Are honey, agave nectar, or high-fructose corn syrup healthier than table sugar? And what about artificial sweeteners? To help you decide, here’s the real deal on 10 common sweeteners.
Sugar or substitute?
Sugar contributes to tooth decay and obesity, but still we spoon it onto cereal and into coffee (and the food industry puts heaps-known as added sugar-into products).
“Americans eat 165 pounds of added sugar each year, and sugar substitutes are on the rise as well, which are hundreds of times sweeter than table sugar,” says Frances Largeman-Roth, RD, author of Feed the Belly and co-author of The Carb Lovers Diet.
But are artificial sweeteners, honey, agave nectar, or high-fructose corn syrup healthier than table sugar?
To help you decide, here’s the real deal on 10 common sweeteners.
AKA: Table sugar
Calories: 16 per teaspoon
Found: Naturally in fruit; added to baked goods, jams, marinades, salad dressings
The deal: Sucrose offers energy but no nutritional benefits. In 2003, a team of international experts recommended that added sugars make up no more than 10% of your diet, or about 12 teaspoons (50 grams) for a 2,000-calorie diet.
But in 2009 the American Heart Association slashed that even further suggested women consume no more than 6 teaspoons (25 grams) of added sugar and men no more than 9 (37.5 grams).
AKA: Sunett, Sweet One
Found in: Soft drinks, gelatins, chewing gum, frozen desserts
The deal: This nonnutritive artificial sweetener was first approved by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) in 1988, meaning it now has a 22-year track record in which no problems have surfaced.
However, pre-market testing was sparse. Hoescht, the manufacturer of the chemical, ran a few long-term animal studies that showed it might be linked to cancer (although animal studies don’t always translate to humans).
In 1996, the Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI) urged the FDA to require better testing, but for now it seems to be safe in moderation.
Calories: 20 per teaspoon
Found in: Cereals, yogurts, tea
The deal: The nectar is a product of the agave cactus, and its taste and texture are similar to honey.
It doesn’t contain as many antioxidants as honey, but it contains approximately the same amount of calories. Agave, however, is sweeter than sugar, so proponents suggest you can use less to get similar sweetness.
It contains more fructose than table sugar, which, according to a recent study, means it is less likely to cause a spike in blood sugar but could be more likely to reduce your metabolism and insulin sensitivity.
AKA: Equal, NutraSweet
Found in: Drinks, gum, yogurt, cough drops
The deal: One of the most studied artificial sweeteners, aspartame has been accused of causing everything from weight gain to cancer.
However, since being approved by the FDA in 1981, studies have found no convincing evidence and the FDA, the World Health Organization, and the American Dietetic Association say aspartame in moderation poses no threats.
The CSPI feels differently, and gave it their lowest ranking in a review of food additives. People with phenylketonuria, an inherited genetic disorder, should avoid it.
High-fructose corn syrup
Calories: 17 per teaspoon
Found: Sodas, desserts, cereals
The deal: This hotly debated sweetener contains the sugars fructose and glucose from processed corn syrup.
Because it’s cheaper than sucrose and gives products a longer shelf life, more packaged foods in the U.S.-especially soda, cereal, and yogurt-contain HFCS as added sugar instead of sucrose.
Some studies say beverages sweetened with HFCS contribute to obesity more than sucrose, but others show it’s no worse for health. It’s best to limit your consumption.
Calories: 21 per teaspoon
Found in: Cereals, baked goods, teas
The deal: Honey contains trace amounts of vitamins and minerals, and studies suggest it may not raise blood sugar as fast as other sweet products.
(It’s generally better for the body to have a slow and steady rise in blood sugar after eating, rather than a dramatic spike.)
Honey, however, does contain calories and should be used as sparingly as any other full-calorie sweetener.
Found in: Some drinks, dairy products, frozen desserts, puddings, fruit juices
The deal: The newest on the market, this artificial sweetener was approved by the FDA in 2002.
It is between 7,000 and 13,000 times sweeter than table sugar depending on what it is added to, and is produced by the same company that makes aspartame.
Neotame is one of the only nonnutritive sweeteners to get the seal of approval from the CSPI, but it is rarely used in everyday products.
AKA: Truvia, Pure Via
Found in: Diet drinks, yogurts, individual packets
The deal: Derived from the stevia plant, rebiana is deemed the natural alternative to artificial sweeteners.
Although crude stevia extracts are not approved by the FDA, refined stevia products such as Truvia gained a Generally Regarded As Safe (GRAS) approval from the FDA in 2008.
However, a group of UCLA toxicologists wrote a letter to the FDA that year stating several (but not all) of their lab tests showed the sweetener to cause mutations and DNA damage and urged further testing. Until further testing, be mindful of the amount you’re consuming.
AKA: Sweet’N Low
Found in: Drinks, canned goods, candy
The deal: Rat studies in the early 1970s found a link between consuming Saccharin and bladder cancer, prompting Congress to mandate in 1981 that all foods containing it bear a warning label.
Later studies showed that these results may only occur in rats, and there was a lack of evidence that saccharin causes cancer in humans. Saccharin was removed from the U.S. National Toxicology Program’s Report on Carcinogens in 2000 and Congress repealed the warning label.
The CSPI places it on their “avoid” list, acknowledging that Congress’s removal of the label will likely result in greater use of the sweetener.
Calories (per 1 teaspoon): 0
Found in: Fruit drinks, canned fruit, syrups
The deal: Sucralose received FDA approval in 1998, and although one study showed it may negatively impact the immune system, follow-up studies did not find a correlation.
The CSPI deems it safe, and several studies have found that it is not carcinogenic. This sweetener is one of the few not sensitive to heat and can therefore be used in baking, useful for those limiting empty-calorie carbohydrates because they are dieting or have diabetes.
AKA: Sorbitol, xylitol, mannitol
Calories: 10 per teaspoon
Found in: Sugar-free candies, gum, desserts
The deal: Sugar alcohols aren’t nonnutritive sweeteners-they have 2.6 calories per gram-but they don’t cause tooth decay like table sugar.
Although they’re generally less sweet and caloric than sugar, eating large amounts (particularly of mannitol) can cause bloating and diarrhea. They’re often used in sugar-free foods marketed to diabetics, because they contain fewer carbohydrates than table sugar. They do contain some carbohydrates, so eating them in excess may increase blood sugar.
The ADA recommends consuming sugar alcohols in moderation, and counting half of the grams of sugar alcohols as carbohydrates because only about half get digested.