Cleveland Clinic’s Best (and Worst) Sugar Substitutes
Let’s face it: Added sugar isn’t really good for your health. (Excuse me.)
An occasional indulgence is understandable. Added sugars are pervasive in our food supply and a life of excessive restriction and denial is not sustainable or realistic for many people.
You probably already know. And you may have thought that you had found a better solution. Wellyou think, if sugar isn’t all that great for my body, then I’ll get my sweet from artificial sweeteners, honey, and other sugar substitutes. Problem solved.
Except, not really. (Again sorry.)
When it comes to sweeteners, not all sugar substitutes are created equal.
We asked Registered Dietitian Anna Taylor, RD, LD, to solve it and share tips for reducing your sugar intake.
The problem with sugary foods
Sugar and sugary foods do more than leave you at risk for tooth decay. They can whet your appetite, making you even hungrier than before. And going overboard on the sweet stuff can put you at risk for obesity, type 2 diabetes, heart disease, fatty liver disease, and more.
Keeping your sugar intake low is an important part of keeping your body healthy.
How much sugar is too much?
The American Heart Association recommends the following sugar limits each day:
- 25 grams (6 teaspoons) for women and persons assigned female at birth (AFAB).
- 36 grams per day (9 teaspoons) for men and persons assigned male at birth (AMAB).
The average American eats about 68 grams of sugar a day, Taylor says. This can add up to 28 pounds of body fat per year.
They were all human. And cutting out sweets tomorrow probably isn’t high on your to-do list. But reducing your intake can make a big difference. Taylor explains how to reduce sugar consumption in a healthy way.
The best choice: fresh and frozen fruit
Way No. 1 to sweeten foods and drinks is to use fresh or frozen fruit.
Unlike packaged and baked sweets, which are full of empty calories, fruit is packed with nutritional benefits like fiber, vitamin C and potassium, along with natural sugar. This makes it an ideal sweetener, Taylor says.
Fruit is perfect for filling up on vitamins, antioxidants, and other beneficial compounds. Thus, they will add some sweet taste and also benefit the health of the whole body. Profitable.
Try sweetening your oatmeal by mixing in some banana or applesauce. Add blueberries to Greek yogurt. Sweeten smoothies with frozen fruit. Or infuse your water with a handful of sliced strawberries or a few wedges of lime.
Limit: natural sugars
Natural sugars include things like raw honey, maple syrup, agave nectar and raw sugar.
The good news is that some natural sweeteners provide a few more nutrients than table sugar.
The bad news? They are all still forms of sugar and are high in calories.
Any natural sugar should be counted towards your daily sugar intake just like refined sugar.
Whether natural or refined, sugar is still sugar and should be limited, notes Taylor.
On the plus side, raw honey and pure maple syrup both contain antioxidants and have prebiotic oligosaccharides that help nourish your gut flora. (Translation: They can keep your digestion on track.)
But remember, honey should not be given to children under 1 year old. May contain botulism bacteria spores, a serious health hazard for babies.
As for the maple syrup, you have to be picky. Some commercial brands of maple syrup may contain significant amounts of high fructose corn syrup and no natural sweeteners. Check food labels for hidden ingredients.
High-fructose diets are linked to long-term metabolic complications like insulin resistance, belly fat accumulation and high triglyceride levels, Taylor explains. Hence, it is best to avoid food with high fructose corn syrup.
Agave nectar is another natural option. But it provides fewer nutrients than raw honey or pure maple syrup.
Agave nectar has the same number of carbs and calories as table sugar, but you get a lot of flavor from a small amount. So, you use less to get the same sweetness, says Taylor. It will still raise your blood sugar. So if you live with diabetes, you’ll want to be careful with it.
The thing to remember about natural sources of added sugars: In terms of weight and blood sugar, they behave just like sugar. So, you don’t want to go overboard.
All added sugars are inflammatory. That includes honey and maple syrup, Taylor clarifies.
Limit: refined sugar
Table sugar is inflammatory, high in calories, and offers no nutritional benefit.
It’s also probably hiding in some of your favorite foods.
Most granola bars, yogurts and flavored cereals already contain about a tablespoon of added sugar per serving, says Taylor. Many sugary drinks contain more than three tablespoons of added sugar per serving.
Limit: artificial sugars
Common artificial sweeteners include things like saccharin (Sweet n Low), aspartame (Equal), and sucralose (Splenda).
Artificial sweeteners may seem like a dream come true. All that sweet taste but no real sugar and no (or very few) calories? Yes please!
But artificial sweeteners have concerns of their own.
Like what? Well
- Just as with sugar, artificial sweeteners can make you crave sweeter, sugary foods.
- Artificial sweeteners often include sugar alcohols. A sugar alcohol commonly used in artificial sweeteners, erythritol, has been linked to an increase before heart attack and stroke.
- Some researchers suggest that artificial sweeteners may be linked to a number of other health conditions, including obesity, high blood pressure, type 2 diabetes, heart disease and more. However, these results have not been validated across the board. The search is still ongoing.
Ready to cut out sweets?
One thing is clear: no sugar or sugar substitute is healthy in excess.
Sugar is addictive. The more sugar you eat, the more you want. But it is possible to reduce and eliminate added sugar.
How can you break your habit?
Challenge yourself, your foods and drinks don’t always have to taste sweet, encourages Taylor.
Start small. You don’t have to go cold turkey to reap the benefits of a less sugary diet.
- Decrease the sweetener in your coffee or tea by one teaspoon per week.
- Drink more water and less sodas, lemonades and sweet teas.
- Dilute juices by mixing half your usual serving with water to keep some of the sweetness.
- Start making a habit of reading labels. Much of the sugar in the American diet is found in processed and sweetened prepackaged foods and beverages. When you start looking, you’ll realize all the places added sugar hides, and then you can look for natural alternatives.
The goal for most people shouldn’t be to cut their added sugar intake to zero. This is unrealistic, says Taylor. But recognizing your sugar intake is a start. And knowing where you can turn for a healthier alternative to satisfy the occasional craving for sweets can help keep your body healthy. And keep your sweet tooth from taking over.
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