Everything in moderation — the adage is old, but it's remarkably true, especially when we're talking about sugar. Though sugar is a source of energy and a small amount is necessary in our blood streams, too much can have deadly implications. Recent studies suggest that higher intake of added sugar multiplies the risk for heart disease.
It is important to be aware that there are sugars in foods you don't think of as being super sweet. Nutritionist Lauren Thomas, M.S., R.D., C.D.N. advises that most sugar intake comes from naturally occurring sources. “If you’re getting a fruit smoothie and it also has agave or honey, recognize that you’re consuming two different sources of sugar," said Thomas. "You can probably skip the agave or the honey.”
Even for the biggest sweet tooths, there are healthier ways to add sweetness to coffee, cake, or oatmeal. Thomas and I discussed how to pick which sweetener is right for you.
Though Stevia has been researched much less than other sugar substitutes, nutritionists are placing high bets on this zero-calorie sweetener as one of the healthiest sugar alternatives. Thomas cites Stevia as her first choice for patients. Three hundred times sweeter than sugar, it comes from the plant Stevia rebaudiana and has been used in Japan for many years. "I recommend it because it is derived from a plant and does not take the same artificial processing route as other sweeteners," Thomas explains. "So far it has not been shown to have a strong effect on blood sugar or insulin levels (it has a ranking of zero on the glycemic index scale), making it one of the better choices for those watching their weight or who are diabetic."
Though agave also comes from a plant, Thomas advises her patients to keep one main point in mind when it comes to these three syrup sweeteners: "Unlike other options, they do contain calories," she says. "As such," she notes, "it's not a good option for diabetics or even those who are weight conscious. Agave’s popularity has spiked in recent years due to its perception as natural, and thus healthy. Not the case — store-bought agave syrup is highly processed.
Honey and agave are sweeter than sugar, while maple syrup is only 60 percent as sweet as sugar. WebMD advises concentrated use: “Agave has about 60 calories per tablespoon, compared to 40 calories for the same amount of table sugar. However, since agave is about 1.5 times sweeter than sugar, you can use less of it.” If choosing between honey and agave, spoon some honey into your tea — it’s been found to lower cholesterol.
While blackstrap molasses can be bittersweet, it might be worth acquiring a taste for this lesser-known sweetener. It’s actually a superfood and contains a healthy dose of iron, calcium, magnesium, and vitamin B6. Thomas notes that due to the nutrients it contains, blackstrap molasses can be "a particularly good option for vegetarians, though, again, the body does metabolize it as sugar). Nutrition from a sweetener — what could be better than that? (Note: The above applies to blackstrap molasses only, not regular molasses.)
Splenda is safe, but it’s best not to overdo it. By replacing sugar with Splenda, you can reduce your overall calories, and (theoretically) prevent weight gain. However, that doesn’t mean you get a free-pass to dump four packets in your morning cup of coffee. Thomas broke it down for me: "Essentially, sucralose (the main chemical component in Splenda) can perform a trick on the body. Studies show that the body recognizes sweetness (in this case 600x higher than that of regular sugar) and activates a rush of insulin to regulate the potential glucose (sugar) coming into your blood. When people routinely secrete more insulin, their bodies can become resistant to its effects, thus leading to a greater likelihood of developing Type 2 Diabetes, obesity, and other health concerns. Furthermore, because you never received the calories your body was expecting, your body's metabolic hormones continue to send cravings throughout the day to receive those calories! So potentially, the effort to make a healthier, lower-calorie choice can work against you: by picking Splenda in an effort to be healthful, you may only just delay the body’s desire to satiate a craving for sugar." Regardless, Thomas says, “If you are in good health, one Splenda a day is generally recognized as safe, and is a better option than other artificial sweeteners such as Equal or Sweet'n Low."