You might have already know this by now, but it’s a fact that not all sweeteners are created equal. If you’re like me, you find it hard to keep up with what’s good and what’s bad (Splenda is bad, Agave is good, real sugar is good…it can get confusing!). Everyone should know whether the sweeteners they’re putting into their coffee, tea and sweets is laden with chemicals and carcinogens, or if it’s totally fine to consume. To solve this mystery, I’ve enlisted Team LC’s nutritionist and friend Kelly LeVeque to break down the good, the bad and the ugly behind your favorite sweeteners.
Below, Kelly helps explain which sweeteners have a high or low glycemic index (which is a number that ranks a food from 1-100 on how it effects your blood sugar, also known as GI). Keep in mind that the higher the GI, the worse it is for your energy levels throughout the day as well as your overall health.
Without further ado, here is our Smart Girl’s Guide to Sweeteners…
The plant Stevia has been used for more than 1,500 years by the Guaraní peoples of South America and is a safe calorie-free sweetener that can be used by diabetics. It’s much stronger than sugar, so a little goes a long way. Kelly’s advice for Stevia lovers is to ensure you are using organic 100% stevia, as many brands are jumping on the band wagon and will split the mixture with chemicals.
Honey is 38% fructose and 31% glucose, but unlike other sugar-dense sweeteners, it is pretty beneficial. Honey has many benefits, including having antibacterial and antiviral properties. And it also contains enzymes, proteins, trace minerals, flavonoids and other polyphenols. Plus, if you buy your honey locally, it can really help with seasonal allergies. So if you’re looking for something to sweeten your tea or acai bowls, honey is a pretty good option.
Maple syrup is made from the refined sap of maple trees, and while it ranks high on the GI scale, it’s pretty low in free fructose. It also contains manganese, iron and calcium. In appropriate quantities, this natural sugar is a good option.
Many people believe Truvia is Stevia. However, it’s actually made mostly of erythritol, a sugar alcohol from corn that is low in calories but gets completely absorbed by your gut bacteria. Sugar alcohols ferment in the gut, so side effects can include diarrhea, cramping, gas and bloating. In short, while Truvia might be low-cal, it won’t leave you feeling your best, so it’s a good idea to reach for another sweetener.
Touted as the healthier new sugar alternative, coconut sugar is loaded with potassium, magnesium and vitamin C and made mostly of sucrose (like white sugar). But the best part is that it registers way lower on the GI scale than white sugar (around the 30s-40s). Because of this, Kelly recommends opting for coconut sugar instead of your white sugar when making baked goods.
Coconut nectar is the sap from a coconut tree, and it’s rich in B Vitamins, Vitamin C and minerals like potassium. It also includes FOS, a probiotic that feeds healthy bacteria in the gut (major bonus!). It’s a great sweetener, but because of its strong flavor and viscosity, it doesn’t swap into recipes in exact cup for cup quantities. So be aware of this if you’re using coconut nectar for baking.
White sugar a.k.a. sucrose is a disaccharide sugar comprised of fructose and glucose in a 1:1 ratio. Today, the majority of our white sugars come from sugar cane or beets and registers in the high 50s on the GI. In short, for a healthier swap with more micronutrients, try coconut sugar.
Brown sugar is a sucrose sugar product that has a distinctive brown color because of added molasses. Since it’s almost exactly the same as white sugar (the main difference being the addition of molasses), coconut sugar is still a much better option here.
Agave nectar is often heralded as low on the glycemic index (15), however, processing techniques result in a 75% or more fructose content. This means, it’s still going to do a pretty good job at spiking your blood sugar (not ideal). Kelly recommends that her clients steer clear of agave nectar because it’s known for being a high-fructose sweetener without much nutritional benefit.
Splenda (or sucralose) starts off as sugar, but in the factory, chlorine molecules are added to the sugar molecule to make sucralose. Because of this chemical modification, the body does not metabolize or digest it properly. It has been linked to an increased risk for cancer (but claims are controversial). In any case, Kelly says, chemicals should never be your first choice when choosing healthy foods, making Splenda a not-so-great sweetener. Stevia drops are a great swap for Splenda.
Kelly tells her clients that going completely sugar-free is always her number one recommendation. But in reality will you never have another bite of cake? Probably not. When you do indulge in your sweet tooth, it’s better to know what you’re getting into, so remember that you can always refer to the guide above the next time you’re sweetening things up.
What healthy eating tips would you like to see us cover in our next Get Fit post?
Thanks again to Kelly for these healthy tips!
Photo: Jessi Burrone Photography for LaurenConrad.com