It seems like convention wisdom on sweeteners changes regularly. When you’re on a low-carb dinner or are trying to cut out sugar—but still crave sweet treats—deciding which kind of sweetener to use can be overwhelming. White sugar, brown sugar, honey, agave, stevia, aspartame: which of these are safe to consume? Is there a “right” sweetener to use, or is it all about comparing risks?
Whatever sweetener you choose, the American Heart Association recommends that women should limit their sugar intake to six teaspoons (25 grams) and men should have no more than nine teaspoons (37 grams) of added sugar, daily. That applies no matter which type of sugar you use.
Here’s what you need to know about sweeteners.
Artificial sweeteners: are they really that bad?
Artificial sweeteners may not contain sugar, but they can be naturally derived. Typically, artificial sweeteners are much more potent than other sources of sugar, like white sugar or honey. That means you can use just a tiny bit to sweeten your foods and drinks, without the calories involved in eating actual sugar.
You’ll find artificial sweeteners in low-carb, “diet” and sugar-free foods. This can be helpful for people watching their weight or who have diabetes. However, you may notice that artificial sweeteners leave behind an odd aftertaste, making the products less appealing than “natural” sweeteners. You may also need to adjust your recipes when using artificial sugars: because you use less of the product, your dish may not cook the same way as if you had used bulkier natural sweeteners.
Rumors of health risks associated with artificial sweeteners have been floating around since the 1970s, when a study linked saccharin consumption with bladder cancer in rates. The Mayo Clinic reports, “But according to the National Cancer Institute and other health agencies, there's no sound scientific evidence that any of the artificial sweeteners approved for use in the United States cause cancer or other serious health problems. Numerous studies confirm that artificial sweeteners are generally safe in limited quantities, even for pregnant women. As a result, the warning label for saccharin was dropped.”
Generally, artificial sweeteners are safe. The FDA reviews and approves all artificial sweeteners before they’re made available to the public. They also set “acceptable daily intake” levels, so you can find out how much is safe to use. If you have concerns about this, talk to your medical doctor.
Is natural always better?
Natural sweeteners, like sugar, honey, maple syrup, fruit juice and agave syrup, are not always synonymous with “better.” Remember, all natural sweeteners contain empty calories. They can lead to weight gain and tooth decay. If you’re trying to watch your weight or need to monitor your blood sugar levels, it’s often best to leave natural sweeteners alone.
It’s also important to remember that natural sweeteners still undergo refining and processing. If you’re concerned about processed sugar, additives and other health concerns, check the label on each product.
Finally, honey can contain spores that create botulism, which can be deadly. Never give honey to a child under one year old.
That doesn’t mean natural sweeteners are bad—just that you need to monitor how much you consume. There’s nothing wrong with enjoying a sweet treat, whether that’s made with table sugar, maple syrup or aspartame.
So, which should I choose?
Unless you have health or diet concerns, you’ll probably use a lot of different sweeteners in your diet. Baked goods sweetened with applesauce, honey or maple syrup one day, regular white sugar the next and a diet soda can all satisfy your sweetness craving. Just keep the recommended daily amounts for added sugar in mind, and remember that if you opt for natural sweeteners, you’re consuming empty calories.
If you’re watching your weight or monitoring diabetes, artificial sweeteners might be your only option. Talk to your doctor about your options if you’re having trouble finding a sweetener you like. Having healthy (or healthier) options on hand is a good way to handle sugar cravings.
Ultimately, there are no health risks to using artificial sweeteners, despite what your parents grew up thinking. Consume it with impunity (while keeping in mind that diet soda and other treats can still cause weight gain and tooth decay on their own). However, their aftertaste can leave a lot of people unsatisfied.
Now that you know the truth behind sweeteners, the only question is which one you’ll try today.