When JAMA Internal Medicine published recently discovered documents that suggested sugar was more to blame for heart conditions than fats, it shifted our understanding about the role that sugar plays in our diets.
Although most people know that sugar can have negative effects on your overall health, in some cases contributing to obesity, cardiovascular issues, or diabetes, we tend to associate these effects with the amount of sugar we eat, not the type.
Unfortunately, sugar type may play a larger role than you think.
It’s Time to Get Thoughtful About Our Sugar Choices
Americans consume, on average, about 66 to 100 pounds of added sugar per person every year, and most of this is refined white sugar. From sodas and baked goods, and even foods like yogurt and pasta sauce, sugar makes its way into our diet at an almost alarming rate.
Whether you’re trying to find a healthier alternative to table sugar, or you have a condition like diabetes that limits the amount of sugar you can have, you may choose to use an alternative sweetener. However, trying to decode the world of sugar substitutes can be confusing and at times, disheartening. There have been several studies that highlight potential negative health issues that seem to be linked to artificial sweeteners.
So how do you know which alternative sweeteners will support your health, and which contain potentially harmful ingredients?
While ultimately, the sugar substitute you choose depends on your lifestyle and dietary needs, we’ve come up with a list of do’s and don’ts when choosing a sugar substitute.
The Do’s and Don’ts of Alternative Sweeteners
Do: Read the Labels
When you’re choosing a sweetener, it’s essential to know whether the substitute actually contains harmful ingredients. For example, aspartame (which is more commonly known as Equal or NutraSweet) may have negative effects on cognitive health, and has been linked to other health conditions. It is also much sweeter than regular sugar, so it may encourage dependence on overly sweet foods.
Additionally, there’s a big difference between artificial and natural sweeteners. Artificial sweetener refers to synthetically produced sugar substitutes like Splenda, Equal, and Sweet’N Low. Some studies link these sweeteners to weight gain, although there are a number of factors that may influence these conclusions.
Natural sweeteners include honey, agave, and the syrup family (maple, molasses, buckwheat, etc.). There are also options like stevia, which is technically derived from a plant but is also highly refined.
Don’t: Fall for the Calorie Count
If you’re looking for weight management support, it can be easy to fall for using an alternative sweetener with zero calories. Many artificial sweeteners claim to be calorie-free, but just because a sweetener makes this claim, it doesn’t mean it’s actually healthy. For example, Acesulfame K sweetener, which is found in candies, chewing gum, and even some alcoholic beverages, is technically calorie-free. However, it cannot be broken down by the human body, and could have negative overall effects on your metabolism. Ultimately, you have to consider whether being calorie-free is worth the potential health issues.
Do: Consider Your Medium
The kind of sweetener you choose should largely depend on what you’re using it for. If you’re baking or cooking, you might choose differently than if you’re just looking for a sweetener for coffee or tea. Often, sugar substitutes change not only the taste of a dish, but can also change the texture, cook times, and more. For example, Aspartame has a low volume and doesn’t brown the way that traditional sugar does, while xylitol (a low-glycemic index sweetener that’s lower in calories than white sugar) responds more like traditional sugar when baked.
Other examples of differences between traditional sugar and substitutes include:
- Lighter color: These sweeteners typically don’t brown the way sugar does, because they melt differently than table sugar.
- Flatter products: Most sugar substitutes (with the exception of xylitol) lack regular sugar’s bulk, so they rise differently in the oven.
- Texture differences: The lack of bulk also affects texture—when baking with alternative sugars, the end product may have a denser texture.
- Taste differences: Often, cooking with substitutes can result in a product with a more “biscuit-like” taste, but adjusting the portions of other ingredients can combat this.
- Cooking time: Mainly due to the reasons above, cooking times may need adjustment.
We love this National Geographic taste-test that compares the different kinds of sugars.
Don’t: Forget About Natural Alternatives
Honey, maple syrup, and agave are all alternative sweeteners that you may choose for cooking or baking. These alternatives are sweeter than regular sugar, so you may need to adjust your proportions as you’re cooking. Diabetics often choose these sweeteners since they have a low glycemic index, and may not have the highs and lows associated with high fructose corn syrups.
Do: Keep Researching
Your specific health needs, dietary choices, and other factors will ultimately determine the type of alternative sweeteners that are right for you. Your dietary restrictions or health conditions may call for a substitute that has a low glycemic index, or you may desire to use a natural sweetener, rather than an artificial one.