Pass the Sugar? Or Honey? Or Aspartame?
There are many sweeteners on the market, but are any of them good choices for your kids or family? The truth is that all sweeteners should be used in moderation; no sweetener is actually a healthy choice. Large intake of sugar has been linked to an increased risk of obesity, heart issues, dental cavities and other serious health problems. While some sweeteners contain small amounts of vitamins and minerals such as B vitamins or calcium, these same vitamins and minerals are found in much higher amounts in fruits, vegetables and whole grains, which are generally much healthier food options.
All sweeteners are made up of different types of sugars, so even if they have a different name, like honey or maple syrup, they are still comprised of sugar. The American Heart Association recommends that women eat no more than six teaspoons of sugar a day, and that men eat no more than nine teaspoons a day. While this may sound like a lot, one can of Coca-Cola has about 10 teaspoons of sugar. A lot of our sugar intake comes hidden in processed foods—foods that come in boxes, cartons and bottles, such as breakfast cereal or boxed cookies.
While non-nutritive sweeteners, or sweeteners that do not contain calories, can seem like a good choice, research is conflicted about the health benefits or hazards of the various options on the market. Some studies show that even though these sweeteners are calorie-free, they may still increase risk for obesity by encouraging our desire for sweet food or making us feel like we are free to eat more since we are choosing sugar-free sodas or foods.
Below are some of the typical sweeteners that you might come across in the market:
Granulated or white sugar is the sugar available in most households and used as an ingredient in many processed foods. The major positive about granulated sugar is that it is the cheapest and easiest sweetener to find. Granulated sugar can be used to sweeten foods, add moisture, and also preserve foods, like jam, from spoiling. One teaspoon of sugar provides 15 calories. Granulated sugar has a lower vitamin and mineral content than other sweeteners available.
Honey is often seen as a natural, healthier sweetener than regular sugar. Because it has a sweeter taste than granulated sugar (1.5x sweeter), you need to use less to sweeten foods. Unfortunately, honey does have about 5 more calories per tablespoon and more carbohydrates than granulated sugar, meaning that although you might use less honey than sugar, you might still consume a similar amount of calories. Also, even though there are very small amounts of B vitamins, vitamin C and other minerals in honey, it should not be considered a good source of any these nutrients.
Most importantly, honey is dangerous for children less than 1 year of age, as it can contain the bacteria that causes botulism. Infants do not have a strong enough immune system to protect themselves from these bacteria and should not be given honey.
If you choose to sweeten your food or beverages with maple syrup, make sure you buy the real thing. Imitation maple syrup has more artificial ingredients, sugar and calories added in than pure maple syrup. Pure maple syrup has lower calories than many sweetener options and is three times as sweet as regular sugar, so you don’t need to use as much. While it contains more minerals and vitamins than most of the sweeteners on the market, it is still not a very good source of any one nutrient.
One downside of maple syrup is expense; it often costs a lot more than other sweeteners. Also, some maple syrup producers use pesticides on their crops to protect against insects, so you might want to keep that in mind if you are deciding between organic and regular pure maple syrup.
Just like maple syrup and honey, agave is sweeter than granulated sugar, so you need less to sweeten your foods. Agave nectar also has a lower glycemic index than other sweeteners, meaning that there is less of a blood sugar spike after eating it than with other sugars. Still, 90 percent of the sugar in agave comes from fructose; by comparison, high fructose corn syrup contains only 55 percent fructose. Some studies show that high intake of fructose is linked to increased triglyceride levels (which increases risk for heart disease), increased fat around the abdomen (which increases risk of metabolic syndrome) and increased risk of non-alcoholic fatty liver.
Turbinado sugar (like Sugar in the Raw) is made from processed sugar cane. This processing removes impurities from the sugar but can also remove vitamins and minerals. This is likely why sugar in the raw contains much fewer minerals than many of the other sweeteners available. In addition, because it is not as sweet as some of the other sweeteners available, you may end up using a lot more than you would of another sweetener like maple syrup.
Extracted from the stevia plant, stevia is a zero-calorie sweetener that is a whopping 200 times sweeter than regular sugar. Unfortunately the verdict is still out on whether certain types of stevia are safe. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) currently states stevia, when used as a food additive, is “generally recognized as safe” but has not approved use of stevia leaves or crude stevia extracts. There is some thought that using the leaves or extracts may affect blood sugar levels or have negative effects on reproductive, cardiovascular or kidney health. Sweeteners like Truvia, which use Rebaudioside A, a product that is isolated from the stevia plant and then highly purified, have been approved for use. One positive to this sweetener is that Stevia can be used for baking in place of regular sugar.
A very commonly used zero-calorie sweetener, aspartame is found in foods, beverages and the sweeteners Equal and NutraSweet. Aspartame is also 200 times sweeter than regular sugar, meaning you need only small amounts to make a product taste sweet. The FDA has recommended that an acceptable daily intake of aspartame is 50 mg per kilogram of body weight (or about 23 mg per pound of body weight). Therefore, a 150-pound individual could have approximately 3,450 mg/day. To put this in perspective, a 12-ounce diet soda has only 192 mg of aspartame. There have been many studies examining the safety of aspartame use due to two older studies in laboratory rats that indicated a possible increased risk of cancer with high intakes of aspartame. The majority of human studies have shown no link between cancer and aspartame use. However, individuals with a rare disease called phenylketonuria must avoid aspartame because it contains phenylalanine, an amino acid found in many foods, that their bodies cannot break down.
Sucralose (like Splenda) is a calorie-free sweetener that is actually made from table sugar using a chemical process that makes the calories from sugar unavailable to the body. There have been over a hundred studies conducted on the safety of sucralose and the FDA has designated it as safe to use. About 600 times sweeter than real sugar, one of the biggest benefits of this sweetener is that it can be used as a replacement for real sugar in baking.
None of these sweeteners should be considered a healthy choice, even if picking one over the other may have different benefits or drawbacks. Remember, no matter what sweetener you choose to use, moderation should be the key.