Despite its association with all things chaste, white hardly reveals innocence with sugar. Those seemingly pure-as-the-driven-snow granules are in fact typically refined at least six times, which means that any ensuing nutritive value is nil. But our collective sweet tooth has only been growing — and the health risks, increasing.
Americans currently consume an average of 60 pounds of sugar a year. “That’s about 20 teaspoons a day in added sweeteners — more than twice the amount recommended by the USDA for the average American, explains naturopathic doctor Cathy Wong, author of The Inside-Out Diet. (When you add other sweeteners, like corn syrup, those numbers jump to about 140 pounds a year, and 44 teaspoons a day.) All the extra calories, along with the boomerang effect sugar has on blood sugar levels, contribute to our obesity and diabetes epidemics — and conditions like Crohn’s disease, nonalcoholic fatty liver disease, and elevated triglyceride levels (a risk factor for stroke and heart disease).
By no means do natural sweeteners give us license to spoil a sweet tooth rotten, but they’re an improvement over sugar. Some provide trace minerals and other nutrients, and they send your blood sugar on a slower, steadier journey — which benefits both your in-the-moment energy level and your long-term health. “It’s about upgrading your sweets, health-wise,” says Beth Reardon, R.D., an integrative nutritionist for Duke Integrative Medicine in Durham, North Carolina.
But don’t assume every natural sweetener is healthier across the board. Fructose, for instance, a fruit-derived sugar, converts to triglycerides more easily than table sugar does. Others are high in calories. “And in terms of their impact on your blood sugar, a lot of the natural alternatives — honey and maple syrup, for instance — aren’t that different from table sugar,” says Wong. The bottom line: Every sweetener has pros and cons, the most notable of which we’ve culled here. If you’re diabetic or have health issues related to your diet, consult with your doctor to find the best option.
Derived from a spiky, desert-dwelling succulent plant, agave nectar (also known as agave syrup) has the same botanical parentage as tequila. Of the two, the sweetener will get you into far less trouble. With 60 calories per tablespoon, it’s not low-calorie, but it’s about 33 percent sweeter than sugar — so you can use less.
Particularly easy to find in supermarkets (look in the health-food section), agave nectar has a light, slightly fruity taste. Though research is still scant, agave appears to have a minimal effect on blood sugar and insulin levels, according to Wong.
Agave syrup is high in fructose; besides the triglycerides issue, some research suggests that fructose doesn’t shut off appetite hormones, so you may end up overeating.
Try agave nectar in coffee, tea, and baked goods. But in the last case, expect some trial and error: “When you use liquid sweeteners in baking, you need to reduce the liquid content in the recipe,” says Reardon. Unfortunately, there’s no foolproof equation, but experiment with a 1/4 cup reduction for every cup of liquid sweetener. You may also want to subtract 25 degrees from the recipe’s suggested baking temperature to compensate for the added liquid content.
Brown Rice Syrup
When combined with sprouted rice or barley, cooked brown rice yields this sweet liquid that tastes vaguely of butterscotch or caramel. Brown rice syrup contains about 13 calories per teaspoon and is less sweet than sugar.
The syrup breaks down relatively slowly, providing more of a time-release energy flow than sugar does. Unlike sugar, this rice derivative contains magnesium, manganese, and zinc.
There is still glucose in there, says Wong, so diabetics should avoid using this sweetener.
With its distinct flavor, brown rice syrup works better in baked goods than in coffee and tea. When baking with it, replace each cup of white sugar with 1 1/4 cup of brown rice syrup. As with agave nectar, slightly reduce other liquids in the recipe to accommodate for this liquid sweetener.
Once solely an ingredient in packaged foods, this sugar alcohol is now available in a powdered form. With a clean, cool taste and nearly no calories, erythritol is most commonly the result of breaking down, fermenting, and filtering sugar cane or corn starch. “After heating the resulting liquid until the water evaporates, you are left with whitish crystals,” explains Wong.
Since it is low in calories, erythritol is good for people with weight concerns. “It is promising for diabetics, too, as it doesn’t affect blood sugar or insulin levels,” says Wong. Bonus pros: Erythritol won’t decay your teeth (the offending bacteria don’t metabolize it), and, in moderate quantities, it doesn’t cause the stomach upset that other sugar alcohols do.
Excessive consumption (over 20 teaspoons a day) can cause problems like gas, bloating, and diarrhea.
Because it’s clean tasting, erythritol works well in coffees and teas. But you can also bake with this heat-stable powder. Know that it’s only about 70 percent as sweet as table sugar, though, so you’ll need to account for that difference.
Though typically limited to the role of pancake and waffle adjunct, this boiled down maple tree sap has a lot more to offer — particularly USDA Grade B syrup. “Usually made toward the end of the season, it has a stronger flavor than Grade A and is thought to contain more minerals,” says Wong. Either way, you’re looking at about 17 calories per teaspoon.
Low-tech and barely processed, pure maple syrup is a good source of minerals like manganese and zinc.
A diabetic no-no, maple syrup can boost blood sugar levels. Then there is the distinctive flavor, which limits the sweetener’s application.
Though you probably don’t want to start squirting syrup into hot drinks, it enhances baked desserts. Try substituting U cup for 1 cup of sugar, and reduce the recipe’s liquid content.
A case study in semantics, this native South American plant is technically a supplement, not a sweetener, according to the FDA. Citing “lack of safety evidence,” they’ve yet to approve it for use as a food. However, many experts, including Reardon, don’t place much stock in the FDA’s position. Stevia is available in liquid and powdered form in the vitamin aisle. You can also grow your own plant, or buy the dried herb from sources like mountainroseherbs.com.
Because it’s about 300 times sweeter than sugar, stevia is potent in minute quantities, and it contributes zero calories. In addition, says Wong, some evidence shows that stevia may help lower blood sugar levels.
Some people find that stevia has a bitter aftertaste.
If you’re interested in baking with stevia, look to specialty books or Web sites; since the herb’s sweetness and volume are drastically different from that of sugar, there’s no easy substitution formula. Stevia works well in hot beverages like coffee or tea, however. (The liquid and powder forms will dissolve; if you’re using the fresh or dried leaf, strain it out.) Also try it for sweetening cold foods, such as plain yogurt, salad dressing, or grapefruit. But keep the extreme sweetness in mind; start small and add gradually.
The Latest on Aspartame
Results of a 2005 European study showed an increased risk for lymphoma and leukemia in rats fed the artificial sweetener aspartame in doses proportional to what would be considered safe in people. Another, published in 2007, also found an increased risk of breast cancer. Citing studies that found no link between aspartame and cancer, the FDA maintains aspartame is safe. But plenty of experts disagree. “In my opinion, the results are concerning enough that people should avoid aspartame,” says Cathy Wong, N.D. “If they do use it, they shouldn’t use it as their sole sweetener.”