Healthy Eating and Cooking: Artificial Sweeteners vs. Sugar
Copyright 2012 - Kris Heeter, Ph.D.
Learning to cook, eat and drink with less sugar is one of the most fundamental challenges in the quest for weight loss and for being healthy.
The United States is one of the largest consumers of sugar and artificial sweeteners, and it is taking a toll on our health.
Most Americans, sadly, have no idea what the recommended maximum amount of added dietary sugar is considered to be healthy.
In a recent class that I taught, “Healthy Cooking 101: The Basics”, I outlined some of the key points on adding sugar into the daily diet and the use of artificial sweeteners.
Here is a sample of what I shared…
American Heart Association recommends that the daily amount of added sugar (sugars not normally found in whole foods) should not exceed:
- Women: 5 teaspoons (20 grams) of sugar per day
- Men: 9 teaspoons (36 grams) of sugar per day
- Children: 3 teaspoons (12 grams) of sugar per day
Compare that to the amount of sugar in a 12 oz can of cola or soft drink:
- 39 grams of sugar
Super-size or go for that giant soft drink in a 32 oz cup from your favorite convenience store and you are looking at:
- 104 grams of sugar
That’s more than 5x the amount women should have a day and roughly 35 times the amount a child or teenager should have.
An intake of too much sugar has an overwhelming number of health consequences. In addition, research strongly suggests it is addictive.
Over 28 published recent research studies suggest that sugary drinks alone can rewire the brain in ways that resemble drug and nicotine addictions and that rewiring is attributed to the sugar (sucrose) in those drinks
In our population’s quest to “be healthy”, many have turned to artificial sweeteners as the answer for cutting calories and eating healthy but, is it really the right answer? See what you think…
Which is the better – sugar or an artificial sweetener?
On the surface, most would say a zero calorie artificial sweetener is the way to go to cut calories and to lose weight.
The “zero calorie” aspect is enticing and obviously an attractive alternative for diabetics.
However, how much is really known about artificial sweeteners?
Nearly every artificial sweetener that has been approved by the Food and Drug Administration went to market with little to no serious toxicity testing. That is a bit scary.
The historical problems noted with past artificial sweeteners and the lack of testing of many current ones is quite disturbing - this will be covered in more detail in a second article.
The short take home message for now is that we, as consumers, have been drinking food additives that have an unknown toxicity and unknown long-term effects.
Learn how "taste" cells scattered throughout the body affect our ability to crave different types of food. Certain foods, can be more addictive that you might imagine!
Metabolism of sugars
The body reacts differently in some respects to various sugars.
Table sugar is basically a simple sugar called SUCROSE.
Sucrose is a disaccharide and it consists of two sugar units chemically linked together: a fructose molecule bonded to a glucose molecule.
Some other natural sweeteners like agave nectar are made up primarily of a sugar called FRUCTOSE.
Fructose is a monosaccharide -- or carbohydrate made of a single sugar unit.
One big difference between sucrose and fructose is that sucrose contains both fructose and glucose. It is the glucose that causes table sugar to have a “high glycemic index” and an insulin reaction. Insulin is a hormone that the pancreas releases to signal cells to take up glucose from the blood. Therefore, sucrose triggers insulin release.
Fructose, on the other hand, triggers a much less significant insulin release and that is why some foods like agave nectar have what is referred to as a “low glycemic index”. It is often viewed as a slightly better alternative for those that are diabetic or pre-diabetic.
Both fructose and sucrose contain four calories of energy per gram.
Fructose tastes much sweeter than sucrose so it's possible to obtain a similar sweetness in cooking from fewer amounts (grams) of fructose than of sucrose – another small benefit to using something like agave nectar (fructose) rather than table sugar (sucrose).
Other natural sweeteners for consideration
So when it comes down to figuring out what is the healthiest alternative other than artificial sweeteners, there are several to consider. I’ve highlighted some of them below and their difference from table sugar and the small benefits.
Keep in mind that these are still basic “sugars” and should be used in moderation. The guidelines listed above (number of grams per day) should still be adhered to.
- Table Sugar 1 T = roughly 16 grams sugar (sucrose)
- Raw sugar = is unrefined, courser, and slightly better than table sugar. Use 1:1 in place of table sugar
- Honey – raw honey is the best because of it’s higher nutrient value and potential immune system benefits. 1 T = 16 g sugar (roughly). In cooking or baking, the conversion is 1 cup honey = 1 cup sugar but decrease the liquid in the recipe by 1/4 cup for each cup of honey added
- Maple syrup – has significant amounts of zinc and manganese (heart benefits). 1 T = 12 g sugar (roughly)
- Agave Nectar - has the benefit of a low glycemic index (it is processed – mainly composed of fructose). 1 T = 16 g sugar (roughly) but it tastes sweeter so less is needed. Conversion for as substitute in cooking is typically listed on the bottle (often 1 part agave nectar to 2 parts sugar)
- Stevia (a natural herb, a.k.a. “Truvia”) - has no calories, but it is harder to convert in standard recipes*
The stevia found in stores is processed into a very fine powder and as with agave nectar, it is significantly sweeter in taste than table sugar. For those interested in trying recipes adapted to using stevia, here is a good starting point: Stevia recipes
Stevia can also be grown at home as an herb and used in tea, coffee, etc., as a whole leaf sweetener.
Take home messages
First and foremost, for those eating more than the recommended daily “added” sugar (sugars added to food or added to processed food), the priority is to cut down the amount of sugar.
For those drinking or eating artificial sweeteners on a regular basis, consider taking a hard look at the downsides to those sugar-free alternatives and whether it really is a good alternative for you. Each individual's circumstance will different and all side of the proverbial coin should looked when making a decision.
If sugar or artificial sweeteners are prominent in your diet on a daily basis, weaning off of them SLOWLY is the most realistic way if you are trying to cut back. It’s the best approach for long-term success.
For example if you are drinking two 12 oz cans of cola a day, wean yourself down to one 12 oz can over a period of a few weeks. From there, the next step is to slowly get rid of the last 12 ounces. The same approach can be used for diet drinks and any other food with significant amounts of sugar.
As with any change in diet, one should always consult a doctor to monitor blood changes and medication affects.
As you wean yourself off, your body will physically change with you over the long-term. Just as with any other addiction, the cravings typically subside over time as your taste buds, stomach and brain rewire!