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Healthy Eating and Cooking: Artificial Sweeteners vs. Sugar

Updated on April 20, 2015
Various types of sugar and sweetener in glasses
Various types of sugar and sweetener in glasses | Source

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…

Sugar Recommendations

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…

Diet soft drink
Diet soft drink | Source

Artificial sweeteners

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?

Very little.

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.

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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.

Natural Sweeteners

  • 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!


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    • Kris Heeter profile image

      Kris Heeter 5 years ago from Indiana

      @Rajan - thanks for the additional information and I'll check it out.

    • rajan jolly profile image

      Rajan Singh Jolly 5 years ago from From Mumbai, presently in Jalandhar,INDIA.

      Kris, Jaggery is called Gur in India and is a natural sugar made from sugarcane juice. I have a hub by the same name. You might find that informative. Thanks for the interest.

    • Kris Heeter profile image

      Kris Heeter 5 years ago from Indiana

      @rajan jolly - thanks for adding to the conversation. Can you tell us what jaggery is? It's not something I've heard of here in the U.S.

    • rajan jolly profile image

      Rajan Singh Jolly 5 years ago from From Mumbai, presently in Jalandhar,INDIA.

      Excess sugar is unhealthy whether it is glucose or fructose. That is for sure. The only way I feel is to reduce the consumption to within the accepted limits or below. And consume natural sugar sources rather than white sugar. I use honey and jaggery over white sugar.

      Useful information here that should get us thinking seriously about sweeteners that we consume all the time.

      Voted up and useful.

    • carol7777 profile image

      carol stanley 5 years ago from Arizona

      We actually eat almost no sugar except fruit. And I check labels for hidden sugar. And I really hate artificial sweeteners. People are really addicted to sugar and I can understand that. If I eat something suggary I want it the next day. I occasionally use xylitol.

    • Kris Heeter profile image

      Kris Heeter 5 years ago from Indiana

      @bridalletter and Emma Harvey - I'm glad you both found this useful, thanks for adding to the discussion! Emma, you have a great point - "the more we have, the more we want". Sugar and even artificial sweeteners are addictive and we can easily get caught up in a vicious cycle of wanting more and eating more of it!

    • Emma Harvey profile image

      Emma Kisby 5 years ago from Berkshire, UK

      This is a really informative hub. I don't drink a lot of sugary drinks like cola, but I do add sugar or sweetener to tea and coffee.

      I know I need to cut down on doing this (I will add honey to tea when I can). This hub is a reminder of what we are actually putting into our bodies.

      It's about adjusting to taste. The more sugar we have, the more we want. But if we get used to going without, the sweet taste is too much. I just need to cut back until I can get used to going without adding it to my drinks. There's enough sugar in our food already. Great hub - voting up.

    • bridalletter profile image

      Brenda Kyle 5 years ago from Blue Springs, Missouri, USA

      Thank you for listing the dailys. I never knew what we were allowed to have daily. I use sweetners, in the back of my mind I am always wondering if I will developed a cancer from it? Would be nice if they did more solid research on it. Thanks for alternative options again with measurments. I will have to print those parts out for my kitchen.

    • healthylife2 profile image

      Healthy Life 5 years ago from Connecticut, USA

      Very informative hub! I'm really trying to reduce and ultimately eliminate sugar and many of the artificial sweeteners have dangerous side effects so I don't use them at all. Voted up!

    • LivingFood profile image

      LivingFood 5 years ago

      Lot's of great info and useful tips! I used agave and honey to wean myself off sugar. They taste great and go with just about everything.

    • Kris Heeter profile image

      Kris Heeter 5 years ago from Indiana

      @Mama Kim 8 - thanks for passing it along!

    • Mama Kim 8 profile image

      Sasha Kim 5 years ago

      Extremely useful hub! What's "healthy" seems to always change and its hard to keep up. I've never used artificial sweeteners, only honey and cane sugar. I'll be passing this one on to my friends that use artificial sweeteners.

    • Kris Heeter profile image

      Kris Heeter 5 years ago from Indiana

      @BlissfulWriter - its definitely a bit controversial even within the raw scientific literature ("raw" meaning unbiased academic research and peer reviewed). The methods for testing are all over the place and often difficult to compare.

      While it is very true that fructose above recommended levels is unhealthy, levels within the recommended daily sugar allowance may have some small benefits over pure refined table sugar. A recent publication this year of the Br. J Nutrition, along with a few other peer-reviewed academic research studies I've come across, suggests that small catalytic doses of fructose benefit glycemic control without having significant affects on insulin, body weight, blood pressure and uric acid. The key being "small doses" - when controlled and eaten "in moderation" there were no significant affects. For those that are going to continue eating 70, 80, 90, 100+ grams of sugar a day, then something like agave nectar is not really going to be better and that's where the public confusion lies and sadly big industry is taking advantage of that.

      Mercola is correct in his assessment that the most agave nectar is being touted in the market are highly processed. But, as with honey, there is raw agave nectar out there which has natural plant enzymes retained which have benefits over processed agave or table sugar.

    • BlissfulWriter profile image

      BlissfulWriter 5 years ago

      I would not use agave as a sweetener.

      There is a lot of public confusion about agave due to the heavy marketing of agave as "healthy" because it is natural. However, the public does not hear what nutritional scientists know about agave because they do not have the voice that big industry has.

      The scientific evidence is that fructose is very unhealthy. Excessive fructose consumption leads to high triglycerides and diabetes. Agave nectar is unhealthy because it is very high in fructose -- higher fructose than high-fructose corn syrup. Read article about this on HuffingtonPost:

      Or just do a web search on "fructose diabetes" or "fructose triglycerides".

    • teaches12345 profile image

      Dianna Mendez 5 years ago

      We use agave, honey and stevia as sweeteners here at home. It has made a difference in our taste and diet. The artificial sweeteners tend to lead to minor problems in health such as headaches. Great post and voted up.

    • Kris Heeter profile image

      Kris Heeter 5 years ago from Indiana

      @Brett.Tesol - that's great! You are definitely on a good track. Thanks for contributing!

    • Brett.Tesol profile image

      Brett Caulton 5 years ago from Thailand

      I've recently reduced my sugar intake, switched to natural brown sugar and dropped artificial sweeteners. I'm not sure why, but I just feel that fake sweeteners mess with our bodies, while natural sweeteners need to be kept in moderation ...

      Shared, up and interesting.

    • Kris Heeter profile image

      Kris Heeter 5 years ago from Indiana

      @TheKatsMeow - you are welcome!

    • TheKatsMeow profile image

      TheKatsMeow 5 years ago from Canada

      Very good! I try to stay away from artificial sweeteners because I don't think that they are healthy. It was great to read a Hub about different sugars, thanks for breaking it down :)

    • Kris Heeter profile image

      Kris Heeter 5 years ago from Indiana

      @vox vocis - I personally would tend to agree with her. There's a a lot of interesting research coming out on the artificial sweeteners that's pretty scary. Thanks for stopping by and contributing!

    • vox vocis profile image

      Jasmine 5 years ago

      A woman working in a sugar & artificial sweeteners factory told me that sugar was much healthier than artificial sweeteners. I don't consume sugar, only on rare occasions. Great hub, a lot of interesting information!