Finding the Sweet Spot: The Best Sweetener for You

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?

Artificial Sweeteners

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.


Recipe for Easy, Make-Ahead Breakfast Bars

Recently, we’ve made many moms happy by providing the scientific facts backing up their ongoing claim that eating a healthy breakfast is important. We’ve also discussed some of the guidelines that make up this elusive “healthy” breakfast.

But one of the chief obstacles remain: We’re busy people, particularly in the morning. There’s not always the time it takes to make a healthy breakfast when we’re trying to get out the door.

Personally, I’m terrible at breakfast, and have had to collect many make-ahead recipes to ensure that I can start my day off right. Here is one of my favorites: Breakfast bars that are easy to make and store.

Breakfast Bar Recipe

These bars can be prepared any number of ways but the following ingredients form a good basic recipe. Here’s what you’ll need:

1 cup peanut butter, smooth

3/4 cup honey

1/2 tsp vanilla extract

1/4 tsp ground cinnamon

3 cups oats, old fashioned

1 cup chopped walnut pieces

1/2 cup flaxseed

1) Preheat your oven to 350 degrees.

2) Combine the peanut butter and honey in a large sauce pan over medium heat. Stir until the ingredients are thoroughly combined and smooth. You will need to keep an eye on this since it can burn fairly easily.

3) Add the cinnamon and vanilla to the peanut butter/honey mixture and stir.

4) Gradually stir in the walnuts, flaxseed and oatmeal. Be especially careful when adding the oatmeal since it can quickly dry up the mixture. I recommend using a large spoon or spatula to ensure that the wet component binds to all the oats.

5) Pour the mixture into a greased 9″ x9″ baking dish and bake it for about 15 minutes until golden brown.

6) Remove from oven and let cool on rack. Then cut into 9 equal squares.

Nutritional Information

Each bar counts as a serving and constitutes a substantial breakfast. This particular recipe is on the high-end of the recommend calories of breakfast but is ideally suited for training days when your body will need more fuel:

Nutritional information per serving:

 Calories: 498.1

Total Fat: 28.7 g

Saturated Fat: 4.8 g

Polyunsaturated Fat: 14.0 g

Monounsaturated Fat: 10.0 g

Cholesterol: 0.0 mg

Sodium: 139.9 mg

Potassium: 561.7 mg 

 Total Carbohydrate: 68.9 g

Dietary Fiber: 11.2 g

Sugars: 23.6 g

Protein: 14.8 g

Notice that although this particular recipe does have some fat, it is primarily from the healthy poly- and monounsaturated fats which act as great fuel during prolonged endurance training. These fats may also contribute to a healthier cholesterol profile.

Possible Substitutions

Don’t be afraid to use this basic recipe to create your own bars. For example, many people favor almond butter over the traditional peanut butter. Although almond butter is much richer in micronutrients like calcium, magnesium and vitamin E, it can be considerably more expensive than peanut butter.

You can also use almonds instead of walnuts, or another nut that you prefer. I chose walnuts for this recipe because they’re a great source of omega-3s. The flaxseeds are included for similar reasons but can also be replaced by chia seeds.

Honey can be removed and replaced with another sweetener like agave nectar. Likewise, you can use raisins or any other dried fruit you like to add sweetness and flavor to these bars. You may have to adjust the liquid component of the recipe if you load it full of fruits and nuts to make sure that everything gets an even coating to hold it together.

If you’re trying to bulk-up or maintain a high protein diet, you can also toss in some of your favorite protein powder.

Have you tried these bars or do you make something similar? Please share your tips with us in the comments.


Breakfast bar nutritional information