Word on the street is that sugar may be killing us... or at least contributing to health risks like obesity and diabetes Sugar-sweetened beverages, weight gain, and incidence of type 2 diabetes in young and middle-aged women. MB, Schulze., Manson, JE., Ludwig, DS., et al. Department of Nutrition. Harvard School of Public Health, Boston, MA. The Journal of the American Medical Association 2004 Aug 25;292(8):927-34.. But when it comes to choosing an alternative sweetener, the options can get a little sticky.
Sugar Overload—Why It Matters
Americans consume a ton of sugar. Actually, make that 10,000 tons every year—a rate that's increased steadily over the last decade. And sugar finds its way into everything—sodas, baked goods, and even savory foods like pasta sauce and potato chips. This increasing consumption has been consistently linked to health threats like obesity, diabetes, and even sugar dependency (craving something sweet?) Evidence for sugar addiction: behavioral and neurochemical effects of intermittent, excessive sugar intake. Avena, NM., Rada, P., Hoebel, BG. Department of Psychology, Princeton University, Princeton, NJ, USA. Neuroscience and Biobehavioral Reviews 2008;32(1):20-39.. But who wants to completely skip out on those occasional sweet treats? While it's probably best to cut down on refined white sugar, alternatives can be a great way to satisfy that sweet tooth without going too far overboard in the calorie and health risk categories. Just keep this in mind: As with many things in life, less is more, and smart sweetener use complements the main course—it doesn't steal the show.
Sweet Somethings—The Answer/Debate
Keep in mind, of course, that the ideal substitute will vary from one situation to the next (I won't be putting maple syrup in coffee or molasses on my pancakes anytime soon—but to each their own). Here are a few effective options to consider:
- All-Natural Plant-Based Sweeteners: Stevia and agave, both derived from South American plants, are getting a lot of buzz these days—and for good reason. Neither of these natural sweeteners spike the body’s blood sugar to the degree that white sugar does, so there's much less chance of experiencing drastic mood or energy ups and downs.
- Stevia is usually sold in powder or liquid drop form and can be up to 300 times sweeter than sugar. That said, it can also pack a punch on the grocery bill, costing up to 5 times more than its artificial counterparts like Sweet-n’-Low. But lucky for us, liquid stevia can last months, since sweetening a drink, sauce, or salad dressing only requires a few drops each.
- Agave is a great substitute too—but because it's made up of almost all fructose, only use in moderation (dangerfood alert!). The upside? Moderation shouldn't be a problem, since agave is sweeter than sugar, so it requires less to reach the same sweetness level. Plus, it's milder in flavor than many other sweeteners (including sugar!). If fructose consumption is a concern, abstaining from agave may be a good idea Fructose consumption as a risk factor for non-alcoholic fatty liver disease. Ouyang X, Cirillo P, Sautin Y, et al. Division of Nephrology, University of Florida. J Hepatol. 2008 Jun;48(6):993-9. Epub 2008 Mar 10.. Though the body can have difficulty processing fructose, small amounts (like a teaspoon with coffee or the natural fructose in a piece of fruit) are generally harmless. But consuming large doses of fructose (like in heavily sweetened drinks) may have negative effects on liver function and cause weight-gain, and has also been tied to obesity, diabetes, and kidney and heart diseases Lipid metabolism of orchiectomised rats was affected by fructose ingestion and the amount of ingested fructose. Makino, S., Kishida, T., Ebihara, K. Department of Biological Resources, Faculty of Agriculture, Ehime University, Matsuyama, Japan. The British Journal of Nutrition. 2011, August 1: 1-9. The impact of fructose on renal function and blood pressure. Kretowicz, M., Johnson, R.J., Ishimoto, T., et al. Department of Nephrology, Hypertension, and Internal Medicine, Collegium Medicum in Bydgoszcz, Nicolaus Copernicus Unvirsity in Torun, Bydgoszcz, Poland. International Journal of Nephrology, 2011;2011:315879.. The bottom line? While white sugar has negatives, so do some sugar alternatives, and fructose is one of the worst offenders.
- Honey: A classic, tried-and-true option. While it does have slightly more calories than sugar, its strong flavor means a little goes a long way. Honey also boasts numerous health benefits, such as antibacterial properties, especially in its raw form.
- Brown rice syrup and maple syrup: For baking, these make great lower-calorie sweeteners. Brown rice syrup, popular in many natural and “health food” brand granolas and snack foods, is made by cooking brown rice until it turns into syrup. We embrace maple syrup as the time-tested topping for pancakes and waffles, but using a tablespoon or two to sweeten baked goods has become a popular trend (like this basic chocolate cake recipe from 101 Cookbooks, e.g.).
- Fruit and fruit products: For those who want to replace table sugar completely, using ripe fruit or fruit products like apple sauce or jams (just watch out for added sugar!) can add that subtle sweetness to a baked good or plain yogurt snack.
Originally posted May 9, 2011. Updated June 2012.