At this point, it's common knowledge that too much sugar bad for us. In fact, some doctors even think we should regulate them like we do alcohol. But given all the marketing hype behind different "natural" alternatives, it's hard to know which sweeteners really are the best. Complicating matters, studies--including one published in 2010 in the journal Cancer Research--are finding that fructose, a sugar found in high-fructose corn syrup, agave, honey, and, in much tinier amounts, even in fruit, actually feeds some cancers. That's no reason to give up on fruit or even honey, but when you're in need of a sweetener, make sure you know the difference between the good guys and the bad. And use them in moderation: "Sweeteners should, first and foremost, always be thought of as treats," says Joy Manning, nutrition editor at Prevention magazine.
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There's conflicting evidence regarding the safety of aspartame, a common chemical sweetener used in diet soda and other low-cal foods, but some people report headaches or generally feeling unwell after ingesting anything containing the chemical. To make life easier for everyone, this is one instance where you may want to follow the "better safe than sorry" principle. That's because a University of Liverpool test-tube study found that when mixed with a common food color ingredient, aspartame actually became toxic to brain cells.
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Aspartame is used in many diet sodas, and researchers are finding that drinking two diet sodas a day can lead to a 500 percent greater increase in waist size. Furthermore, animal studies suggest that aspartame actually increases blood glucose levels similarly to sugar, which could explain the association between diet soda and diabetes.
A final insult: Researchers have found that one harmful breakdown product is formaldehyde, a known cancer-causer. Sweet? We don't think so.
While your health food store likely stocks agave sweeteners, it may be best to keep them out of your cart. Many agave nectars consist of 70 to 90 percent fructose--that's more than what's found in high-fructose corn syrup! "Agave nectar is probably one of the worst sweeteners on the market, and it's deceptive because it's been marketed as a healthy alternative," says nutritionist and author Jonny Bowden, PhD, CNS. "Everybody thinks it's a health food."
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Even though it doesn't cause a big blood sugar spike the way regular table sugar does, agave's high fructose levels go directly to the liver, where the organ repackages it as blood fats called triglycerides, increasing heart disease risk. These high fructose levels can also contribute to insulin resistance, a risk factor for diabetes, as well as nonalcoholic fatty liver disease. "The liver is fat-metabolizer central; it gets rid of toxins," says Bowden. "When there's a lot of fructose coming in, it tends to build up fat deposits around the liver. Everything gets blocked up--it's like the non-EasyPass lane at the tollbooth."
Still, Bowden notes that it's not all or nothing. Using a teaspoon of agave nectar here or there in dessert recipes is reasonable, but you want to avoid drinks and foods sweetened with it.
Sucralose, better known by its brand name, Splenda, but sold under other generic labels as well, may originate with sugar, but the end product is anything but natural. It's processed using chlorine, and researchers are finding that the artificial sweetener is passing through our bodies and winding up in wastewater treatment plants, where it can't be broken down. Tests in Norway and Sweden found sucralose in surface water released downstream from treatment discharge sites. Scientists worry it could change organisms' feeding habits and interfere with photosynthesis, putting the entire food chain at risk.
Sugar is made up of 50 percent glucose, the component that spikes blood sugar, and 50 percent fructose, the stuff that goes straight for the liver. It's the sheer quantity we're eating that's driving obesity and other diseases. About 100 years ago, humans ate the equivalent of one tablespoon of sugar a day; now it's up to 7 tablespoons daily because sugar is hidden in everything from juices and cereals to bread and condiments.
If your main use for sugar is to sweeten your coffee, Manning suggests experimenting with different coffee brands and roasts until you find one you like black. "There are so many roasts and beans that have different intensities of flavor," she says. "To my mind, putting sugar in coffee is like putting sugar in a glass of wine."
However, if it's absolutely necessary, a few drops of honey create a surprisingly nice cup of coffee. On those rare occasions that you do use sugar, choose organic to avoid pesticide residues and to ensure the sugar was grown without the use of genetically engineered crops. And choose less processed sugars, like rapadura or turbinado. Although these aren't "healthy," sugars closer to their natural state are likely to be richer in minerals.
