If there was an award for the most overused food ingredient
with the least nutritional value, sugar would likely win in a cakewalk.
I’m not talking about sugars naturally found in fruits and
vegetables. I’m talking about added sugars — mainly plain ‘ol white sugar and
its troublesome twin, high-fructose corn syrup.
There’s really nothing beneficial about sugar — besides
the temporary appeasement of your taste buds — but most of us eat way more of
it than we should.
The American Heart Association recommends no more than six teaspoons of added sugar per day for
women and nine per day for men. But the average American consumes 94 grams every day.
So, what about alternative sweeteners or sugar
Approximately 145 million people in the United States
are estimated to have used sugar substitutes in 2018.
Sugar substitutes attract consumers because they’re labeled as being naturally
derived, or calorie-free, or simply because they’re not sugar.
But what are sugar substitutes made of? And
how do they rank in nutritional value? Are certain sugar substitutes better for
you than others?
Before I get into all of that, let’s examine why sugar is
not a health food.
The Problem with Sugar for Your Health
You can find added sugars in most processed foods.
This includes products that companies advertise as healthy, such as cereals,
granola bars, crackers, and juices.
And it can be easy to miss on the ingredient label when
there are at least 61 different names for sugar — ranging from cane juice to anhydrous
Sugar is rampant in our food system. And eating too much
of it is linked to many significant health concerns.
- Consuming excessive sugar is associated with an
increased risk of obesity and heart disease.
- Sugar increases the risk of type 2 diabetes.
- Studies indicate that
added sugar increases risk for esophageal and breast cancer. And added fructose
intake may increase risk of pancreatic
and small intestine cancers.
- Sugar increases risk for non-alcoholic
fatty liver disease, a disorder in which
excessive amounts of fat build up in your liver. Even drinking one sugar-sweetened beverage per day can
increase your risk.
Refined sugar isn’t an essential part of the diet. It
doesn’t contain vitamins, minerals, healthy fats, or protein, nor does it have
any benefit in the body.
It would do your health no harm (and probably a lot of
good) if you never consumed a gram of refined sugar.
Why Do We Eat Sugar?
Well, it tastes good.
Most of us prefer sweet foods over bitter ones. Why?
Because, in the course of evolution, the human brain learned that sweet things
provide a healthy source of rapid energy. When our ancestors scavenged for
berries, sour meant “not yet ripe.” Bitter, on the other hand, often meant
Sweet not only tasted pleasurable, but it also provided a
burst of blood sugar that led our brains to activate the release of dopamine.
And this remains true.
Sugar causes your
brain to release opioids and dopamine. This is similar to the
neurological reward response brought on by addictive drugs.
And research actually shows how sugar can be highly addicting.
Breaking It Down: Types of Sugar
For the chemistry buffs, here’s a quick bit of context:
Sugars are also known as simple carbohydrates. They digest quickly,
releasing sugars into your bloodstream.
Each type of sugar has its own set of problems:
Glucose is the most rapidly metabolized
by the body and can send your blood sugar levels skyrocketing. It has a
glycemic index score of 100 (the highest possible).
Fructose has no impact on insulin
production or blood glucose levels. It also has a relatively low glycemic
index score. But it must be metabolized by the liver
and is associated with elevated levels of triglycerides,
metabolic syndrome, and weight gain.
Sucrose is crystalized white (table)
sugar, from the cane sugar plant, and it consists of 50% glucose and 50%
The Pros and Cons of 14 Sugar Substitutes
Not all sweeteners are cut from the same cloth. Here are 14
sugar substitutes and added sugar options and how I think they stack up.
The Worst Sugar Substitutes
#1 — High Fructose Corn Syrup
High fructose corn syrup (HFCS) comes from corn. You can
find it in processed foods, like baked goods, desserts, soda, juices, snacks,
and commercial bread. Despite its name, the most common form consists
of 50% glucose and 50% fructose — the same as table sugar.
Pros: It’s cheap in the U.S. (thanks to taxpayer
subsidies) and sweet.
Cons: Most of the corn used
to make HFCS is genetically modified. HFCS has been linked
to numerous health concerns, such as an increased risk for metabolic
syndrome, obesity, liver disease, and insulin resistance
leading to type 2 diabetes and cancers.
It’s also void of nutrients.
