The Pros and Cons of Sugar and Alternative Sweeteners
By Alysa Bajenaru, RD
These are the current recommendations for daily added sugars:
- Children 2-19: 6 teaspoons (100 calories)
- Adult Women: 6 teaspoons (100 calories)
- Adult Men: 9 teaspoons (150 calories)
Most Americans exceed these limits, putting themselves at risk for heart disease and obesity. Major sources of added sugar in the diet include sugar-sweetened beverages, grain-based desserts, fruit drinks, dairy desserts and candy. An important 2014 study in the Journal of the American Medical Association found that the risk of death from heart disease increases with the regular consumption of sugar and sugar-sweetened beverages, regardless of weight.
So, we know we need to cut down on our sugar consumption, but what about natural and alternative sweeteners? Let's go down the list and talk about the pros and cons of each.
Pros: Sugar is a quick source of energy, ideal for baking.
Cons: Highly processed with few, if any, nutrients. Basically "empty calories" that can cause a spike in blood sugar and a "crash" soon after.
Pros: Less processed than table sugar, coconut sugar is made from boiling down the nectar of coconut plant flowers. It contains trace amounts of minerals and other nutrients.
Cons: The mineral and nutrient content is minimal, and it has the same number of calories as table sugar.
Pros: Erythritol is a sugar alcohol that has only 6% of the calories of sugar but contains 70% of the sweetness. It doesn't cause a change in blood sugar or insulin levels and can be combined with xylitol for baking.
Cons: Sugar alcohols are not digested by the body, and can cause bloating and digestive upset when they ferment in the colon. However, erythritol is mostly absorbed into the bloodstream before it reaches the colon, making it easier to digest than other sugar alcohols. Even so, it is recommended that you introduce erythritol in small quantities to see how you tolerate it.
Pros: Stevia is extracted from the leaves of the Stevia plant, is 200-350 times sweeter than table sugar, and has zero calories.
Cons: Because it has a bitter aftertaste, Stevia is often combined with other sweeteners such as erythritol, aspartame or table sugar.
Pros: Also known as Lua Han Guo, monk fruit is extracted from the swingle fruit and is around 100-250 times sweeter than table sugar with zero calories. The sweetness from the monk fruit comes from unique antioxidants called mogrosides. These antioxidants are being studied for their anti-inflammatory effects, and possible anti-cancer and anti-diabetic properties. (More research is needed, but it's nice to know there may be real health benefits to this alternative sweetener.)
Cons: Some people don't enjoy the taste.
Pros: Honey has anti-microbial and anti-bacterial properties and is great at soothing a sore throat. There are over 300 varieties of honey depending on where the bees collect their nectar from. Honey is less processed than table sugar and contains trace vitamins and minerals.
Cons: Honey is higher in calories than sugar, although it's sweeter so you may end up using less. Honey should never be given to children under the age of one because it may contain bacteria that cause infant botulism.
Pros: A popular vegan substitute for honey, agave nectar is made from the agave plant and contains trace amounts of iron, calcium, potassium and magnesium. Agave is one and a half times sweeter than sugar and dissolves more easily into liquids than honey.
Cons: Agave nectar contains one and a half times more calories than table sugar, and although it has a lower glycemic index, it will still spike your blood sugar.
Cutting back on added sugars is something we could all benefit from. The good news is, there are some good natural alternatives to try. And when all else fails, eat a piece of fruit!