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Your guide to alternative sugars: What to love, what to avoid and why

Justina Huddleston is an editor and the head writer for TDmonthly Magazine. She has been a freelance writer for several years, though her real passion is cooking. You can see the recipes she creates on her vegan food blog, A Life of Litt...

We spoke with doctors and nutritionists to get the 411 on alternative sweeteners

Trying to eat healthier can feel like a never-ending puzzle. One day some superfood is in, the next day it's out — it can feel impossible to keep track of what's actually good for you and what's just a fad. And when you find yourself choking down a kale-maca-manuka honey-matcha smoothie, you just might find yourself wishing you knew if it's actually any healthier than your favorite fruity sugar bomb from Jamba Juice.

That's why we reached out to doctors and nutritionists to find out the truth about different sweeteners. Sure, refined table sugar isn't good for us, but what about its substitutes? Below, learn about the most common alternative sweeteners, and hear health professionals weigh in on their pros and cons.

Note: The glycemic index measures how much a food raises your blood glucose. Under 55 is considered low, 56 to 69 is medium, and 70 or more is considered high.

Aspartame

Amount to replace 1 cup sugar: 1 cup

Glycemic index: 0

"Aspartame, marketed as NutraSweet and Equal, [has] been the subject of constant controversy since its initial approval by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration in 1974," Dr. Larry Goldfarb of the Medical and Wellness Center of New Jersey said in an op-ed he shared with SheKnows.

"Since some of the artificial sweeteners are 200 times sweeter than regular sugar, our body responds by secreting more insulin to deal with the overload of sugar. With that much insulin secreted (insulin is the chemical needed for sugar to get into the cell), the blood levels deplete and the person gets hungry again at a very rapid rate, ingesting unnecessary calories over and over so there is weight gain."

Sucralose/Splenda

Amount to replace 1 cup sugar: 1 cup

Glycemic index: 0

"Popular in decades previous, artificial sweeteners are decreasing in popularity due their potential link with brain abnormalities, and the increased risk of developing certain cancers," Zoe Martin, a nutritionist for Discount Supplements shared with SheKnows. "However, it's worth noting that many studies involving these sweeteners have been carried out on rats, and in very large quantities that do not align with what would realistically be consumed."

Stevia/Truvia

Amount to replace 1 cup sugar: 1 teaspoon powdered or liquid concentrate

Glycemic index: 0

"Stevia is classed as all-natural, and has a calorie/carb value of zero. The active compounds in stevia — steviol glycosides — are much sweeter than sugar, and are deemed safe for consumption. It is believed that stevia may possess other health benefits that are not yet understood. The drawback, however, is that pure stevia has a slightly bitter aftertaste that's akin to licorice — it's not for everyone," Martin told us.

More: Forget fat, it's sugar that's causing all our health problems

Xylitol and erythritol

Amount to replace 1 cup sugar: 1 cup

Glycemic index: 12

"These are sugar alcohols, which are pretty great as far as sweeteners go," Martin told SheKnows. "They are extracted from corn or birch trees; they have an equal sweetness to sugar, and look and taste about the same. However, unlike their toxic cousin, they contain roughly a third of the calories, and have a much lower impact on blood glucose levels. Plus, they do not contribute to tooth decay (xylitol is actually approved by some dental experts for its role in preventing tooth decay)."

Any cons? "Since sugar alcohols are mostly absorbed in the gut, large quantities may cause gastrointestinal disturbance," Martin explained. However, most foods use a very small amount of xylitol, so you should be fine.

Agave syrup

Amount to replace 1 cup sugar: 3/4 cup

Glycemic index: 15

Although agave is low on the glycemic index, it's 90 percent fructose, which is more harmful than glucose. "Agave is not as healthy as once thought. It's high in fructose, higher than that of high-fructose corn syrup, and research suggests that fructose does not shut off appetite hormones," Rogers told us.

Brown rice syrup

Amount to replace 1 cup sugar: 1-1/4 cups

Glycemic index: 25

"Brown rice syrup is often praised because it's comprised of entirely glucose, as opposed to fructose — the latter of which has been linked to raised triglyceride levels in the blood, which can lead to atherosclerosis (or hardening of the arteries). Again, though, sugar in any form is something we should minimize intake of," Martin told SheKnows.

Honey (raw)

Amount to replace 1 cup sugar: 1/2 cup

Glycemic index: 30

Some of the experts we talked to thought honey was just as bad as sugar, while others touted its supposed antibacterial and anti-inflammatory properties. If you do choose honey, just remember to "purchase raw organic honey, and not honey from China that can be just made from high-fructose corn syrup," nutritionist Connie Rogers advised SheKnows.

Coconut sugar

Amount to replace 1 cup sugar: 1 cup

Glycemic index: 35

"Coconut sugar does retain quite a bit of the nutrients found in the coconut palm and may have a lower glycemic index [than table sugar]," Rogers told SheKnows. "Make sure you are getting coconut sugar and not just palm sugar."

Date sugar

Amount to replace 1 cup sugar: 1 cup

Glycemic index: 50

"Date sugar is made from dried dates. It doesn't dissolve in water and has a high glycemic effect," Dr. Barry Sears, president of the Inflammation Research Foundation, told SheKnows.

More: New FDA nutrition labels unmask hidden sugars like woah

Maple syrup

Amount to replace 1 cup sugar: 1/2 – 2/3 cup

Glycemic index: 54

"Maple syrup is made from boiled-down maple tree sap and contains minerals," Rogers shared. "[It's] not as refined as agave, and healthier."

Molasses

Amount to replace 1 cup sugar: 1-1/3 cups

Glycemic index: 55

Some experts say we should be wary of using molasses as a sweetener.

"Most of the chemicals which are used in the refining process of cane sugar eventually find their way into the waste residue, which is the molasses," Rogers explained. "Therefore, you not only have the harmful effects of the sugar but also of the toxic chemicals which are used in its manufacture."

Table sugar

Glycemic index: 63

"Refined sugar is perhaps a little worse than all of [the above] because it is so easy to overconsume. It's not the sugar per se that is bad; it is when it is combined with fat that it affects the brain more acutely," and that's when we should be worried, Sears told us.

At the end of the day, Sears told us that "all [sweeteners and artificial sweeteners] have problems. Try to use the least amount that combats any bitterness without trying to oversweeten the taste of the final product. In my opinion, the best sweetener is fruit as it contains fructose and polyphenols."

More: The 5 steps of sugar rehab

We spoke with doctors and nutritionists to get the 411 on alternative sweeteners
Image: Liz Smith/SheKnows


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