We know that too much sweet stuff is bad for us. But, are some sweeteners better than others?
More to the point, what counts as ‘better’ – does it come right down to calories, or are there other factors that affect a sweetener’s overall impact on your health?
With so much nutrition information out there, it’s hard to sort out fact from fiction.
And, when it comes to artificial sweeteners and other sugar alternatives – from Stevia to sucrose – the health picture grows foggier, not clearer.
To understand which is a healthier choice, we’ll take a look at the difference between natural sugars and artificial sweeteners. But first, you’ll need a quick understanding of the glycemic index.
What’s the Glycemic Index (GI)?
The glycemic index (GI) is a system that ranks foods on a scale from 1 to 100, based on how slowly or quickly they increase your blood glucose levels (otherwise known as blood sugar).
Foods with a high GI give your body a surge of energy that peaks quickly and then dies off. Some examples of foods that rank high in the glycemic index include:
- Sodas have a GI of approximately 63
- Unsweetened apple juice is only marginally better at 41
- Orange-flavored Gatorade has a GI of 89
- Frozen waffles have a GI of 76
- White flour bread is only marginally better at 76
- A white baguette has a whopping GI of 95
According to Harvard Health Publications, high GI foods have effects beyond the immediate peak and ‘crash.’ Over the long-term, high blood glucose levels are toxic to your body, and can lead to blindness, kidney failure, and increased risk of heart disease.
Alternately, foods low on the glycemic index tend to release glucose slowly and steadily. This keeps you full for longer and doesn’t result in an energy crash.
Ranking a food’s GI doesn’t tell the whole story – if you click through to Harvard’s report, you can learn how complex carbohydrates can slow the release of glucose in a rolled-oats apple muffin. Or, how juice, which has been stripped of all a fruit’s fiber, can cause a spike. But, for the purposes of comparing sweeteners, just remember that a high GI is one of the undesirable aspects of sweet stuff.
Which Sweeteners Are Natural?
Natural sugars are made from plants, including sugar from sugarcane, honey from pollen, maple syrup from trees, and stevia, from the stevia plant.
But ‘natural’ doesn’t mean that plant-based sweeteners don’t have similar chemicals to artificial alternatives. White, granulated table sugar is sucrose, which is a combination of equal parts glucose and fructose.
Regular sugar has a lot of calories, and not so much nutritional value. It also has a high glycemic index (GI), meaning that eating sugar leads to a peak of energy followed by a crash—hence the term ‘sugar high.’
Honey is also made up of glucose and fructose. But, not in equal proportions. Instead, honey is about 30% glucose and 40% fructose, with the remainder being mostly water.
Honey vs. Table Sugar: Which Is Healthier?
A teaspoon of honey has more calories than a teaspoon of sugar. However, it has some other benefits, including antioxidants that are good for your heart health.
Does that mean honey is healthier? We asked Nitin Kumar MD, a Harvard-trained and board-certified gastroenterologist and weight management expert, for clarification:
“Refined honey and molasses are essentially not better than table sugar in terms of calories or glycemic load. Molasses is often processed with a sugar blend. Ultimately, honey and molasses can have some micronutrients missing from sugar, and they can add variety to your diet, but they are not significantly better for your health than table sugar.”
Basically, aside from those antioxidants, there’s nothing superior about honey when compared to table sugar. That’s because our bodies can’t tell the difference—we absorb them in the same way.
What About Stevia?
One product that’s commonly mislabeled ‘artificial’ is Stevia. It’s made from the leaf of a South American stevia plant and, in its pure form, has zero calories.
How does Stevia give you a caloric free-pass?
According to Dr. Kumar, Stevia is poorly absorbed in the gastrointestinal tract. “A study published in the medical journal Appetite reported that Stevia results in lower glucose and insulin levels (a good thing) after meals than sugar.”
High-Fructose Corn Syrup: The In-Betweener Sweetener
What do we mean by ‘in-betweener’? A sweetener that are derived from something natural, but have been refined and processed in such a way that changes its chemical composition.
