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?