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Sugar Showdown: Which Sweetener is the Best?

Oklahoma has the ninth highest adult obesity rate in the nation, with an obesity rate of more than 32 percent. Oklahoma is also tenth in the nation for the highest rate of diabetes, with 337,823 diabetes cases in 2010 alone.

Sugar is a key player in the obesity epidemic in America. However, with so many different sweeteners and false advertisements, it can be confusing to determine which sweetener is the best option for your health. We consulted Brent Wilson, a registered dietitian at INTEGRIS, to get his perspective on different kinds of sweeteners and to set the record straight.

Woman Sweetening Coffee

Artificial Sweeteners

Artificial sweeteners, or high-intensity sweeteners, are often used in diet or low-calorie foods. “Artificial sweeteners are much sweeter than sugar without the calories,” Wilson says. “These man-made sweeteners can be added to foods without adding calories or impacting blood sugar levels. If this sounds too good to be true, it’s because it is.”

The low-calorie benefits of artificial sweeteners don’t necessarily make these sweeteners a healthy sugar replacement. “Although these sweeteners are zero calories, they bring along lots of other concerns,” Wilson explains. “Overstimulation of sugar receptors from frequent use of these hyper-intense sweeteners may limit tolerance for more complex tastes – so your delicious and nutritious piece of fruit may not taste as sweet as it used to, or vegetables may taste bland. We also find that artificial sweeteners can lead to overeating on other high-calorie foods. People may think, ‘If this beverage has no calories, it will be okay for me to have that bag of chips with it.’ ”

Aspartame

Aspartame is a nutritive artificial sweetener, which means that it adds caloric value to the foods it’s in. Aspartame brand names include Nutrasweet®, Equal® and Sugar Twin®. Although aspartame is approved by the FDA, it has been linked to a higher risk of glucose intolerance and increased cravings for sweet and sugary foods.

Sucralose

Sucralose is a non-nutritive artificial sweetener, which means it contains less than two percent of the calories in an equivalent amount of sugar. Sucralose, commonly known as Splenda®, is 600 times sweeter than table sugar. Sucralose is approved by the FDA; however, it has been linked to an increased risk of diabetes, heart disease, metabolic syndrome and obesity.

Saccharin

Saccharin, commonly known as Sweet’N Low®, is another non-nutritive sweetener. It is 200 to 700 times sweeter than sugar and is calorie-free. Saccharin is typically used in beverages and fruit drinks. In the 1970s, saccharin was determined to be a carcinogen, and Congress mandated that warning labels be present on any products containing saccharin. However, after more tests, the National Institutes of Health revoked its label as a carcinogen in 2000.

Spoons of Different Sugars

Natural Sweeteners

Natural sweeteners are found in nature and are minimally processed. These include a variety of sweeteners like organic sugar, stevia, raw honey and maple syrup.

“Natural sweeteners are added to foods to improve the taste; however, just because they are natural does not mean they are calorie-free,” Wilson explains. “Natural sweeteners like honey and agave nectar are commonly added in place of sugar as a healthy substitute, but what most people don’t realize is that these natural sweeteners still have calories and still impact your blood sugar. So, though they are natural, we still want to be conscious of how much we add to foods.”

Stevia

Stevia is a natural sugar substitute derived from the stevia leaf. It is 100 to 300 times sweeter than sugar, so a little stevia goes a long way. It has no carbs, no calories and no artificial ingredients. Stevia is a good sugar substitute for diabetics, because it does not impact blood sugar levels.

Agave

Natural agave comes from the sap of the South American agave plant. Its nectar is used as both a natural sweetener and a key ingredient in tequila. Agave is high in fructose and, like stevia, is much sweeter than regular sugar. Unfortunately, many forms of agave sold in the U.S. are refined agave nectar, which extracts some of its beneficial properties.

Sucrose

Sucrose, more commonly known as table sugar, is derived from sugar cane or sugar beets. The white sugar we typically buy at the grocery store has been processed, bleached and crystallized. White sugar, powdered sugar and brown sugar are all varieties of sucrose that have been processed differently.

A dietitian’s top sweetener pick

So, which sweetener is the best?

“I always recommend using natural sweeteners instead of artificial,” Wilson says. “However, since I see patients with diabetes, the rise in blood sugar from natural sweeteners like honey is not always best for the patient. Because of this, I recommend stevia. Stevia is a natural sweetener derived from the stevia leaf. It has no calories and does not impact your blood sugar.”

Quick healthy tips to reduce sweetener intake

Although stevia is the safest sweetener, according to Wilson, all sweeteners should be consumed in moderation. “I challenge people to replace artificial sweeteners from their diets,” Wilson says.

Here are a few tips, to help reduce your sweetener intake.

  • Replace artificial sweeteners like Splenda, Equal and Sweet’N Low with Stevia.
  • Swap sugary beverages for water with infused fruit.
  • Avoid foods that advertise “sugar-free,” as they are typically loaded with artificial sweeteners.
  • Start eating wholesome, minimally processed foods from the earth like fruits, vegetables, beans, nuts, lean meat and fish.

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