Take high-fructose corn syrup for example: It’s made by adding enzymes to regular corn syrup that convert glucose into fructose – making it sweeter.
In the United States, high-fructose corn syrup has been widely criticized for contributing to the obesity epidemic. But, there isn’t any research that says high-fructose corn syrup is a direct cause.
The problem is that it’s in so many processed foods. This includes foods like soda and candy, but also foods that you wouldn’t expect to be packed full of added sweetener, like bread, cereal, and crackers. (We’ll share which foods to watch out for in just a bit.)
High-Fructose Corn Syrup vs. Table Sugar
High-fructose corn syrup is similar to table sugar in terms of calorie content and the way that it’s absorbed into the body.
The difference is that table sugar is made up of 50% fructose and 50% glucose. Whereas, high-fructose corn syrup is more like 55% fructose and 45% glucose.
While 5% might not seem like much, fructose affects your body differently by converting to fat more easily than glucose. It’s also not so great at telling your body that you’re full, triggering you to consuming more of a sweetened food than you otherwise would.
Agave Nectar vs. High-Fructose Corn Syrup
Think agave nectar is a healthier choice? It has an even higher concentration of fructose – up to 90%!
More confusing, it’s not actually a ‘nectar,’ but a juice extracted from the core of the agave plant that’s been heated and filtered to turn into sugars. Basically, this healthier-sounding alternative is anything but.
What Are Artificial Sweeteners?
There are a few different types of artificial sweeteners available, but they all have something in common: Artificial sweeteners are all hundreds, or even thousands, of times sweeter than table sugar.
The idea is that you only need a tiny bit to get the same taste as a teaspoon of sugar, so you wouldn’t be taking in as many calories in each serving.
Some of these products are totally artificial. Others, like Splenda, are made by tweaking the chemical structure of sucrose to make it sweeter. However, as illustrated by agave nectar high-fructose composition, ‘natural’ doesn’t automatically mean healthier.
What Are the Pros and Cons of Artificial Sweeteners?
Your body responds to artificial sweeteners differently than it does to table sugar. There have been studies into negative health effects, but not a lot of firm conclusions.
According to Dr. Barry Sears, a leading authority in anti-inflammatory nutrition and author of the New York Times bestseller, The Zone, artificial sweeteners can have some advantages: “There are indications that they [artificial sweeteners] help in the reduction of excess body weight.”
However, research does show that these products can lead to weight gain for a different reason:
“Artificial sweeteners interact with sweet taste receptors in the tongue generating a far more powerful signal to the brain,” says Dr. Sears. “Although artificial sweeteners don't normally enter into the body, their signaling to the brain can cause a release of preformed insulin in the pancreas that may lower blood sugar levels.”
Beyond triggering lowered blood sugar, articifial sweeteners can confuse your brain in a way that tempts you to eat more treats. That’s because artificial sweeteners cue your brain into believing that calories are on the way, they often result in you consuming more sweet stuff, as you’re never made to feel ‘full.’
Are Artificial Sweeteners Unsafe?
According to Dr. Kumar, aspartame (found in NutraSweet and Equal) breaks down into components that are commonly found in food, and that “it’s accepted as safe, except in people with phenylketonuria, an inherited disease in children.”
Sucralose (Splenda) is a chlorinated sugar that largely passes out of the body unchanged. It’s also accepted as safe, especially because it does not accumulate in fat.
“All of these have studies showing safety in humans, but none has the mountain of safety data that we have for table sugar,” says Dr. Kumar.
“On the other hand, table sugar could be considered less safe than sweeteners given the increased calorie intake and effects on blood sugar.”
Which Sweetener Is Actually Best for Your Body?
Unfiltered honey is marginally better for our health than sugar or high-fructose corn syrup, since it retains its natural enzymes, antioxidants, minerals, and some vitamins. However, honey still contains lots of sugar, so it’s important to use it sparingly.
