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Sugar Substitutes: The Pros and Cons of Several Popular Sugar Alternatives | Nutrition Gone Wild

Sugar Substitutes: The Pros and Cons of 6 Popular Sugar Alternatives

Here’s the truth about all that sweet stuff. 

By now, I’m sure we all know that lots of extra sugar in our diets is a big no-no. But sugar is EVERYWHERE! It’s even sometimes in foods that really don’t make sense to have all that added sugar.

But, sugar… is… EVERYWHERE! It’s even sometimes in foods that really don’t make sense to have all that added sugar.

It’s even sometimes in foods that really don’t make sense to have all that added sugar.

So how did we get to this point? Why are Americans chowing down on so much sugar, even when we know it is so bad for our health?

Most of us don’t even know we are consuming that much extra sugar. Processed foods that make our lives easier due to convenience are often sneakily filled with excess sugar and most of us don’t read labels. Even if we did, a lot of us wouldn’t have a grasp of how much sugar is even appropriate, let alone understanding the difference between added sugar and natural sugars.

So let’s start there.

 

How much sugar should you have?

Sugar Cubes

credit: pixabay.com

 

The recommended daily intake of added sugar, as denoted by the American Heart Association (the USDA keeps it real vague as to what they recommend, and I’m sure the food industry really doesn’t mind), is 6 teaspoons (100 calories) for women and 9 teaspoons (150 calories) for men.

Having a hard time picturing that? Here are some items you may consume and how much sugar is in them… (just FYI there are 4g in a teaspoon, so you can go read your labels more easily after this article!)

  • A Hershey’s milk chocolate bar: 6 teaspoons of sugar (ladies, that is your entire sugar allowance for the day!)
  • A can of Pepsi Cola has 8.75 teaspoons of sugar (gentlemen, you are just a quarter teaspoon away from your daily allowance with that can)
  • Your bowl of Fruit Loops in the morning: 10.5 teaspoons in a serving
  • Your Special K cereal? That one that they used to claim could be used as a dieting tool? Still has 3 teaspoons of sugar (which is the half way mark for the ladies’ daily intake)
  • A shot of creme de menthe: 21 grams of sugar
  • A 5oz pour of red or white wine: 1 gram of sugar (which actually comes from the grapes and isn’t added, so yay for that…)

 

Here is some perspective: A brief history of sugar in the U.S.

Cane Sugar

credit: pixabay.com

 

The average American consumes 100 lbs of sugar every year! Less than 100 years ago, the average American only consumed 4 lbs of sugar per year.

So what happened to make us start consuming so much sugar as a nation? 

Let’s talk a little history real quick.

Sugar cane is native to Southeast Asia, and the Europeans in their travels had discovered and been enjoying for a while. But when Columbus traveled to what we now know was the Dominican Republic, it was discovered that sugar cane grew well in the tropical environment.

As South and Central America was being colonized, and sugar cane crops growing, the colonists couldn’t keep up with the harvesting. Thus, the slave trade was born (not trying to get so dark and sad here, but this is real life history).

Sugar became the most important crop to Europeans and they devoted a lot of their time (and resources) to protecting that trade.

Some argue that America’s 13 original colonies gained independence because Britain was too busy protecting sugar cane crops in the Caribbean and South America. The bigger picture here?

Sugar is one hot commodity!

When the United States began industrializing and commercializing the food industry, sugar use and consumption steadily grew. And when you put the power to make our food in the hands of smart business people, those looking out for our health may not always be involved as much in the making of our food.

 

So, why do we have such a huge sugar problem?

Sugar Donut

credit: pixabay.com

 

Many nutrition and health experts believe that sugar is addictive and your brain is working against you.

It’s not your fault. You were programmed that way.

When you consume something sugary and sweet, your brain receives a signal to evaluate the taste you just experienced. Then your brain sends a signal another part of the brain that deals with reward systems. To put it plainly, your brain gets a sense of that awesome sugary flavor and tells you to eat MORE!

So why is this a problem?

Your brain will do the same thing for the delicious sweetness of fruit, but now that we have things way sweeter to eat, like soda and cookies, and this has created a problem.

Food companies know that you can’t help but love sugary products, and they know they can get you hooked. And sugar has become very cheap with the invention of high fructose corn syrup. You need very little in volume to add a sweetness many times more sweet that the standard granulated sugar.

 

What are the alternatives to sugar?

What do you really know about sugar and their alternatives?

There are so many different questions that get overlooked while we just focus on demonizing sugar in general (which isn’t totally undeserved). But sugar is an inevitable part of life, so maybe it’s time we get to know more about the sweet stuff we seem to consume in mass quantity. The main thing to understand about sugar replacements is that there are natural options and artificial ones. 

 

Agave/Honey

 

Honey

credit: pixabay.com

 

 

Agave and honey are both natural sugar substitutes.

Agave has been touted for its low glycemic index due to its high fructose (fruit sugar/natural sugar) content, which can make it okay for diabetics to consume. One tablespoon has about 60 calories, and thanks to a low glycemic index of 17, it doesn’t spike your blood sugar, which is generally something you want to avoid.

Agave however, isn’t some miracle sweetener that you can consume in any amount you want. The media has overhyped the benefits of agave.

You should still treat it like regular sugar. But it is a great option for Bee-gans (vegans who don’t consume honey). And… of course, I have to give it props for giving us tequila (ya know, that awesome liquor we generally shoot on taco Tuesdays).

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What about honey?

Honey has been used for its medicinal properties for centuries, found to have both antioxidant and antibacterial properties. However, honey isn’t really that much healthier when we look at its sugar content. It ranks on the glycemic index with an index of 60-74 (which regular granulated sugar ranks in with a 68). With about 64 calories per tablespoon and more carbohydrate content than white or brown granulated sugar, honey is actually a worse choice for diabetics.

If you choose to use agave or honey, treat it the same way you treat regular sugar options. Sometimes, one of these alternatives is a good choice for flavor, but for just the straight sugar content, they aren’t much better alternatives.

Bottom Line: Treat these just like regular sugar, use sparingly.

 

Stevia

Stevia

credit: pixabay.com

What is stevia (brand named Truvia)?

Stevia is also a natural sugar alternative and is made from a plant that is native to South America (there is also some in the southwest region of the United States, but isn’t the more popular strain). It has existed for centuries to be used for medicinal properties. It has now been introduced to the sweetener market as a sugar substitute because it is 200x sweeter than sugar with a zero calorie content.

So is there a catch? Most things that sound that great are too good to be true…

Stevia has been deemed generally safe to consume (unless you are on certain medications) and has become a great option for diabetics, but like the chemical sweeteners I will talk about shortly, it may not be a miracle substitute for weight loss. Studies looking into the use of artificial sweeteners and stevia have found that people tend to overcompensate or binge on sugar later when they consume these alternatives.

When you consume something that the brain can’t recognize, it is no shock that you may end up consuming even more sugar later since you never really quenched that craving for sugar you had in the first place (this is an issue with the artificial sweeteners also). There are also studies that say otherwise. It is safe to say that a conclusion has yet to be reached about stevia as a diet aid.

On a personal note, I feel more comfortable consuming stevia as a sugar alternative over the chemical ones, but it is still a good idea to consume these sweeteners in moderation.

Bottom line: Stevia seems pretty safe. But use sparingly like you would sugar.

 

Aspartame (Equal)

Diet Soda

credit: FreeFoodPhotos.com

 

Aspartame!

I’m sure you’ve heard the term.

Aspartame is an artificial sweetener that has been around since the 1960’s. It is made up of two amino acids (phenylalanine and aspartic acid) and has the scary reputation of being a chemical that is 200x sweeter than sugar, that many claim will give you cancer!

The studies that have shown aspartame to cause cancer have only been conducted on rats. This is a hard sell for me to believe. The idea that these studies are totally applicable to humans is a little ridiculous since the amount of aspartame fed to the rats is completely unrealistic in humans. To see the results of one of these rat studies in humans, a human woman would have to drink 14 cans of diet soda per day.

While I can imagine there are definitely people out there consuming this much aspartame every day, I wouldn’t say the average person is in as much danger as the media is proposing. (If you are drinking 14 cans of diet soda per day, you should probably stop. I’m not a doctor, but seriously.) 

While I don’t discount the risk here, if you consume a diet soda once in awhile, I don’t think your risk of cancer is any greater than the chances of you getting cancer because you have other poor health habit or have a family history of cancer…

Like I mentioned with stevia, there have been some findings that argue that these diet aid sweeteners can lead to more weight gain rather than weight loss.

One study showed that for each can of diet soda consumed each day, the risk of obesity increased by 41 percent. And if habits continued after 10 years, those who drank two or more diet sodas a day increased their risk of obesity by 500 percent.

This goes along the line of my philosophy about making a treat a treat.

Soda is meant to be a treat. If you are going to have one, make it something that happens rarely and get the real stuff. If you are gonna have a coke, have the real sugar one.

In no way is sugared soda good for you, but you will be able to quench your thirst for something sweet on the first try. If you go for the diet soda, there is a risk that you will end up binging on way more junk later…

Bottom line: Limit your aspartame intake. It’s not good for you.

