If you’re like most people, you want to eat less sugar. This can be hard because the sad reality is that sugar is everywhere. It pops up in foods that should never have sugar, or you find it in the organic almond butter that you thought was plain almonds.
Even if you eat a healthy diet designed around whole foods, sugar is added to many sauces and condiments that are useful when cooking delicious meals. Therefore, this article will answer key questions about sweeteners and give you the rundown on ten of the most commonly used sweeteners.
Is Sugar More Trouble Than It’s Worth?
For most people, sugar is just more trouble than it’s worth. Moderation often backfires because of how sugar affects the brain and stimulates appetite. In simple terms, the system in our brain that is supposed to regulate our food intake and prevent us from gaining weight malfunctions.
When you consume sugar, whether it be table sugar, honey, or high-fructose corn syrup, a network of transmitters in the brain are targeted, slowing energy use, triggering food intake, and making you less alert.
Specifically, dopamine signaling is reduced so you feel less pleasure in response to sweet foods. At the same time, reward driven behaviors are activated, which makes many people continue eating. On the other hand, the appetite-suppressing hormone leptin gets suppressed, so we don’t feel satisfied and naturally stop eating. Calorie intake increases, which contributes to obesity and fat gain.
The bottom line is that for most people, having a moderate sugar intake simply doesn’t work. Avoiding added sugars and minimizing consumption of refined high-carb foods is the best approach for health and body composition.
Aren’t Some Sweeteners Healthier Than Others?
In general, the idea of “healthy” sweeteners is a myth. A common argument is that raw or plant-based sweeteners are better for you. But the reality is that our body doesn’t differentiate between evaporated cane juice and high fructose corn syrup in terms of its metabolic response since both contain a nearly identical distribution of fructose and glucose.
Then there’s agave syrup, which is often recommended as an alterative sweetener, but in reality, it is one of the unhealthiest sweeteners because it is highly refined and has an even higher fructose content (85 percent) than high-fructose corn syrup!
As you’ll see below in the list of sweeteners, stevia and yacon syrup may be the two exceptions. Yacon syrup contains indigestible fiber that improves gut health and may increase satiation. However, it does contain calories, and as you’ll see below, there’s only one study showing that it can be beneficial for body composition. Stevia is the one shining bright spot in this sweet mess since it is calorie-free, not artificial, and produces a favorable metabolic response.
What’s The Deal With Fructose?
A lot of people think fructose is a healthy sweetener because it comes from fruit and doesn't raise insulin. It was originally considered a good way for diabetes to get a sweet fix. In limited quantities, such as from a piece of fruit, fructose is not a problem unless you’re on a very low-carb diet.
However, in the larger quantities, fructose slows metabolic rate and reduces insulin sensitivity. Compared to glucose, which is used for energy in every cell in the body, only the liver cells break down fructose. When a moderate to large amount of fructose is present, the liver turns fructose into triglycerides, which are a form of fat. Triglycerides build up in liver cells and damage liver function. They are also released into the blood stream, contributing to plaque buildup in the artery walls.
Additionally, free radicals and uric acid are released when the liver metabolizes fructose. Free radicals damage cells and cause inflammation, whereas uric acid inhibits production of nitric oxide, which is a key substance that protects the artery walls from damage and allows blood flow to increase when more oxygen and nutrients are needed, such as during exercise.
People who consume a large amount of fructose tend to have greater belly fat because the liver deposits the excess triglycerides in the abdominal cavity and in other internal organs, including the liver itself. They also experience metabolic changes and are at greater risk of obesity, diabetes, and related diseases, such as cardiovascular disease.
Now that we’ve got that out of the way, here is a quick guide to ten of the most common sweeteners:
#1: Table Sugar
Sugar is made from either sugar cane or sugar beets. Sugar is called sucrose, which is a combination of two kinds of carbohydrates: Fructose and glucose. Glucose is the sugar that is turned into glycogen and stored in the cells for energy, but if there is too much, it is stored as fat. Glucose isn’t very sweet by itself, but when paired with fructose in table sugar, it is nice and sweet.
#2: High Fructose Corn Syrup (HFCS)
Chemically similar to table sugar and fruit juice concentrates, HFCS contains about 55 percent fructose and 45 percent dextrose (a form of glucose made from corn). It is attractive for food manufacturers, being 1.5 times as sweet as table sugar and cheaper as well. The biggest problem with HFCS and related sugars is that it supplies extra calories and “highjacks” the brain, slowing metabolic rate and making you crave more sugar.
