Although sugar has a long history of human domestication and consumption, with records of its use going as far back as 510 BC., the sweet stuff has come under attack in the last 30 years.
Common sugar, more correctly called sucrose, is generally taken from sugar cane or sugar beets and is available in many forms. But, regardless of whether it’s white or brown, sucrose has been blamed for the increase of obesity, diabetes and heart disease in America. In 2009, obesity expert Robert Lustig went so far as to call sugar “toxic” and, according to the New York Times, new research has even suggested a link between sucrose and cancer.
With all of this negative press, many people wonder about alternatives to processed sugar. There are many out there, both artificial and natural. But which one is the right one for you?
These synthetic, man-made sweeteners offer a zero-calorie alternative to sugar and come under a number of different names. The most popular artificial sweeteners include aspartame (Equal, NutraSweet), saccharin (Sweet’ N Low) and sucralose (Splenda), each of which is many times more sweet than sugar.
Many of these sweeteners are featured in so-called “diet” products because they have virtually no caloric value, unlike sugar, which contains 15 calories per teaspoon. This makes artificial sweeteners attractive to dieters. However, according to the Mayo Clinic, there’s evidence that links these sweeteners with weight gain, although the link is not yet fully understood.
Because these substances are not actually carbohydrates, they don’t usually have any effect on blood sugar level and can be useful to diabetics, but always check with your doctor before using any sweetener, especially if you’re a diabetic or at risk for diabetes.
In the 1970s, a notorious study was published linking saccharin to bladder cancer in rats. This is likely responsible for a negative view of all artificial sweeteners that has spread throughout the years. According to the National Cancer Institute, however, there is no solid evidence backing these claims, and several newer studies have failed to conclusively link these sweeteners with cancer or any other illness.
Stevia is an umbrella term that refers to several products that contain some form of extract from the stevia plant of South America. The products vary in terms of which part of the plant they use and how much they are processed before reaching the market.
Like artificial sweeteners, stevia is non-nutritive and has a negligible effect on blood sugar levels. However, there is no evidence that stevia has any advantages over artificial sweeteners.
Still, people who distrust artificial products may be more comfortable opting for a stevia extract. If you’re looking for the most natural product possible, do your research and select a stevia extract that is minimally processed. A note: stevia has an after-taste that some people dislike.
Agave, Honey and Others
There are also many natural sweeteners available including agave, fruit nectars, honey, maple syrup and molasses. Although these options each have unique nutritional benefits — for example molasses is high in several micro-nutrients — they don’t seem to have any other benefits over sugar. They all could contribute to weight gain because of their calorie content and cause spikes in blood sugar, which makes them off limits to diabetics.
Have you found a sugar alternative that works best for you? Please share your thoughts with us in the comments.