A sweetener by any other name…

Sugar is delicious, and helps us create some amazing, beautiful, and decadent desserts (can you tell I’m a sweet person?). Unfortunately the evidence is quite clear that added sugars increase our risk of many chronic diseases and we should all strive to limit our consumption to 6 tsp per day or less. The most common question then becomes “what can I use instead?”. This is where it gets tricky and avoiding being mislead by nutrition pseudo-science becomes nearly impossible. I stumbled across this article today in my social media feed discussing the “best” and “worst” sugar substitutes; it was so full of errors that I want to set the record straight.

“Best” sugar substitutes: stevia, maple syrup, honey, and black strap molasses.

  • Stevia: I agree, this can be a good non-sugar, non-caloric sweetener to use from time to time. As I’ve mentioned previously, it could potentially still cause the same sweetness/reward disruption seen with many other artificial sweeteners, so if you’re hoping for weight control, I doubt this will be a magic bullet.
  • Maple syrup:…is sugar: 12.4 g sucrose (table sugar) per tablespoon, to be precise. It contains very small amounts (2% or less of the RDA) of trace minerals like iron, zinc, and calcium and almost no vitamins. What it does have is a lovely flavour and colour, and it allows us northerners to purchase a more locally sourced sweetener if we would like. If you plan to use maple syrup, choose the grade and colour you like best, but not for the antioxidant value.
  • Honey: “…has a similar molecular structure to glucose…” as the article states. Again, that’s because the sugars in honey are about 50% glucose (the remainder being fructose). It has even fewer minerals in smaller amounts than maple syrup, meaning it brings very little nutrition along with the 18g per tablespoon of sugar. Be aware that raw (unpasteurized honey) provides a small increased risk for food-borne illness (bees carry germs, too) and honey of any kind should not be given to children under 1 year of age due to the increased risk of botulism.
  • Blackstrap molasses: Definitely the nutritional powerhouse house nutritive sweeteners with 3.6 mg of iron per tablespoon (the recommended daily allowance is 8-18 mg for much of the adult population). It does, however, contain 13 g carbohydrate per tablespoon, 9g of which are sugars, so this is still not something to be used as liberally as desired. The biggest hurdle with this is the very strong taste and colour it imparts.

“Worst” sugar substitutes: aspartame, agave nectar, sucralose

I’ve already discussed the non-issue of aspartame, suffice it to say it likely won’t hurt you. As for agave nectar, like the other caloric sweeteners above, a small amount from time to time won’t hurt you, but given the high fructose content (without any of the accompanying benefits from fibres and phytochemicals found in whole plants), it would not be wise to make this your sweetener of choice. Lastly, sucralose. It is now the default replacement for aspartame in the diet drinks category. Much of the evidence we have suggests it’s use is safe, but we are learning things all the time, so this may not actually be the case. Just like we used to think that sugar should be avoiding mostly for its tooth-rotting effects, not because of the insulin resistance and heart disease risk. Verdict? Small amounts occasionally is probably fine, and we’ll wait on more evidence.

This article misses the point of the guidelines to reduce sugar consumption by suggesting other forms of sugars in place of the “white death” or whatever exaggerated moniker white table sugar has this week. The guidelines encourage the reduction of all added sugars, including white sugar, brown sugar, cane sugar, honey, molasses, maple syrup, brown rice syrup, corn syrup, palm sugar, coconut sugar, evaporated cane juice…. The human body cannot and does not distinguish between these once ingested; they are all some combination of glucose and fructose with or without a minute amount of nutrients and they are metabolized in the same way. The best advice I can offer is use the one(s) you like, and just use less.

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