#3: Agave Nectar
Agave is made from the agave plant. Agave is fermented to make mescal and tequila, but it can also be refined into a sugary liquid that is much higher in fructose than regular sugar or HFCS, containing 85 percent fructose compared to 55 percent. Agave is often marketed as diabetic-friendly since it doesn’t raise insulin, and in very small quantities in a diet that is virtually absent other sources of fructose, it might not be a problem. But consuming more than that is a bad choice.
Honey, especially minimally processed honey, has redeeming value. It contains antioxidants and pollen that may enhance immune function. The catch is that most conventional honey sold in the U.S. is highly refined to remove microscopic particles that lead the honey to crystallize. Additionally, honey is energy-rich and is about half glucose and half fructose, meaning it will activate those same pleasure regions of the brain as HFCS and sugar.
Stevia is a natural non-caloric sweetener that comes from the South American stevia bush. It is metabolized via the kidneys and liver and instead of causing an insulin release like other sweeteners, stevia improves blood sugar tolerance. This makes it a great tool for everyone who wants to avoid sugar, and it’s safe for diabetics. Don’t eat huge quantities because large doses haven’t been tested by science.
#6: Maple Syrup
Maple syrup is similar to honey in that it contains a number of different antioxidants and some minerals, such as zinc and manganese. However, maple syrup is also packed with sugar and calories and the total amounts of antioxidants and nutrients are low compared to the large amounts of sugar. The bottom line is that if you’re going to use a caloric sweetener, maple syrup is a better bet than regular sugar, but it should only be used very sparingly. Getting your antioxidants and nutrients from “real” food like vegetables and fruit is a better choice.
#7: Sugar Alcohols
Known as xylitol, erythritol, maltitol, and mannitol, sugar alcohols are a natural substitute for sugar that doesn’t promote tooth decay or spike blood sugar. They have little impact on insulin and provide fewer calories than sugar.
It should be noted that sugar alcohols aren’t non-caloric, even though they are often marketed this way. Erythritol is one of the lowest in calories, containing only 0.2 calories/gram, whereas xylitol contains 2.4 calories per gram compared to regular sugar, which contains 4 calories per gram. This is not necessarily a benefit. Sugar alcohols are not as sweet as sugar (sweetness varies but they tend to have 50 to 70 percent of the sweetness of sugar), meaning more is needed to have the same sweetening effect. Another primary drawback is that people experience gastrointestinal issues when larger quantities of sugar alcohols are consumed.
#8: Artificial Sweeteners
Artificial sweeteners include aspartame, acesulfame-K, neotame, sucralose, and saccharine, among others. It’s safe to say they are highly controversial. At first glance, they appear benign, providing no calories, with some correlational studies showing they can promote weight management. However, there are a number of animal studies showing that artificial sweeteners are linked to cancer and neurological problems.
There’s also some evidence that artificial sweeteners may negatively impact gut health and blood sugar regulation, although the research is only in the early stages. Finally, eating non-caloric sweeteners may degrade your ability to predict the caloric content of food, which could lead to eating more calories and fat gain.
Most people will agree that minimizing intake of artificial sweeteners is the best approach for health and wellness. A very moderate intake may be useful for someone transitioning to a healthy diet.
Sucanet is made from crushed sugar cane and dehydrated by a special crystallization process. It has a slightly lower sucrose content than regular sugar (88 percent versus 99 percent). The remaining amount contains protein, vitamins, and minerals. For this reason it is marketed as a “healthier” alternative to sugar. In reality, if you’re relying on sucanet and other “healthy” sweeteners for your vitamins and minerals, good luck! You’d be much better off getting your nutrition from “real” food: Veggies, fruit, fish, meat, dairy, eggs, nuts, and seeds.
#10: Yacon Syrup
You may have heard of yacon syrup on the Dr. Oz show, which probably made you pretty skeptical since Dr. Oz is notorious for endorsing useless weight loss supplements. Fortunately, yacon syrup has research to show it is a useful “alternative” sweetener including the fact that it has about a third of the caloric value of sugar (20 calories per tablespoon in yacon syrup compared to 46 in sugar).
Yacon syrup is derived from a potato-like tuber that contains a type of indigestible fiber called frucotoligosaccharides. This fiber is not digested or absorbed by the body, but it does feed the beneficial bacteria in the gut.
In addition, yacon syrup appears suppress appetite. One study on obese women found that when they supplemented with yacon syrup daily for 4 months, they lost an average of 15 kg compared to a placebo. There was no exercise program or other intervention, making these results both incredible and questionable.
More studies are needed to verify the body composition benefits of yacon syrup, but even if the original study isn’t replicable, it’s reasonable to include yacon syrup in your diet if you want some daily sweetness. Remember to account for the calories supplied in the syrup.