It is no secret that sugar is bad for you. Despite its ability to give us the wonderful taste of doughnuts, cookies, and cupcakes, it is a leading cause of many diseases, and it can even mess with your mental health. In hopes of still being able to enjoy the taste of sweetness, many of us have begun turning to different sweeteners as sugar substitutes.
The catch is, not all sweeteners are created equal. When it comes to sugar substitutes, you have to choose carefully, as some are far worse than others. Many artificial sweeteners, which are often found in many diet and sugar-free products, contain synthetic ingredients that can be detrimental to our health.
“When looking for a sweetener, you should try to find something that has nutritional value to it,” says Susan Machtinger, a certified nutrition consultant. When in doubt, it’s ideal to look for sweeteners in their most natural and purest form. “As long as it’s once in awhile, a little sweet food can be good for the soul,” Machtinger says.
Sometimes, all you really need are some baked goods and a latte to get you through the day, so to help you make the best choice when it comes to choosing your sweetener, we’ve paired with Machtinger to gather a list of the best and worst sugar substitutes.
Stevia is a plant extract that can be made with little to no chemical additives. “Stevia is probably the closest thing to a free ride that you can get,” says Machtinger. It has no calories, it doesn’t affect your blood sugar, and it can be used in anything from baked goods to sweetening drinks.
Organic Pure Maple Syrup
Maple syrup is a 100 percent natural sweetener that contains many vitamins and minerals. “It’s important to buy organic, because if not, the syrup could have been possibly coaxed from the tree using formaldehyde,” says Machtinger. Look to get the darker Grade B maple syrup, which is higher in antioxidants.
“Raw honey is one of the healthiest sweeteners you can use,” says Machtinger. “You can sweeten almost anything with it.” Honey contains an assortment of vitamins and minerals, and its molecular structure is similar to glucose, making it easy to process in the body.
The byproduct of refined sugar, blackstrap molasses contains the nutrients taken out of cane sugar, such as iron, calcium, and other minerals. The taste of blackstrap molasses is more distinct, however, and is best used in baking.
“Aspartame is an artificial chemical that breaks down in the bloodstream into a chemical that behaves like a neurotoxin and can change brain chemistry,” Machtinger says. According to Dr. Mercola, 75 percent of adverse food additive reactions reported to the FDA come from aspartame, and these include headaches, nausea, anxiety, slurred speech, insomnia, memory loss, and more.
In the past, agave nectar was thought to be a healthy sweetener because it is mainly composed of fructose, which raises blood sugar slowly. However, new information emerged that fructose can lead to fatty liver disease and increase insulin resistance, so agave nectar fell out of favor. Because it is so high in fructose, agave can put you at risk for diabetes, weight gain, and even heart disease.
Sucralose is made by substituting part of the sugar molecule with chlorine, which makes it about 600 times sweeter than regular sugar. Despite its FDA approval, sucralose has been studied and found to have a variety of negative health effects on the body, including lowering good bacteria and altering insulin and blood sugar levels. It was also found to release toxins during baking.
Other added sweeteners to look out for include high fructose corn syrup, corn syrup solids, and any refined sugars, which can hide under names such as cane juice and barley malt. Be sure to check your ingredient list to make sure you stay away from these unhealthy culprits.