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Compare Your Options for Satisfying Your Sweet Tooth

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Non-sugar sweeteners have been around for years, mainly sitting in pink or blue packets at your local diner. With a variety of new sugar substitutes popping up that are promoted for use in baking and at the table, you may be wondering if these alternatives are any healthier and who should use them.

For those who have a health condition like diabetes, non-sugar sweeteners that are low in calories and carbohydrates can be helpful for enjoying sweet treats while still managing blood sugars. If you’re watching your weight, the low calorie alternatives can let you enjoy sweets without the guilt. Others may simply be looking for a healthier alternative to processed table sugar.

“I encourage people to eat whole foods that are minimally processed, which also applies to limited amounts of sugars,” said Angie Frederic, diabetes educator and manager of the Diabetes Education team at Samaritan Lebanon Community Hospital. “However, traditional sugar with the high calories and resulting blood sugar spikes aren’t right for everyone, which is why sugar substitutes can be helpful.”

No matter your reason for searching out an alternative to sugar, Frederic notes that all sweets should be approached with moderation in mind.

“Added sugars, and the types of foods that added sugars are in, are a growing problem, especially if it is replacing wholesome foods,” Frederic said.

Limiting Added Sugars

Some sugars occur naturally in foods like fruit and dairy. Other sugars, also called added sugars, are added during commercial processing or by you and can quickly add up to a hefty amount.

Researched published in BMJ Open found that Americans are getting nearly 300 calories a day on average from added sugar. That’s three times the amount recommended by the American Heart Association (AHA) for women and twice the recommended amount for men.

The main culprits are sugar-sweetened beverages, grain-based desserts like cakes and cookies, candy, and dairy desserts like ice cream, according to the Centers for Disease Control & Prevention.

The AHA recommends six teaspoons (24g) of sugar a day for women and nine teaspoons (36g) a day for men. Even if you are using a non-sugar sweetener, Frederic recommends sticking to those guidelines.

Comparing Sugar Substitutes

Non-sugar sweeteners are usually sweeter than sugar but contain fewer or no calories. Each sweetener has a unique flavor and aftertaste, which is often how people choose the type they prefer. If you’re interested in trying a sugar alternative, take a look at these popular options.

Stevia

The stevia plant is naturally hundreds of times sweeter than sugar. Pure extracts are available to use in drinks or smoothies, and just a dash is usually enough to give you the same sweetness as a scoop of sugar. For baking, stevia is often blended with other sweeteners to dilute it and create a volume similar to traditional sugar.

Pros: Stevia is calorie-free and won’t spike blood sugars, so it can be a good choice for those with diabetes or who are limiting calories. It is anti-inflammatory.

Cons: May have a licorice taste or bitter aftertaste for some, depending on the brand. Although it is often labeled as a natural sweetener, stevia products are still highly processed.

Try it: In baking, drinks and anywhere you might normally use sugar.

Xylitol

This sweetener is most commonly found in gum and oral-care products, as there is significant research that it can help prevent tooth decay. It can be purchased in granulated form to use in place of sugar, however since xylitol has a “cool” flavor that increases over time, it is not usually preferred for baking.

Pros: Contains 40% fewer calories than sugar.

Cons: May raise blood sugars for some. Can cause digestive upset if you consume too much. Add xylitol to your diet slowly to help counteract these effects. Can be deadly for dogs, so be sure you don’t feed any food scraps that contain xylitol to your furry friend.

Try it: In drinks. 

Monk Fruit Extract

Monk fruit extract is made from the monk fruit, which grows in Southeast Asia. The sweetener isn’t made from the flesh or juice of the fruit, but from antioxidants inside the fruit called mogrosides. Because there are no natural sugars in the extract, monk fruit extract has zero glucose, fructose and calories. It is often combined with other sweeteners in sugar-free commercial products, or you can buy it in liquid, granule or powder forms to replace sugar.

Pros: Calorie free and does not raise blood sugar. It is anti-inflammatory.

Cons: May have a fruity taste. If you’re searching for packaged monk fruit extract to use at home, it may be hard to find and expensive.

Try it: In baking, drinks and anywhere you might use sugar.

Sucralose

Sucralose is an artificial sweetener found in Splenda, and is commonly used in low-calorie and sugar-free commercial products like ice cream and baked goods. It is widely available including varieties blended with other sweeteners for easy baking.

Pros: Calorie free and won’t raise blood sugars. Often has a more pleasing taste.

Cons: Recent research has raised concerns about using sucralose for baking and its effect on healthy gut bacteria, however more research is needed. Moderate amounts are likely fine.

Try it: In drinks or as a topping to foods you won’t be cooking like yogurt or prepared oatmeal.

Other Artificial Sweeteners

Saccharin, used in Sweet ‘N Low, and aspartame, used in Nutrasweet, Equal and many diet sodas and commercial low-calorie products, are common non-sugar sweeteners.

Pros: These low- or no-calorie options won’t raise blood sugar levels and can be a good choice for people with diabetes.

Cons: May have an aftertaste. There are long-standing health concerns with both saccharin and aspartame in high doses. Research has not shown conclusively that these products are harmful so moderate amounts are likely fine.

Try it: In drinks.

Natural Sweeteners like honey, maple syrup, molasses, coconut sugar, date sugar, raw sugar

These sweeteners and others from a natural source are usually less refined than table sugar. Each variety has a unique taste and texture.

Pros: Often contains other beneficial nutrients like antioxidants, vitamins or fiber.

Cons: High in calories. Very similar to sugar in terms of how it is metabolized by the body and negative effects on health from eating too much.

Try it: In baking, drinks and anywhere you might normally use sugar. 

Tips to Cut Back on Sugar

Sugar makes things delicious, which is probably why it’s such a hard habit to break. Frederic provides some tips for reducing how much added sugar you consume:

  • Replace processed foods and ready to eat meals with whole foods.Examples: shelf stable breads with whole wheat breads, ready to eat packaged meals with home cooked versions.
  • Replace soda and juice with water. For flavor add sliced lemon or some frozen fruit.
  • Check product labels for hidden sugar. Ketchup, peanut butter, soup, spaghetti sauce, canned fruit, yogurt, coffee creamers and more may contain sugar without you realizing it.
  • Check labels for added sugar in some of the non-fat foods. Some of the non-fat mayo, dressings, and even cookies will add extra sugar for flavor to replace the missing taste from fat.
  • Replace granola bars and energy bars, which are often full of sugar, with plain nuts or fresh fruit.
  • Limit dessert to once a day or less. Make it yourself if possible.
  • Replace ice cream with a plain yogurt and berry smoothie.
  • Try hot tea after dinner instead of dessert. There are many herbal varieties that are naturally sweet like mint or cinnamon.
  • Replace sugary breakfast foods like cereal and instant flavored oatmeal with unsweetened cereals, old fashioned oats or plain yogurt topped with fruit.
  • Replace candy with chewing gum.
  • Ask for half the number of pumps of syrup in flavored coffee drinks.
  • Limit alcohol. Avoid mixed drinks that use syrup.
  • Get enough sleep. Instead of using sugar for a pick-me-up in the afternoon, schedule seven to nine hours of sleep each night.

“It is absolutely possible to train yourself to prefer less sugar but you might have to do a little research on your food to see where those sugars are hiding,” said Frederic. “Cut back on the excess sugar in your diet and savor the whole foods you enjoy that have a sweet flavor naturally.”

Get help navigating nutrition with a local dietitian. A physician referral may be required.

Get tips to teach your taste buds to prefer healthier food. Learn the how too much sugar can affect your heart.