“Natural” Sugar Substitutes and Artificial Sweeteners: For Better Or For Worse?

by | Jan 21, 2013

Photo by Steve Snodgrass

It’s no secret that I don’t like sugar. But something funny happens every time I recommend people eat less of it: I get bombarded with questions about whether this or that sugar substitute is a good choice.

Sometimes people ask about more natural or “less processed” sweeteners like honey, agave or molasses. Other folks want to know about calorie-free sweeteners like stevia and sucralose (Splenda). But the gist of the question is always the same: what should I eat if I want to have something sweet?

My answer, to many people’s surprise, is to pick whichever one tastes best with what you’re eating (even if it’s plain old cane sugar) and don’t worry about it.

The thing about sugar is no matter what form it comes in, it’s still sugar and is not good for you. Moreover, foods that require sweetening (e.g. pastries) usually have enough other unhealthy ingredients that swapping out the sugar isn’t going to make a huge difference. Sure maybe molasses has a little more vitamin D, or agave ranks a little lower on the glycemic index (because it has more fructose, similar to high-fructose corn syrup), but that doesn’t change the fact that these are still highly concentrated sources of sweetness and should never be eaten in large quantities.

But that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t eat them at all. There’s room for small amounts of sugar in a healthy diet, and it doesn’t matter much where it comes from. Don’t forget to keep everything you eat in perspective. You could get hit by a bus tomorrow, then how virtuous would you feel for ruining your grandmother’s famous apple pie recipe by swapping out sugar for Splenda? We all know pie isn’t the healthiest thing in the world, but some experiences have more value than nutrition alone. As long as you don’t choose experiences over health every single day, those occasional indulgences are not going to kill you.

Artificial sweeteners have other problems as well. Despite their lack of calories, evidence shows that people who use non-caloric sweeteners do not weigh any less than people who don’t use them, and there is no evidence that they help with weight loss. People tend to think they are being virtuous if they choose lower-calorie foods over higher-calorie foods. But without an obvious benefit, what is the point exactly?

Lack of effectiveness is not my only issue with artificial sweeteners. Some studies have suggested that consuming calorie-free sweeteners enhances a person’s appetite and cravings for sweet foods, and this has been proposed as one of the reasons they are not effective at helping people lose weight.

The safety of several of the most popular sugar substitutes has been questioned as well. Though I’ve never found any of the arguments about the dangers of saccharin (Sweet’N Low) or aspartame (Equal) particularly convincing (the original studies were flawed and currently both are officially considered safe for human consumption), they are relatively recent additions to the human diet and the long-term consequences for you as an individual remain unknown. So if you really want to cut back on sugar enough to suffer through the taste of these of these impostors, keep in mind that you are essentially volunteering yourself for a long-term human health experiment that may or may not work out in your favor.

In my opinion still the strongest reason to avoid artificial sweeteners is taste. To me there is something innately unsatisfying about the taste of no-calorie sweeteners, and bad tasting desserts are a paradox of the worst kind. But the assault on your taste buds doesn’t stop there. Artificial sweeteners keep your palate accustomed to overly sweet foods (most are hundreds of times more sweet than table sugar), making it more difficult to re-acclimate to the taste of real food. So not only do artificial sweeteners ruin your dessert experience, they also ruin your healthy eating experience. Awesome, right?

I make one notable exception with these recommendations. Diabetics have a medical condition that prevents them from eating sweet foods that impact blood sugar. This includes cane sugar, honey, agave, molasses, and most other forms of natural sweeteners. The only exception is the stevia plant, which is a natural calorie-free sweetener that has been used therapeutically for hundreds of years. Stevia has been shown in some cases to reduce hyperglycemia and hypertension in patients with pre-existing conditions, and is probably the best option for those who cannot tolerate any kind of caloric sweetener. Because the benefits do not exist for non-diabetic patients and, like other calorie-free sweeteners, stevia is still hundreds of times sweeter than sucrose, I do not recommend it except in these specific clinical conditions.

What’s your sweetness of choice?

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27 Responses to ““Natural” Sugar Substitutes and Artificial Sweeteners: For Better Or For Worse?”

  1. James says:

    You seemed to mention everything but Stevia. I’d like your thoughts on Stevia, if you have any.

    • Darya Pino says:

      There’s a whole paragraph about stevia at the end.

      • Pang yap Cherng says:

        Hi, I have been using coconut palm sugar for about a year. It actually works. I’m a type two diabetic. My condition actually improved during that period. I also started eating more healthily, take breakfast but cut down dinner, eat less meat (red meat especially). And I go to gym once a week now (not enough but better than nothing.

        My point is that the coconut palm sugar didn’t do any harm.

