In today’s increasingly health-conscious society, sugar has gotten a bad rap–but not without reason. Large, epidemiological research has shown an association between intake of sugar-sweetened beverages and diabetes, and the increase in sugar consumption in America is correlated with Americans’ expanding waistlines.
In an effort to avoid refined sugar, many substitutes have hit the market, and some have had controversial reviews by health experts. Find out what you need to know about today’s common sugar substitutes.
Calories: 18 cals / 1 tsp
Common Brands: Sugar in the Raw
Like many products on the market, Raw Sugar (a.k.a. turbinado sugar) uses a deceivingly healthy name to encourage health-conscious consumers to choose its product. Table sugar and Raw Sugar undergo almost identical processing methods, but table sugar is additionally washed, filtered, processed and dried to get rid of the remaining molasses flavor and color. Unfortunately, raw sugar has largely the same effect on your health as table sugar.
Calories: 15 cals / 1 tsp
Common Brands: Nutiva, Coconut Secret
Otherwise known as coconut palm sugar, coconut sugar is made from the sap of the flower on a coconut palm tree. The sap is then boiled until most of the liquid has evaporated, leaving a granulated substance resembling the taste and color of brown sugar.
Although similar to table sugar, coconut sugar retains many of the nutrients from its source, as well as being lower on the glycemic index. This means it’s a good choice for those with diabetes because it does not produce as much of a spike in blood sugar as table sugar does.
Calories: 20 cals / 1 tsp
Common Brands: Madhava, Wholesome Sweeteners
Agave comes from a plant called the Agave (we’re just as surprised as you are), which also happens to be the same plant from which tequila is made. All hail Agave! Or at least that’s what the Aztecs probably said as they praised Agave as a gift from the gods.
Even despite its natural origins and Aztec praise, Agave Nectar is actually quite bad for you. The commercialized product is exposed to heat and enzymes, which destroys the health benefits of the Agave plant. In the end, Agave is nothing more than a refined syrup that is extremely high in fructose – it ranges from 70 to 97 percent fructose, as compared to 55 percent in high fructose corn syrup.
Common Brands: Truvia, SweetLeaf, NuNu Naturals
Originating from the rebiana plant, stevia is considered a natural sweetener and has a sweetness about 200 times that of table sugar. Stevia most commonly occurs in granulated, solid form.
It has not yet undergone enough testing to be approved by the FDA, but is commonly regarded as one of the healthiest sugar substitutes on the market.
Common Brands: Splenda
Sucralose is most commonly used under the brand name Splenda, with a sweetness about 600 times that of table sugar. Although it has zero calories, Sucralose has been banned in Europe due to its negative health effects.
Further, 12-week study by Duke University determined that “Splenda caused pH imbalances in the body, disrupted absorption in the intestinal tract, depletion of good bacteria, swollen livers and promoted weight gain.” Yikes.
Calories: 13 cals / 1 tsp
Common Brands: Equal, NutraSweet
Despite the many controversial debates over the health effects of aspartame, studies have shown that there is no conclusive evidence to suggest that aspartame increases the risk of cancer in humans. As it is about 200 times as sweet as table sugar, only a small amount is needed to achieve the same sweetness, so it would be very difficult to consume the amount of aspartame considered dangerous.
According to the FDA, aspartame “is approved for use in food as a nutritive sweetener,” and “more than 100 studies support its safety.” Because of the controversiality of aspartame, concerned consumers should do their own research to determine whether or not aspartame fits their health goals.
Common Brands: Swerve, Wholesome Sweeteners Organic Zero
Erythritol is a sugar alcohol that is about 70% as sweet as table sugar, “yet it is almost noncaloric, does not affect blood sugar, does not cause tooth decay, and is partially absorbed by the body,” according to the US National Library of Medicine. Despite all of these advantages, erythritol can cause side effects such as diarrhea, headache, and stomachache when consumed in large quantities.
Common Brands: NectresseTM, Monk Fruit in the Raw
Although its name might make you giggle, monk fruit is one of the healthiest sugar substitutes on the market. According to the International Food Information Council Foundation, “Monk fruit, also known as lo han guo, is a small round fruit grown in Southeast Asia. It has been safely used for centuries in Eastern medicine, and now it is also being used to sweeten foods and beverages.”
The fruit extract is about 200 times as sweet as table sugar, and has been approved by the FDA. Since it is a no-calorie, natural sweetener that doesn’t cause a spike in blood sugar, monk fruit is great for people with diabetes.
Monk fruit is not yet as widely available in tabletop or packeted options, but as it grows in popularity one can expect to see it in more commercially-produced items.