Waistlines have been growing ever since high-fructose corn syrup, or HFCS, sneaked onto the food scene around 30 years ago. With a slightly higher fructose level than sugar, HFCS does most of its damage because it's added to an array of processed foods, including breads, yogurts, ketchup, and even salad dressing. Today, Americans ingest at least 200 calories of HFCS daily. (It's banned for use in organic food.)
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According to Robert Lustig, MD, professor of pediatrics at the University of California--San Francisco, HFCS is preferentially stored as fat in the liver and makes people resistant to leptin (a hormone), which actually increases appetite.
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A 2009 study published in the journal Environmental Health also found that HFCS is sometimes laced with mercury, a heavy metal linked to autism and heart disease.
"We need to be off of sugar, but we need good alternatives, and stevia is the safest sweetener there is, period," says Donna Gates, who led the movement to bring stevia, a natural sweetener, into this country more than a decade ago. All types of stevia are extracted from the leaves of the stevia plant, but some forms taste better than others, says Gates.
Stevia contains zero calories, but its one downfall is that it doesn't work well for baking. Be wary of some stevia-related products on store shelves, though. Coke and Pepsi got the green light to use Truvia (a sweetener made in part from stevia extract, along with a sugar alcohol), but some of the ingredients could be derived from genetically engineered crops. More juices and drinks, including Crystal Light Pure, are also sweetened with Truvia, but it should also be noted that Truvia is distributed by Cargill, an industrial food giant that also promotes many unhealthy products. The package label also lists "natural flavors," which could include all sorts of questionable ingredients.
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People tend to overuse the powdered version, so start with the liquid form. You can even grow your own stevia plant. It's technically an herb, and you can use the leaves as you would any other kitchen herb for sweetening drinks or cooking.
Popular sugar alcohol sweeteners include xylitol, sorbitol, and erythritol, natural sweeteners made through a fermentation process of corn or sugar cane. They contain fewer calories than sweeteners like pure sugar and honey, but more than stevia. They also leave a cooling sensation in the mouth, and have been found to prevent cavities, explains Christine Gerbstadt, MD, MPH, RD, nutrition consultant and author of Doctor's Detox Diet: The Ultimate Weight Loss Prescription (Nutronics 2011). Try to choose organic versions or ones derived from non-corn ingredients to avoid genetically engineered material. And if you do use it, just don't overdo it--too much can cause GI distress. (Note: Xylitol is extremely toxic to dogs. Even a little bit causes life-threatening changes in a pooch's blood sugar.)
While honey does boast higher fructose levels, it also contains a bounty of cancer-defending antioxidants, and local honey has been said to help alleviate allergy symptoms. Don't limit your use of raw honey to tea, either. Use it to speed healing on burns, and as a natural antiseptic on cuts and scrapes.
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Honey also has a low glycemic index, so adding it to your tea or yogurt won't lead to energy-busting blood sugar drops later in the day.
Blackstrap molasses is rich in iron, potassium, and calcium, making it a healthier choice than nutritionally defunct artificial sweeteners or even regular refined sugar. In fact, one tablespoon of blackstrap molasses provides more iron--but fewer calories and fat--than a three-ounce serving of red meat. Molasses is the syrupy by-product of the process that turns sugar cane into refined white table sugar. Sugar cane juice is boiled three times to extract the crystallized sugar, which first creates a light molasses, then a dark molasses, and finally, the super-concentrated, nutrient-rich blackstrap molasses. It's still sugar, however, and Dr. Gerbstadt warns that it's not recommended for people with diabetes. We like the organic, Fair Trade Certified version of blackstrap molasses from Wholesome Sweeteners.
All types of sweeteners should be used in moderation, but turn to real maple syrup if you want a naturally sweet treat. It's lower in calories and packed with more minerals than honey, and may even ward off cancer and heart disease. In 2011, a pharmacist from the University of Rhode Island discovered 54 previously unknown compounds in maple syrup from Canada, many of which were anti-inflammatory (which protects your heart) and exhibited cancer-fighting antioxidant properties. Ironically, two of the antioxidants they found were later discovered to fight enzymes that lead to type 2 diabetes. When you're buying it, just make sure the label reads 100 percent maple syrup--not not high-fructose corn syrup and "natural maple flavoring."