        I realized after taking it for a while that it is not sugar as such. It is a natural good in its own right, and it happens to be sweet. Sugar is just pure sweetness extracted from various foods. Not so good given its artificial processes. As such coconut palm sugar should not used as a sweetener for all things. It doesn’t go well with tea for example. It is incredible with coffee. And certainly for making deserts and cakes or anything chocolate.

        Problem is supply. It is difficult to trust the farmers to manage the process of evaporating the water from the ‘nectar’. They tend to use sodium based preservatives because once cut from the flower of the coconut tree, it needs to be processed within hours to become dried palm sugar. Lest it becomes rancid. Hence the middlemen give them preservatives. Worse still, the middlemen also add white bleached sugar to further sweeten the palm sugar. Sugar also acts as a preservative.

        Together with several other friends, we tried to help the farmers in Central Java by bringing a more equitable supply chain model and at the same time coach them in the benefits of doing it the right way. We try to show them that going it the natural way will only bring our the best result as it was intended.

        Then we face the next problem – money. Shirt cut makes more money and quicker. That’s the big problem. The middlemen, from small to huge multinationals are all teaching them to mono crop profit rather than be good farmers. The profit culture is not only stealing these people’s land through debt, they are killing people with harmful foods, all in the quest for profit. It is this culture that has corrupted the farmers. And that’s why it’s difficult to find honest food.

        Since we have stopped the project, pending review of strategy, I have stopped taking palm sugar. Now back to Splenda, but sparingly

        Thought I just share that about coconut palm sugar.

  2. indy says:

    “Because the benefits do not exist for non-diabetic patients and, like other calorie-free sweeteners, stevia is still hundreds of times sweeter than sucrose, I do not recommend it except in these specific clinical conditions.”

    What would be a dietary reason for excluding something that is “sweeter” but doesn’t have the nutritional drawbacks of sugar or artificiality?

    I’m saying this because I have completely replaced Sugar with Stevia, and I will *never* go back. However I’m looking for evidence about health concerns when using Stevia. The Japanese (amongst the highest life expectancy on the planet,) and Brazilians use this sweetener, seemingly without any negative impact.

    • Darya Pino says:

      It’s just the palate acclimation to sweetness that I mentioned in the article. I think stevia is fine so long as the amounts you use are reasonably small. Personally I think the stuff tastes nasty, but I really don’t use sugar at home (though I do enjoy the occasional dessert in a restaurant).

      Is there a specific brand you found that the taste doesn’t bother you or do you use the natural leaves?

      • indy says:

        I’ve heard the nastiness complaint quite a bit. In fact my son loves it, my GF and daughter can’t stand it. My son has an incredible sweet-tooth that rivals anything I’ve seen, so I’ve weaned him off sugar bit by bit.

        I personally like the sweet Leaf Chocolate+Stevia Liquid (about 8-10 drops mixed in a with a soy/milk/coconut latte is perfect.)

        I wonder if there is a genetic disposition to the taste? Now when I have something with sugar in it my mouth feels like it is covered in slime/layers of acidity. Even honey I really can’t take too much of anymore…

      • Richard says:

        Regarding Stevia……
        I have been using it since the mid- 90’s. I actually even buy leaves occasionally and make my own liquid. (All that to sau that I’m not just speaking off the cuff).

        My point is that I agree with you that Stevia can sometimes “taste nasty” as you say. Albeit, that depends largely on the manufacturer, and equally as dependent on what it is used in.

        All powdered forms are not equal, nor are all liquid forms equal. Plus there is Stevia Glycerite which is another variation as well.

        For example, in coffee, it sometimes has a horrible taste, whereas in let’s say lemonade, you might not even notice the difference.

        My main point is to say: don’t rule it out completely. It has taken years for me to determine when it is appropriate and when it is not.

        Since I am responding to a 2 year old post, I don’t actually expect anyone to read this, but I just thought I would throw it out there.
        Richard

      • Darya Rose says:

        Hey Richard,

        I read all posts and appreciate comments, even if a little late ;) Since I wrote this I actually planted a stevia bush in my garden and sometimes use it to mix cocktails (think mojito), which is lovely. Thanks so much for your insight.

  3. JonO says:

    I’m a big stevia guy and I try to avoid sugar (not so successfully) but I’ve been told that many refined carbs and alcohol metabolize into sugar so if you eat a bag of chips, you’re more or less eating sugar. Is this true or false?

  4. K. says:

    Thanks for the point about acclimating our taste buds to the “non-sweet” – I am trying to teach my son that food doesn’t have to be sweet to taste good, but how hard is it?! If I make muffins, I use apple or dried fruit, etc etc, but it is really frustrating that whenever I see a recipe labelled “No Sugar” it has usually been substituted for massive amounts of agave or stevia or honey. I go to a fantastic “Raw Food Cafe” for a “day out treat”, and their fruit smoothies are full of agave. So frustrating!!! People really need to start getting that we don’t need sugar/sweetness all the time.

