I’m often asked, what kinds of sweeteners are best? Everyone knows the artificial ones are crap, but of the natural ones, there’s still some debate. Here’s my breakdown of each common type of sweetener.
- High Fructose Corn Syrup (HFCS): FAIL. While the body gets to choose whether it wants to use glucose (regular sugar) for energy or store it for future use (as fat), fructose bypasses this regulatory step and goes straight to fat. This means that it increases BMI and triglycerides, but doesn’t curb your appetite at all. It’s also six times as sweet as regular sugar—so in a sense, it “spoils” your taste for good, natural food.
- Sucralose (Splenda): FAIL. This one is 600 times sweeter than sugar. Its byproducts are in the same chemical category as certain pesticides (PCBs and DDT), and inconclusive studies suggest that it may cause genetic mutations. High doses have been linked with lower immune function.
- Aspartame (Equal or NutraSweet): FAIL. 200 times sweeter than sugar, this one gets metabolized to excitatory amino acids which can lead to neuron cell death, and has been linked with various neurological diseases such as MS, ALS, and Alzheimer’s Disease. It has also been linked to a number of adverse food reactions including headaches, migraines, depression, seizures, weight gain, irritability, insomnia, joint pain, and memory loss.
- Saccharin (Sweet ’N Low): FAIL. This one is 300-500 times sweeter than sugar. It’s associated with bladder cancer when fed to rats in large quantities.
- (Refined) Table sugar: FAIL. I wrote here on regular sugar and what too much of it does to you. That said, if you have a choice between some of the artificial nasties listed above and this, pick this every time. But you’re better off still if you pick some of the others listed in this section instead.
- Sugar in the Raw: FAIL. Pretty much the same as refined table sugar. Sorry. Both table sugar and sugar in the raw undergo the same initial processing steps from sugar cane to their consumable forms, including filtration, evaporation, boiling, and centrifuging. Refined sugar also has more filtering, processing and drying to render it white. The difference in nutrient content between the two different forms is negligible—they both confer basically the same amount of empty calories.
- Fruit juice concentrate: FAIL. The small amounts of fructose found in fruit are fine for the most part (unless your diet consists primarily of fructose, and then it’s probably an issue). But the larger dose of fructose found in a concentrate is not a healthy alternative to sugar. Here’s why.
- Sugar alcohols (erythritol, sorbitol, maltitol, xylitol): DECENT. Basically these are any sweetener ending in the suffix -ol. They have very little effect on your blood sugar, because your body can’t break them down—but because of this, when they get to your gut, your gut flora will break them down for you, creating a byproduct of gas. For this reason, I’d suggest eating them sparingly. Some people can tolerate them in small amounts; others, like those sensitive to FODMAPS, cannot tolerate them at all.
- Agave: FAIL. This natural sweetener was the darling of the nutritional world for awhile, even recommended as an ideal sweetener for diabetics. But don’t be fooled: while table sugar is made of sucrose (equal parts glucose and fructose), agave is 90% fructose. This is a problem for the same reason fruit juice concentrate and corn syrup are a problem: because fructose is not regulated in your body the same way that glucose is, and it goes straight to storage. Again, here’s the article that goes into this in detail.
- Stevia: PASS. In terms of its impact on blood sugar (none), its chemical makeup (it’s an extract of the stevia leaf: all-natural), and its impact on your body (no gas and bloating, unlike the sugar alcohols), this is probably my favorite of the sweetener options. However, not all stevia products are 100% natural; many contain preservatives, or have other sweeteners mixed in with them. So read your labels. Like the artificial sweeteners listed above, it’s also about 200 times sweeter than sugar—so it’s definitely not a 1:1 substitution for baking. The biggest complaint about stevia is its aftertaste: many people cannot tolerate it at all.
- Honey: PASS. While honey will spike your blood sugar just like regular sugar will (so it’s not a guilt-free substitute in that regard), it does confer a number of other health benefits, especially in its raw (unpasteurized) form. As many will attest in flu season, honey has antibacterial and antimicrobial properties, and local raw honey also contains trace amounts of local pollen, which will help to desensitize you to environmental allergies. It also contains trace minerals like other unprocessed sweeteners compared to table sugar. Of course, don’t feed honey to infants under a year of age, as it can contain spores of botulinum toxin which their immature digestive tracts can’t yet handle.
- Maple Syrup: PASS. Like honey, maple syrup contains some antioxidants, and minerals like zinc, calcium, potassium, iron, magnesium, and manganese. (So, you still get calories, but at least they’re not empty calories.) Its glycemic index is also lower than that of regular sugar, meaning it doesn’t spike your blood sugar as rapidly.
- Coconut palm sugar: PASS. This sugar is made from the sap (blood) of the coconut tree, which nourishes production of the highly nutritious coconuts. It’s true, therefore, that it’s nutrient dense compared to the empty calories of refined sugars, containing zinc, iron, calcium, potassium, short-chain fatty acids, polyphenols, and antioxidants. (This doesn’t make it truly nutrient dense, mind you: just nutrient dense relative to other sweeteners which have no health benefits at all.) It also contains the soluble fiber inulin, and fiber in general helps to slow the release of glucose into the bloodstream. This is likely the reason for the claims that coconut palm sugar has a lower glycemic index than other sugars. There aren’t any studies to demonstrate that coconut palm sugar consistently has a lower glycemic index than table sugar, however—and it does confer just as many calories as an equivalent dose of table sugar. So while it’s marketed as a health food, I’d recommend caution. As with honey and maple syrup, treat it like sugar and eat it with similar moderation.
- Coconut nectar: PASS. This is made from the same raw materials as coconut palm sugar, just before the dehydration process.
- Monk fruit: PASS. Like stevia, it’s 3-500 times sweeter than regular sugar but has no impact on blood sugar (in fact, it’s an antihyperglycemic, meaning it helps to lower blood sugar and regulate insulin secretion). Unlike stevia, though, it doesn’t have a nasty aftertaste. Like honey, it is high in antioxidants and has antibacterial properties. So all things considered, it sounds like this one is a winner!
- All else being equal, if you have to pick between a natural sweetener and a fake one, pick the natural one. Even regular table sugar is better than HFCS and the chemical cocktails.
- Steer clear of fruit juice concentrate and agave in favor of the lower fructose natural sweeteners, such as honey and maple syrup and coconut nectar or coconut palm sugar. Even then, use those natural sweeteners in moderation, since they will still impact your blood sugar.
- Try to limit your intake of all sweeteners, because even the natural ones that have no impact on blood sugar (stevia and monk fruit) will still continue to perpetuate a sweet tooth, and drive your food choices towards less healthy options. But upon occasion, these sweeteners would be my preference, followed by honey, maple syrup, coconut nectar and coconut palm sugar.