#2 — Brown Rice Syrup
Made by breaking down the starches in brown rice, this sugar
substitute is a thick sweetener madeof three sugars: maltotriose, maltose, and glucose. But
maltose and maltotriose are just two and three glucose molecules, respectively.
They function just like glucose in the body. Processed foods, including
toddler snacks and bars, often contain brown rice syrup.
Pros: Brown rice syrup contains glucose, not
fructose. The advantage of this is that glucose appears to have a less
damaging effect on your liver than fructose.
Cons: Because it’s essentially glucose, rice
syrup has a very high glycemic index of
98 — higher than any other type of sugar (table sugar is 60 to 70). Brown rice
syrup is also prone to arseniccontamination.
#3 — Agave Nectar
Agave is often touted as a natural, healthy sugar
alternative derived from the agave plant. Interestingly, you can make tequila by fermenting the blue agave plant.
Pros: Agave has a very low glycemic index
score, meaning it doesn’t spike blood sugar nearly as much as table sugar.
Companies often market it as diabetic-friendly.
Cons: Agave has a low GI score because it can contain 90% fructose, which as we’ve discussed, could
lead to weight gain and elevated blood triglyceride levels. It’s 1.5 times
sweeter than sugar
and contains no nutrients or antioxidants.
Although it comes from a plant, the manufacturing process destroys any potential
health benefits. It is, essentially, devoid of any beneficial nutrients.
#4 — No-Calorie or Artificial Sweeteners
You’re probably familiar with these sugar substitutes as
the pink and blue packets you find on restaurant tables.
You’ll also find these in diet or zero-calorie sodas and sugar-free or “light”
These sweeteners are synthetic, and they are
hundreds to thousands of times sweeter than table sugar. The FDA has approved five artificial sweeteners: saccharin,
acesulfame, aspartame, neotame, and sucralose. Popular brands are Equal,
Nutrasweet, Splenda, and Sweet’N Low.
Pros: Because they’re sugar-free, they’re
considered suitable for diabetes. And they don’t give you any
empty calories because they are essentially calorie-free.
Cons: There is strong evidence that artificial
sweeteners may lead to higher risk of cardiovascular disease. In a
2014 study conducted by the University of Iowa, researchers
tracked 60,000 women over 10 years. They found that women who drank two
or more diet drinks per day had a 30% higher risk of a cardiovascular
disease event. They were also 50% more likely
to die from the disease.
And, as counterintuitive as it may seem, studies tell us
that people who drink diet sodas are actually more likely to gain
weight. In one study, participants who started out at a normal weight and drank 21 diet sodas
per week were twice as likely to be overweight or obese eight years later as
their non-diet-soda-drinking peers. Some researchers believe this is because the no-calorie sweeteners in
diet sodas trick the brain into expecting a “sugar hit.” When the sugar doesn’t
come, the brain is stimulated to crave food, thus contributing to overeating
and weight gain.
The “Less Worse” Sugar Substitutes
#5 — Brown Sugar
Brown sugar is white sugar with some molasses remaining
in it or added back after processing. (Sugar has had all of its molasses
removed through the refining process.) Yep, it’s that simple!
And the difference between light and dark brown sugar? The
amount of molasses in them. Molasses is also what makes brown sugar soft and
moist. Turbinado sugar and evaporated cane juice are
essentially less processed versions of brown sugar.
Pros: Because of the molasses, brown sugar offers
more nutrients than white, like small amountsof
calcium, potassium, and magnesium.
Cons: The nutrients brown sugar contains aren’t
enough to write home about. One ounce contains0.2
mg of iron, whereas the RDA of iron for the average person is at least 8 mg per
day. And it has almost all the negatives associated with white sugar.
#6 — Barley Malt
Barley malt is an unrefined sweetener that’s made
from sprouted barley. It contains 65% maltose (essentially a form of
glucose), 30% complex carbohydrates, and 3% protein.
Pros: Barley malt isn’t as sweet as many other
sweeteners. Because it has some complex carbohydrates and a bit of
protein, it is milder in its impact.
Cons: Since it’s high in maltose, barley
malt can contribute to rapid blood sugar spikes. Also, barley contains
gluten. This makes barley malt inappropriate for people with celiac
disease or gluten sensitivity.
#7 — Maple Syrup