Another somewhat better option is date sugar, which also retains some nutrients from whole dates such as small amounts of fiber, calcium, potassium, and magnesium. Date sugar contains fewer calories than table sugar. However, its GI is unknown, and estimated to be close to that of whole dates and lower than table sugar (39 to 45).
The sweetener that continues to muddle the middle ground is Stevia. Some experts point to the plant-based sweetener’s zero-calories to indicate that it’s a clear winner for healthiest choice. However, as we mentioned above, studies also suggest that zero-calorie sweeteners, even natural ones like Stevia, can increase hunger and lead to weight gain, so moderation is key.
Agave Nectar Takes the Cake for ‘Worst Sweetener You Can Choose’
Despite having a super-low GI (around 20), Agave Nectar’s extremely high fructose content has experts concerned. That’s because too much fructose may contribute to unhealthy changes in liver function, triglyceride levels, and insulin sensitivity. Fructose is also harder to digest – especially for people with IBS – than other sugars.
What About Artificial Sweeteners?
Dr. Kumar says, “Artificial sweeteners can reduce your immediate calorie intake and glycemic load. Whether they ultimately result in weight loss is more controversial, but they appear to help.”
However, that doesn’t mean you can just sprinkle artificial sweeteners with wild abandon.
Experts suggest that, while artificial sweeteners won’t necessarily make you fatter than sugar when compared gram-for-gram, you do run the risk of over-consuming, since they never signal your brain to say “enough.”
Additionally, more new research has hinted that artificial sweeteners may mess with your gut’s microbes, the tiny organisms that live in your digestive system and help manage the ways your body breaks down and processes the stuff you eat. Like opening Pandora’s box, any changes to the gut’s microbiota may lead to widespread negative health consequences.
If you do prefer the taste of artificial sweeteners, be sure to add just a little bit when stirring some into your morning coffee.
“Ultimately,” says Dr. Kumar, “for someone trying to control blood sugar and/ or lose weight, artificial sweeteners can have a role.” The key, of course, is moderation.
Insofar as processed foods and beverages that boast zero calories? Experts agreed that there’s no evidence artificial sweeteners are better than drinking Original Coke in all its full-sugar glory when watching your weight is a primary concern.
Where to Watch Out for Hidden Sugar?
In the end, reducing your consumption of all sweet things is generally better for your health, which is why we asked which foods were most likely to sneak too-high of sugar content into your diet.
Our experts pointed to sweetened beverages as American's biggest source of added sugar consumption, and suggested those watching their sugar intake switch to non-caloric sweeteners, such as Stevia, when sweetening up tea or coffee. (Of course, sticking to straight water or unsweetened tea was noted as preferable, but we all have to start somewhere.)
Dr. Kumar warns to watch for hidden excess sugar in cereal, salad dressing, canned fruit, toaster pastries, pudding, bottled tea, yogurt, energy bars. Additionally, he also points a finger at anything labeled ‘fat-free,’ as sugars are often added to mask the taste of subtracted fat.
Main photo credit: iStock.com/NoDerog
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About Our Sources:
About Nitin Kumar MD
Nitin Kumar MD, is a board-certified in Gastroenterology, Obesity Medicine, and Internal Medicine, Bariatric Endoscopy Institute. Dr. Kumar has been quoted in Reader’s Digest, Shape, Self, Family Circle, Allure, AskMen, Eat This Not That, Prevention, among other publications. Learn more about his research at www.giweightloss.com.
About Dr. Sears
Dr. Barry Sears has dedicated the last 30 years of his research career to studying the links between diet, hormones, and health and is dedicated to restoring a state of health which can be controlled by reducing inflammation in your body. His research had led to his best selling books Enter the Zone, Mastering the Zone, Zone Perfect Meals in Minutes, and had additionally penned The Soy Zone, Anti-Aging Zone, Omega Zone, Toxic Fat, A Week in the Zone, Zone Meals in Seconds,Top 100 Zone Foods and The Mediterranean Zone.