The Safety of Natural Sugar Substitutes

Dr. Cindy Haines Health Guide
  • A question came up recently in response to my article on artificial sweeteners. The question was regarding the safety of Stevia, a "natural" no-calorie sweetener. So, what exactly are natural sugar substitutes and does natural always equal better? Let's take a look:


    What are natural sweeteners?

    Natural sweeteners are sweeteners that, as the name states, are derived from nature. These products can come in many forms. Some are liquid (such as agave nectar and fruit juice concentrate), some are powders (such as Sweet Fiber and Stevia), and some are quite thick like molasses (such as barley malt and actual molasses).

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    And while store bought natural sweeteners aren't exactly filled with lots of nutritional goodness, they do offer an alternative to sugar and artificial sugar substitutes. This can be of particular benefit to people who are trying to cut down on sugar consumption and are concerned about going the artificial route.


    Here is a list of some natural sugar substitute options, most of which can be found at your local grocery or health food store:


    Agave Nectar: This natural sweetener comes in liquid form and isn't quite as thick as honey.  Agave nectar does contain calories (about 20 per tsp.), but is thought to be low-glycemic. It is also very sweet, so you don't need to use as much as you would sugar.


    Barley Malt: This sweetener is dark, sticky, and has a strong flavor. It is not as strong, though, as molasses and is not quite as sweet as honey. This one only has 15 calories per 1.5 tsp.


    Date Sugar: This is ground from dehydrated dates. One good thing about date sugar is that you can use it measure for measure for sugar when baking. A lot of artificial and natural sweeteners have different measurements compared to regular sugar when baking so you really have to pay attention. There are only 10 calories per tsp.


    Fructose: This sweetener is very similar to white sugar but has been concentrated more so you do not need to use as much. It comes from fruit sugar. Although slightly similar, it is not the same as High Fructose Corn Syrup (HFCS).


    HFCS is something to stay away from in your quest for a healthy diet. It is a caloric sweetener that is put in just about every non-diet soft drink plus many other junk foods. According to the authors of a study published in a 2004 issue of The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition: "...calorically sweetened beverages may enhance caloric overconsumption. Thus, the increase in consumption of HFCS has a temporal relation to the epidemic of obesity, and the overconsumption of HFCS in calorically sweetened beverages may play a role in the epidemic of obesity." HFCS has also been linked to high cholesterol and an increased risk of heart disease.


    Stevia: This is a pretty popular no-calorie natural sweetener. Stevia is many times sweeter than table sugar and a very small amount goes a long way. It is important to note, however, that while Stevia has been approved as a dietary supplement by the FDA, there are no formal guidelines or approvals for its use as a sweetener. This means that while Stevia's use as a sweetener is likely safe (because it has been approved in another similar capacity), it is not specifically designated so by the FDA.


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    Sweet Fiber: This is a fiber-based, natural sweetener in powder form. You can pour it in hot and cold beverages and just stir until dissolved. This one, like Stevia, has zero calories.


    Xylitol: Also called birch sugar, xylitol can be used for baking and sweetening beverages. Xylitol is low-glycemic and it has been linked to the promotion of bone health and prevention of tooth decay and plaque buildup. This only contains 2.4 calories per tsp.


    Zsweet: This zero-calorie sweetener measures, looks, and flows like sugar.  Zsweet contains erythritol, has zero glycemic effect and has been recognized by the FDA as a food (unlike Stevia).


    And remember that most fruits contain enough natural sweeteners to satisfy just about any sweet tooth around. Whole and canned fruits can also factor into recipes to boost the sweetness factor, naturally.


    A note about sugar

    Sugar, or sucrose, has about 16 calories per tsp. and is just fine for most people in small amounts, as in sweetening your coffee or ice tea. And while small amounts are okay, consuming large amounts on a regular basis is not a healthy way to live and should be avoided.


    Are natural sweeteners safe to use?

    While some natural sweeteners, like fruit juice, are known to be safe alternatives to sugar, the evidence is not quite as clear for some of the others listed above.


    There is a notable deficiency in scientific information on these natural sweeteners, including little-to-no data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and the Food and Drug Administration (FDA). Artificial sweeteners, such as Splenda and Sweet ‘n' Low have a lot more information available on them than do the natural varieties. So the jury is still out, really.


    Bottom Line?

    Moderation, moderation, moderation.


    Sweeteners, both natural and artificial, are likely here to stay (and I know that my sweet tooth is happy about that!). And, within the context of a well-rounded and healthful diet and exercise plan, the moderate use of any currently on the market is probably just fine.

Published On: April 30, 2008