These days, sugar can seem like a four-letter word, especially if you're trying to lose weight or adopt a healthier lifestyle. According to the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), an excess of added sugars is one of the main culprits behind not only weight gain and obesity, but also an increased risk of heart disease and type 2 diabetes. The FDA recommends consuming no more than six to 11 teaspoons of the sweet stuff each day.
The problem is, the sweet stuff is practically everywhere, and it doesn’t always come in obvious forms, like when you sprinkle it in your coffee or drizzle chocolate sauce on strawberries. The practice of adding sugar to packaged foods is rampant—it can be found in everything from veggie snacks to juices and sauces.
As part of the anti-sugar trend, many people are turning to substitutes as a lower-calorie way to sweeten things up. But are sugar swaps any better than the real deal? SparkPeople nutritionist Becky Hand gives us the skinny on today's trendiest sugar substitutes.
Derived from the nectar of agave plants, this syrup can sometimes be sweeter than white table sugar, but it contains more calories (60 per tablespoon as opposed to 48). "The nutritional boost of agave syrup is very minimal," says Hand. "There are only trace amounts of iron, calcium, potassium and magnesium." In addition, while most sweeteners contain around a 50/50 mix of glucose and fructose, agave syrup is around 90 percent fructose—and some research has shown that high fructose consumption is linked to higher body fat and lower physical activity.
Also known as coconut palm sugar, this sweetening agent is made from boiling down the nectar of flowers from the coconut plant. It contains the same amount of calories (16) and carbohydrates (four grams) as white table sugar.
Although it's touted as more nutritious than regular table sugar and high-fructose corn syrup, Hand points out that coconut sugar contains only trace amounts of nutrients like zinc, iron, potassium, vitamin C and thiamin. It also contains almost as much fructose as regular sugar.
Is coconut sugar a good option for diabetics? According to the American Diabetes Association, it's fine to use coconut sugar as a sweetener, but it should be treated the same as regular sugar in terms of consumption.
Brown Rice Syrup
To produce this natural sweetener, enzymes are used to break down the starch in brown rice into simple sugar. The liquid is then boiled down into syrup.
Depending on how it's processed, brown rice syrup can contain anywhere from 55 to 75 calories per tablespoon. With only trace nutrients of magnesium, zinc and manganese, it offers little to no nutritional value.
Although brown rice syrup is made up of three different types of sugars, it is broken down into glucose during digestion, so it ultimately has the same effect on the body as regular sugar.
Date sugar is different from other natural sugar substitutes in that it's not an extract, but is instead made by grinding dried dates into a fine powder. It contains the same nutrients as whole dates—potassium, calcium and several antioxidants—and has only 30 calories per tablespoon. Hand points out that under the latest FDA draft guidelines, whole fruit, fruit pieces and dried fruit don't fall into the category of added sugars.
However, Hand warns that date sugar has some restrictions. Because it doesn't melt well, its uses are limited. "It can primarily be used as a replacement for brown sugar in quick breads and bar cookies, sprinkled in yogurt, added to a smoothie or used to top a hot cereal," she says.
To Sweeten or Not to Sweeten?
While some sugar substitutes may be marketed as healthier or more natural than others, Hand cautions that the body can't distinguish between these and regular white table sugar.
"There is no nutritional boost to these sweeteners," she says. "If you like the flavor, then make the substitution—but don't assume that you're giving your body a health-promoting boost. Like the real thing, substitute sweeteners should be consumed in moderation."
What do you think of sugar substitutes?
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