honey instead. White sugar is commonly used as a preservative and flavor enhancer, and it’s found in most foods from baked beans to juice to soda and bread.
Bottom line: While sugar may be "natural," it's high in calories and offers very little nutritional value. Consume in moderation.
Honey, although less processed than sugar, has the same chemical makeup and calories as sugar, Bonci says. “It’s just a different option.” Honey has a slightly higher B vitamin content, and it also tastes slightly sweeter, so you might be likely to use less. It’s used more in organic foods or “natural” foods, but it’s more expensive, so we don’t see it widely used as a sweetener.
Honey also has a higher water content than sugar, making it inappropriate for some baking needs. While many experts agree that the difference between the nutritional value of honey and sugar is insignificant, others claim honey contains antioxidants, known to neutralize free radicals. According to the National Honey Board, darker honeys (e.g., buckwheat) are generally higher in antioxidant content than lighter honeys.
Bottom line: Honey may offer some nutritional value. But it's still high in calories and should also be consumed in moderation.
5. Brown Rice Syrup
As its name suggests, brown rice syrup is made from brown rice. It’s not a whole-grain food, but rather a type of sugar derived from a whole grain, Bonci says. This liquid sugar is a favorite ingredient among natural foodies because it’s derived from a whole grain and is made up of simple sugars. It has a slightly butterscotch-like flavor and is often used in nutrition or snack bars, organic cereals and baked goods. Baked goods made with rice syrup tend to be hard or very crisp.
Brown rice syrup has 16 calories/teaspoon like sugar, but does not taste as sweet. “From a calorie standpoint, your body doesn’t recognize the difference between brown rice syrup and sugar,” Bonci says.
Bottom line: Use brown rice syrup interchangeably with honey, such as in cookies, crisps, granola, pies, and puddings.
Widely used in Japan for the last few decades, stevia is actually a plant from South America. It's been sold in the United States for some time in packet form, as a dietary supplement — and used to sweeten drinks and foods such as tea or yogurt the way Splenda or Sweet N Low is used. Three hundred times sweeter than sugar, it has zero calories.
Stevia was reportedly just given an FDA green light for use as a sweetener in food products, as well. Alhough Coca Cola is slated to begin selling Odwalla brand drinks made with stevia in early 2009, official FDA approval is still pending, and it will be awhile before you'll find many stevia-sweetened foods in your grocery store.
Though stevia is made from a plant, there are concerns that it may be linked to cancer or reproductive problems, says Mastrangelo. Yet other research suggests it can lower blood pressure.
Advocates of using stevia cite the fact that there has been no illness associated with its use in Japan, or in South America where it’s also used commonly. However, scientists studying stevia are concerned that when it’s approved in the U.S., Americans will begin to consume huge quantities of it (the way we tend to do with everything); and that this could lead to adverse health effects.
Bottom line: If you use stevia sparingly — as a sweetener in your tea or coffee, for example — there is no known health risk. Read more about stevia as well as sucanat, agave nectar and other “new” natural alternatives to sugar in Jessica Harlan’s post Sweetening the Deal on the Gaiam blog.
7. Xylitol, sorbitol and manitol
These are sugar alcohols, made by adding hydrogen to sugar. They’re low in calories but not calorie-free (they have 1.3 to 3 calories to the gram, versus sugar, which as 4 calories/gram). However, even though they have calories, sugar alcohols don’t affect your blood glucose level, which is why they are approved for diabetics. They’re mostly used to sweeten sugar-free gums and candies.
Bottom line: Enjoy these sweeteners freely in hard candies or gum. But keep in mind that they don’t digest well and can cause gas and bloating.