Sugar Vs. Sweetener Substitutes: The Good & Bad

by Ruthie Hawkins, Contributor

When it comes to our favorite drinks, whether in the form of a latte, a piping hot cup of tea, or a delicious cocktail, you may be surprised how that calorie (and sugar) count spikes in the presence of artificial sweeteners, high-fructose syrup or even honey. Which begs the question: is one healthier than the other?

To help you decide, here’s the real deal on sweeteners and 5 healthier substitutions.

Sugar or Substitute?

While research shows that sugar may lead to tooth decay, obesity, or worse, Americans consume 165 pounds of added sugar each year, author of Feed the Belly, Frances Largeman-Roth, RD, recently told Health magazine.

Facts About Artificial Sweeteners

Found in soft drinks, gelatins, bubble gum frozen desserts, cereal, yogurt, tea, and even cough drops, among other things, artificial sweeteners have absolutely no nutritional value.

Popular brands include Sunett, Sweet One, Equal, Nutrasweet, Truvia, Sweet’N Low, Agave nectar, and Splenda.

Agave is sweeter than sugar but contains more fructose than table sugar. In other words, it’s more likely to reduce your metabolism and insulin sensitivity.

While approved by the FDA, World Health Organization, and the American Dietetic Association – claiming that in moderation these sweeteners pose no threat, the CSPI gave artificial flavorings containing Aspartame, aka Equal and Nutrasweet their lowest ranking (food additives) stating their belief that users are at risk of weight gain or worse, cancer.

When it comes to HFCS (high fructose corn syrup), some studies found that beverages sweetened with food additives contributed to obesity.

Facts About Table Sugar

  • There are 16 calories per teaspoon.
  • It’s found naturally in fruit; but added to foods such as baked goods, salad dressings, and your favorite jams.
  • While it provides a boost of energy, sucrose provides zero nutritional value and too much can increase your risk of heart disease.
  • According to MedlinePlus, one of the most common of all disorders associated with table sugar is tooth decay, which occurs when the bacteria in your mouth converts foods – particularly sugar and starch – into acids. As a result, you may experience plaque, tartar, cavities, or worse, tooth loss.
  • Experts recommend sugar make up no more than 10 percent of your diet.

Meanwhile, in 2009 the American Heart Association further slashed that number suggesting women consume no more than6 teaspoons daily. Men are not to exceed 9 teaspoons

So what are the alternatives?

Often promoted as healthier options, the following natural sweeteners may be worth your consideration

  • Stevia: contains zero calories and is extracted from a plant by the same name.
  • Sugar Alcohols: Xylitol, sorbitol, and erythritol are created through a fermentation process of corn or sugar cane and have been linked to weight loss and cavity prevention.
  • Raw (local) honey: While this sweetener is packed with HFC, it also contains cancer-defending antioxidants and has been found to provide allergy relief.
  • Maple syrup: When used in moderation, “real” maple syrup is lower in calories and packed with minerals that ward off cancer, according to a 2011 trial performed by a pharmacist from the University of Rhode Island.
  • Blackstrap molasses: Rich in iron, potassium and calcium (and fewer calories) it’s no wonder why this substitute makes the cut. Still, it’s sugar – which creates a red light for those with diabetes.

It’s important to note that even these so-called “natural” sweeteners undergo processing and refining. In saying that, the key is moderation.