  5. laffin says:

    In my baking, I use a combination of erythritol, Truvia and liquid Splenda. I’m doing it as part of a low carb diet and because I’m diabetic.

  6. Excellent post, Darya. I love the way you gently put out the facts so we should conclude that avoiding sugar (all kinds) is best. I use pure maple syrup as a sweetener, but don’t over do. And don’t buy anything with sugar added. Avoiding sugar has made me very sensitive to it. I don’t even miss it–a good thing.

  7. Kevin says:

    Another fantastic article. My fave line is: “Some experiences have more value than nutrition alone.” I have desserts about once or twice a month, and when I do I want the real deal. No cutting corners. I might have more than one serving, too, but I won’t go overboard. The most sugar I eat daily comes from fruits. I still have fizzy drinks, but instead of diet or regular soda I stick to carbonated water. Sometimes I’ll drop a couple pieces of fruit into it to add some flavor.

    Diabetes runs on my father’s side of the family. He has a sweet tooth and is known for eating ice cream almost every day of the week (in addition to other sugary things). He’s 71 and still slim and perfectly healthy. Not on any medication at all and very active. Still climbing ladders to fix things around the house much to my chagrin! The only thing I can come up with is that he was a runner until about age 55. He goes for walks every day now and keeps himself busy around the house. His health supports the theory that exercise goes a long way toward maintaining a high quality of life.

  8. Jon McCaffrey says:

    A guy named Dan Quinn is on a huge stevia crusade. He’s strangely charismatic, so I feel like his pro-stevia movement will gain traction.

    Here he is on YouTube:

  9. Christopher Tseu says:

    What about unadulterated natural coconut palm sugar (CPS) as a replacement sweetener? As I understand that it has a low glycermic index (30 – 35 ), are there any work done on diabetic response to CPS?

  10. Joni bail says:

    U need to do ur homework on nutra sweet !
    It is dangerous!! U just gave people the go ahead . It has 99 carcinogens !! If it was a drug it would have been banned!! And when heated like in the back of a big truck can get to over 120 degrees it becomes even more poiseness!

  11. I used to buy agave, but I never liked it…too sweet for me. I think stevia is okay; it’s an herb and I would like to hear more of what you think about it. Desserts should be special treats, aren’t bad in and of themselves. My triglycerides are 31. I think part of this is the lack of sugar in my diet. Our culture is sugar crazy because companies make money selling sugary food. But, you are so right. It ruins the taste buds. Now that I rarely eat sugar, when I do, I can only eat a small dessert and it can’t be too sweet. I find after a bite or two I’m done. Most desserts served in restaurants I can’t eat. I usually have to make my own desserts so I can make them less sweet. I have an aversion to anything too sweet, drinks included. But I crave greens. This is probably more how we are supposed to be naturally, but our brain and palate get tricked and ruined with the over abundance of sugar.

  12. Pang yap cherng says:

    Agree with your conclusion about taste. That’s key. But Is there such a thing as too much of a good thing? Check out coconut palm sugar. I believe the key to discovering original taste is in processing naturally without chemical additives or short-cuts.

  13. Joe Garma says:

    My sweetener of choice is either stevia (easy to grow) or xylitol, although both are rarely used because I’ve gradually weaned myself off sweet things.

    Unfortunately, if you eat anything that comes in a box, jar or can, it’s likely to have some sorta sugar in it. And high glycemic foods, like corn, bagels and the like (grains) affect the body much like sugar.

    As Darya suggests in her post above, beware chemically created sugar, particularly the stuff that contains Aspartame. Bad stuff. Google “Dr Mercola Aspartame” for details, or check out this: http://bit.ly/OkDA47

    -Joe

  14. Anette says:

    Hej Daria
    Thank you for your post.
    What do you think of yacon?
    Best regards Anette

  15. megan says:

    Hi Darya,
    Thank you for the insight! I use Whey Low Granular (www.wheylow.com), which is a sugar replacement rarely mentioned. It is all-natural, and claims to have 75% less calories, carbs and GI. I like it because it tastes exactly like table sugar, no after-taste. I’d really appreciate if you could share your opinion on this product. Thanks again!

  16. Judd says:

    Liquid vanilla stevia works for me. Not sugar and low GI. Good in plain sugarless yogurt. TM SweetLeaf.

  17. Todd says:

    One of the best sweeteners (natural, safe, and super low on the glycemic scale at 7) is not mentioned here…XYLITOL!

    I have serious sugar sensitivity, I
    m talking I can’t even touch honey or agave nectar..the only thing I use is xylitol in moderation. It is deliciously sweet, has a cooling taste in your mouth, and it’s super low on the glycemic index, 6-7 last I read. It doesn’t negatively effect me at all and it really brought some sweetness back to my diet. when I thought I could never taste “sweet” again. Plus it’s not overly sweet to the point it sickens you.

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