By Allie Hardy
Registered Dietitian for Susan P. Byrnes Health Education Center
Q: What is the healthiest sweetener according to the latest research in terms of calories, weight gain and natural ingredients?A: The term “sweeteners” can be broken down into three general categories – natural sweeteners such as sugar, honey or agave; artificial sweeteners such as aspartame or sucralose; and sugar substitutes such as Stevia, PureVia and Truvia.
Natural sweeteners have 16 to 22 calories per teaspoon — sugar has 16 (the fewest), agave has 20, and honey has 22 — and are often referred to as “added sugars.” Using natural sweeteners in moderation is fine for the general population, although people with diabetes should be aware of their carbohydrate count. The average American consumes 16 percent of her total calories as added sugars, and problems arise when these sweeteners are consumed in excess.
The Dietary Guidelines for Americans 2010 states that “many foods that contain added sugars often supply calories, but few or no essential nutrients and no dietary fiber.”
The Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics recommends no more than 6 to 8 teaspoons of added sugars per day. To put that number into perspective, a 12 ounce can of soda has 8 teaspoons of added sugar, or 130 calories from sugar.
Synthetic artificial sweeteners have gained popularity as consumers desire fewer calories without sacrificing flavor. Recent research has shown that artificial sweeteners such as aspartame might increase appetite and sugar cravings.
Artificial sweeteners are 200 to 600 times sweeter than sugar, though they have a fraction of the calories, and might alter your awareness of how sweet other foods are. For example, drinking a diet soda with lunch might change your perception of how sweet an apple is, making it less appetizing. Other studies have indicated that individuals who consume artificial sweeteners are more likely to consume refined carbohydrates and unhealthy fats, leading to an overall increase in calories and potential weight gain. Maximal intake of these non-nutritive sweeteners should not exceed 25 percent of total energy, according to the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics.
Sugar substitutes such as Stevia are derived from the Stevia rebaudiana herb that has been used in certain parts of the world for years. Sweeteners in this family have no calories, minimal carbohydrates and are about 10 to 30 times sweeter than sugar.
Stevia was banned from being used as an artificial sweetener in 1994 and was sold as a dietary supplement. Truvia and PureVia both use Stevia as their form of sweetener and are now allowed by the FDA to be sold in grocery stores as sugar substitutes. The products are too new for long-term research studies, but are touted by many as the healthiest way to sweeten foods and beverages.
When choosing a sweetener, consider your overall diet and health conditions, as well as your personal convictions. As for me, I think a teaspoon or two of the real thing is always the best in providing maximum flavor and satisfaction for minimal calories.
More information about sweeteners: