Which sweeteners are best for you?
BY JENNIFER MOTL
As a dietitian whose childhood nickname was Cookie Monster, I have a dilemma you may share: What to do about sweets.
Sweets aren’t just indulgent and delicious; they carry emotional weight for Americans. We wish our children “sweet dreams” at night and describe a wonderful surprise as “icing on the cake.” Our love affair with sweetness permeates our terms of endearment: honey, sweetie, sugar …
Yet, we all know eating too much sugar causes weight gain and cavities. And newer studies have linked excessive sweetened beverages to diabetes and even a 20 to 30 percent higher risk of heart disease.
Some people turn to sugar alternatives in hopes of enjoying sweets without the risk of weight gain. And sugar alternatives do have some benefits—fewer or no calories—but also may have side effects.
It can be a challenge to sift through the various options and choose what’s best for you. At my local market, for example, you can find 20 varieties of sweeteners that have calories—from table sugar to agave nectar—plus 13 calorie-free sweeteners.
Below I’ll describe how I picked four favorite sweeteners for my family. There’s no right or wrong, just what works for you—in moderation.
My favorite four sweeteners are dates, pure maple syrup, honey and brown sugar. Sorghum syrup and molasses have some interesting properties as well.
Not all sugars are the same—they’ve got different levels of sweetness, calories and flavor. A teaspoon of white sugar has 16 calories. For comparison, a teaspoon of chopped dates has 9 calories per teaspoon, brown sugar has 12, maple syrup 17, molasses and sorghum syrup have 20, and honey 21.
Here are some details about my favorites:
Dates: These are a favorite of mine because they’re a whole food, and unlike the other sweeteners, they have a decent amount of fiber. They also have a little potassium, iron and calcium.
Dates make a tasty snack just as they are. Or, you can transform dates into a caramel-flavored purée and use for baking cookies and brownies, as well as swirling into plain Greek yogurt and smoothies.
Date purée also makes a fun alternative to jelly on toast or in peanut-butter sandwiches. Purée a cup of pitted dates with one-half to one cup of hot water—whatever it takes to blend it to a smooth paste.
Maple syrup and honey: Maple syrup makes the grade for me because I can buy it from local farms and it has small amounts of vitamins left in it, although it’s still not as nutrient-rich as a fruit.
Honey lacks significant vitamins, but I can buy it locally and it comes in delicious flavors, from mild clover honey to rich dark wildflower honey. (However, honey is not recommended for infants under age 1 due to a rare risk of food poisoning.)
Honey and maple syrup both are sweeter than white sugar. To substitute honey or maple syrup for white sugar in your favorite recipe, use cup honey or maple syrup per 1 cup white sugar. Reduce the liquids in the recipe by 3 to 4 tablespoons. And reduce the oven temperature by 25 degrees.
Sorghum syrup and molasses: These have more nutrients but are less sweet than sugar and have a strong flavor—think gingersnap cookies—so I don’t use them as often. Sorghum has the advantage of being grown in Virginia and throughout the South.
Brown sugar: If I need to use real sugar in a recipe, I enjoy brown sugar or it’s less processed cousin, evaporated cane juice. Both options have more flavor and slightly fewer calories than white sugar. Evaporated cane juice has very small amounts of some vitamins.
I don’t use agave nectar, as it’s even higher in fructose than high fructose corn syrup. And Yale scientists showed last month that when we drink fructose-sweetened beverages like sodas, they don’t satisfy our hunger.
Natural sweeteners like sugar and honey are just one of four types of sweeteners. Other types include sugar alcohols like erythritol, artificial sweeteners like aspartame, and novel sweeteners like stevia extracts. These are lower in calories than sugar or even calorie-free.
The FDA says all these types of sweeteners are safe. Yet, some may have side effects.
Recent studies in Norway and Sweden suggest that acesulfame potassium and sucralose are difficult to remove from wastewater and linger in drinking water. Aspartame has been linked to headaches in sensitive folks. And one study found that mixing vodka with diet sodas rather than regular led to higher breath alcohol concentrations.
I’m not a fan of giving diet products to kids, no matter how safe they are supposed to be, because any potential side effects tend to be magnified in growing children. And let’s face it, the artificial sweeteners in diet sodas and other products are not found in nature.
Although the safety testing has been rigorous, I tend to be cautious. Artificial sweeteners are not a medicine—there’s no urgent need to use them. I’d rather let kids indulge in small amounts of real sweets occasionally, in the context of an overall healthy eating pattern.
Adults are free to make their own choices, but as with real sugar, I’d recommend using artificial sweeteners only in small amounts.
Personally, I prefer the less processed flavor of dates, maple syrup and honey. I respect the preferences of people who love other sweeteners. So enjoy the sweeteners that taste best to you, and use in moderation.
ADDED VERSUS INCLUDED
The Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics says limited sugars and their substitutes are safe within an overall healthful eating plan. The American Diabetes Association agrees.
The American Heart Association specifies limits: For women, the association recommends no more than 100 calories or 6 teaspoons of added sugar, and for men about 150 calories or 9 teaspoons of added sugar. Athletes and other folks who
burn extra calories can tolerate more.
There’s an important difference between added sugars and naturally included sugars. Some whole, unprocessed foods contain natural sugars. For example, milk contains lactose. Fruits contain fructose. Fructose and lactose found in whole foods are found with other nutrients such as fiber or protein plus added vitamins and minerals, so they don’t raise blood sugar quite as quickly as if you ate added sugars such as plain white sugar.
Jennifer Motl welcomes reader questions via her website, brighteating.com, or by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.