June 15, 2011

The Lowdown on “Natural” Sweeteners

Whether looking to drop a few pounds, maintain an already healthy lifestyle, or manage a chronic disease like diabetes, many people try cutting calories by using artificial sweeteners or sugar substitutes.

Artificial sweeteners (e.g., Aspartame/Equal, Neotame Saccharin/Sweet 'n Low, Sucralose/Splenda) are synthetic sugar substitutes, some of which are derived from natural substances such as herbs or sugar itself. There is a lot of debate over artificial sweeteners and there has been for decades. There are various health concerns, but none have been scientifically proven true. Some argue over the taste of various artificial sweeteners, but that's really a matter of personal preference. The real problem with artificial sweeteners is that they do not trigger the same sense of satisfaction in the brain as sugar – so they never quite satisfy a sweet craving, leaving you wanting more.

Natural sweeteners are sugar substitutes that are typically promoted as healthier than white sugar or artificial sweeteners. Yet most substances labeled natural sweeteners do undergo at least some processing and many vary little from sugar nutrition- and calorie-wise. To clear up any confusion and help you make the best choice for you, here is the lowdown on natural sweeteners:

Agave nectar or agave syrup. Agave is made from a plant native to Mexico and Central America. Proponents of agave say that it metabolizes more slowly than sugar and doesn't cause blood sugar spikes. But how fast or slow agave metabolizes depends on how it is processed and the modern process of producing agave nectar is less like the method used by the indigenous people of Central America and more like the process of converting corn into high-fructose corn syrup. The big upside to Agave is that even though it has a similar amount of calories as sugar, it is much sweeter so you can use far less (one-quarter to one-eighth the amount of sugar) to achieve the same level of sweetness as sugar.

Honey. Honey is an all natural sweetener that's been used for centuries. While honey does contain more antioxidants than white sugar, it is not as antioxidant rich as dark and blackstrap molasses. Plus, it carries 33% more calories than sugar. So, if your concern is calories and/or blood sugar, then sugar actually makes a better choice than honey. Honey is not without any health benefits though. Studies suggest that honey helps boost the growth and activity of the good bacteria found in fermented dairy products like yogurt, which is helpful for those who want to promote digestion and support the immune system.

Maple syrup and molasses. Maple syrup and regular molasses contain small amounts of vitamins and minerals compared to the zero nutritional value of sugar. Blackstrap molasses is the only natural sweetener with significant levels of nutrients, including calcium, iron, potassium, magnesium, and selenium. As with agave, maple syrup and molasses are so sweet that you can use lesser amounts to make food as sweet as it would be with sugar. When substituting molasses in a recipe you can typically use one-half to three-quarters of the amount of sugar called for.

Stevia. Zero-calorie stevia comes from the stevia rebaudiana plant and is 250 times sweeter than sugar. Up until a couple years ago the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) did not allow stevia to be sold as a food ingredient. There were concerns that stevia might cause reproductive problems and infertility and animal and lab tests suggested high doses of stevia result in mutations that may lead to cancer. Newer research concluded stevia was safe to use as a food ingredient and in December 2008 the FDA lifted the ban on stevia. Since then there has been a barrage of stevia-sweetened products on the market. While not everyone is entirely convinced of stevia's safety, proponents point out that it has been used in Japan, South America, Australia, and New Zealand for many years without any obvious problems. Even if you are convinced of stevia's safety, there is another downside to consider. Stevia, like those aforementioned artificial sweeteners, doesn't satiate like sugar and can leaving you wanting more despite its extreme level of sweetness.

As with most things in life the key is moderation. For most people any sweetener, sugar and most artificial sweeteners included, is fine in small doses. Products like agave and molasses can satiate your sweet tooth with lesser amounts than sugar allowing you to cut calories. If your main concern is blood sugar or you have type 2 diabetes, stevia may be a better option since it has a negligible effect on blood glucose and can even enhance glucose tolerance.

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