 

Sucralose (Splenda)

Sugary Cocktail

credit: unsplash.com

Sucralose is another artificial sweetener. 

You best know it as Splenda. And they sure did give it a name that instills the idea that it is a SPLENDID sweetener choice!

Sucralose, the technical name for Splenda, is 600x sweeter than sugar and has only been on the market in the U.S. since 1999. Something special about Splenda is its ability to be used in baking because of its ability to heat stable. However, there are some studies now claiming that Splenda at high temperatures in combination with fat may produce chloropropanols, a toxin that is known to be carcinogenic (cancer causing).

Splenda may also not support healthy gut bacteria.

In a 12-week rat study, after being fed Splenda, the guts of the rats were shown to have lost 47-80% of their “good” bacteria, making their gut flora unbalanced and unhealthy. It took another 12 weeks to see their gut flora return to normal.

Unlike aspartame, it appears that while Splenda doesn’t show to significantly help in weight loss, it doesn’t seem to put people at risk for obesity or weight gain in general. I can still argue that you could gain weight if you are not able to change your behavior (i.e. not overcompensate with eating more later). However since this product has only been on the market for 17 years, more research could turn up some new findings in the weight department.

Bottom line: If you can stand the flavor, use Splenda occasionally in your cold drinks. Don’t bake with it.

 

Saccharin (Sweet ‘N Low)

Gummy Bears

credit: pixabay.com

 

Saccharin, better known as Sweet ‘N Low, is also an artificial sweetener. It was discovered in the late 1800’s and came into commercial use when sugar was being rationed during both World Wars. Like sucralose, Sweet ‘N Low is 600x sweeter than sugar.

Sweet ‘N Low, like many of the artificial sweeteners, has been studied for its risks of causing cancer.

Rat studies conducted with saccharin showed that it caused bladder cancer in rats, but when shifted to be tested in humans, could not be shown to have the same effects. For about 30 years, due to these rat studies, it was put on a list of chemicals that are “reasonably considered” to be carcinogenic in humans, until 2000 when it was deemed to be of no risk or harm to humans to consume.

Sweet ‘N Low also contains sulfonamides, known to cause allergic reactions in those who are intolerant of sulfa drugs (a group of antibiotics, including penicillin). Some infant formula also contains saccharin and there are some claims that it causes babies to be irritable and experience muscle dysfunction. Perhaps we shouldn’t be exposing our babies and children to chemicals we just don’t know enough about…

Bottom line: Like with aspartame, it was a very high dose to induce cancer in rats with saccharin, but just to be safe let’s limit our intake of this one too.

 

So what sugar substitutes should I use?

Refined Sugar

credit: pixabay.com

 

We know that excess sugar is unhealthy and that many of these artificial sweeteners have turned up some findings that are rather scary in the cancer (and weight) department.

The same rules about moderation we use for other foods and activities apply here.

Too much of anything is a bad thing, even if that is cliche, it is very true. It is probably okay to have some aspartame or Splenda here and there, but don’t eat it like Americans currently consume sugar. I’m sure if you ate 100 lbs of artificial sweeteners every year, it would probably do something bad to your body.

Unfortunately, there is no miracle sugar substitute.

But there is one I would say comes close.

The winner for me today is…dun dun dun dahhhh: Stevia.

While I still caution you to use stevia in moderation, it has been used for centuries in other parts of the world as medicine and doesn’t appear (yet) to cause cancer. While it has been shown to have issues with weight gain and loss, it doesn’t appear to negatively affect your gut health and may only trigger some eating behavior issue.

While it has been shown to have issues with weight gain and loss, it doesn’t appear to negatively affect your gut health and may only trigger some eating behavior issue.

If you want to stick to sweet stuff that is more familiar, agave is a good option since it is low glycemic and neutral in flavor (good for baking and cooking). I’m not personally a huge fan of using agave (outside of my consumption of margaritas) mostly because I’m weird about sticky things when I’m cooking…

(I know your mind went there…that’s why I emphasize COOKING)

If you have a sugar substitute you would like to know more about that I didn’t cover, feel free to tweet me or leave me a comment below. I would be happy to do a little more digging into the safety of any sweeteners you are concerned about!

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About Kaitlin Cushman


Welcome to Nutrition Gone Wild. I'm Kaitlin, I have 2 degrees in nutrition, and I want to make a promise to you: I'm going to offer advice that is easy, beneficial, and applicable to your everyday life. This advice is meant to empower you to make these small changes that ultimately will benefit your overall health without taking the fun out of your daily schedule. Join me on this journey to living health(ier), wild and free!

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