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How Sweet is it Really? Delving into Sugar Substitutes

These days, so-called natural sugar substitutes are all the rage. Some are good old-fashioned favorites: honey, molasses, maple syrup. Others are newer to the scene, like agave nectar, stevia, and monkfruit extract.

But wait. What exactly is a sugar substitute? The terminology can be confusing. A sugar substitute refers to any sweetener that can be used to replace table sugar.

They are further divided into nutritive and non-nutritive sweeteners. Nutritive sweeteners are those that have calories, while non-nutritive do not.

For the most part, artificial sweeteners are non-nutritive sugar substitutes. They are synthetic but can be created from naturally-occurring substances. For example, aspartame is an amino acid, which is just a building block of protein.

Artificial sweeteners can be used to sweeten food and drinks with far fewer calories and carbohydrate when they replace sugar. That's because our bodies can't digest them (with the exception of aspartame). Their sweetening power is at least 100 times more intense than regular sugar, so only a small amount is needed.

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Artificial sweeteners have been a hotly debated topic for years. Many people report experiencing negative health effects when they use artificial sweeteners (e.g., migraines, nausea, weight gain, mood swings, bitter aftertaste).


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But contrary to popular belief, artificial sweeteners are not definitively linked to any major health problems in the general population.

In particular, artificial sweeteners are often blamed for obesity and diabetes. There have been several large studies showing an increase in health problems as consumption of artificial sweeteners goes up.


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Unfortunately, this seems to be a classic case of correlation and not causation, because these results have not been replicated in randomized controlled trials (the gold standard of research studies).

At this point, there is no solid evidence to support claims that artificial sweeteners increase appetite, food intake, increase insulin release, increase sweet cravings, or raise blood pressure.

Like any other dietary decision, using artificial sweeteners is a personal choice. You may need to experiment with different sweeteners to find the right one for your needs.

Nutritive sugar substitutes, on the other hand, include the aforementioned honey, molasses, maple syrup, and agave nectar. These products do have different and distinct flavors, which may be desirable. I mean come on, pancakes just wouldn't be the same without maple syrup!

They may also have antioxidants, vitamins, and minerals that are not found in plain sugar, but usually not in significant amounts. These sweeteners are often marketed as "natural," but remember that as of 2014, the term is not regulated by the FDA. In fact, some of these products are actually highly refined and processed.


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Agave nectar available for purchase is a far cry from its original plant form and is actually most similar in composition to high-fructose corn syrup. It has 60 calories per tablespoon compared to 40 for sugar. It is somewhat sweeter than table sugar, so you can use less of it. Taking that into account, the two typically end up on par.

Honey is another one that's touted for being natural – and for its natural benefits. Studies suggest that honey has antimicrobial properties, can prevent cancer, and can even increase athletic performance. A newer topic of research is how local honey can help reduce allergy symptoms. Indeed it might help, and it wouldn't hurt you to get more honey in place of regular sugar. Just remember that honey still has calories. Like agave, it has about 60 calories per tablespoon.


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The glycemic index (GI) tends to come up when talking about these sweeteners. For those who aren't familiar, foods with a lower GI are thought to raise blood sugar more slowly than foods with a high GI.

I'm not a big fan of GI when it comes to sweeteners because you'll probably be eating other things at the same time. If you're having your sugar-sweetened jam with whole wheat toast and an egg, your blood sugar won't rise as quickly thanks to the extra fiber and protein.


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Ultimately, these sweeteners have largely the same effect in our bodies. Most importantly, if you make a habit of consuming too much, they can contribute to obesity and diabetes just as much as white sugar.

So don't let yourself get sweet-talked into believing that so-called natural sweeteners are the answer! Coming from a person with a raging sweet tooth, I can tell you firsthand that you can safely enjoy artificially sweetened drinks (I'm partial to diet root beer), tea with honey, sugary strawberry jelly, and all types of sweet treats – as long as it's in moderation. But you knew I was going to say that, didn't you?

Today's post was written by Leia Kedem. Leia Kedem, MS, RD, is a registered dietitian and Nutrition & Wellness Educator covering Champaign, Ford, Iroquois, and Vermilion Counties. She appears weekly on WCIA-3/WCIX-49 and is a biweekly contributor to the Champaign-Urbana News-Gazette. She also maintains Facebook and Twitter accounts where she regularly posts health tips and answers nutrition questions for free.