WHAT'S THE BEST SWEETENER?
Feeling overwhelmed trying to find the best & healthiest sugar alternative for your coffee, cooking, and baking needs? Here's what you need to know.
Time and time again, I'm asked, "What is the best sweetener?"
The answer is complicated because it varies from person to person and depends on personal priorities and concerns. For some, it is the sweetener with the best taste or the healthiest choice. For others, it is a natural, minimally processed sweetener, without anything artificial, synthetic, and genetically modified (GMO). It might be sugar-free, zero-calories, or a low-carb sweetener for those following a specific diet.
So, the best sweetener FOR ME might not be the best FOR YOU at all!
To choose the best sweetener, you need to consider what is most important to you.
What's your priority?
Is it taste, culinary roles, nutritional content, calories, price, or environment and socially responsible certifications (organic, fair trade)? Are you following a specific diet, such as the ketogenic or low calorie? Do you have health issues such as diabetes or irritable bowel syndrome?
My goal is to provide the information you need to choose the best sweetener for your personal needs but also showcase the options available to you in stores. I want you to be able to compare products' ingredients, nutrition facts, sweetness, and price. Ultimately, I hope you can come to decisions about which options are best for you from the huge array of sweeteners you face in the grocery store or online shopping.
SWEETENER SELECTION GUIDE
To help you in the decision-making process, I sort out the overwhelming number of available sweetener options by carefully analyzing each product I find in stores across the country. I gather information from their website, their front and back of the package (ingredients list, nutrition facts, claims) to be able to group similar alternatives. I also get in contact with their manufacturers or distributors to find out more details about their products.
Don't know where to start? Choose one of the following three groups, based on the calories they provide:
Zero Calorie Sweeteners may be natural, synthetic, or artificial and offer less than 5 calories per serving. Both natural and synthetic options are plant-based and can be labeled as "natural." They include mainly stevia, monk fruit, allulose, and erythritol. Artificial sweeteners include sucralose, aspartame, and saccharin.
Reduced Calorie Sweeteners provide 0.4 to 3 cal calories per gram (1.2 to 12 cal/teaspoon) and are divided into two groups: sugar blends (not sugar-free) and those containing low-digestible carbohydrates. The second group is promoted as low "net-carbs" and low glycemic index; most are sugar-free and some are prebiotics; they may be natural or synthetic.
Sugars, aka Caloric Sweeteners, provide 4 cal per gram. It includes not only table sugar, but also honey, maple syrup, coconut sugar, and agave nectar. Chemically speaking, they are composed of two major portions -- sugar and water. Most solid caloric sweeteners have more than 90% sugars and provide 16 cal/tsp. Most liquid caloric sweeteners have over 50% sugars and provide 22 cal/tsp.
KEEP IN MIND.....
EVERY DECISION HAS A TRADEOFF
We tend to think of sweeteners as good or bad, but the reality is all sweeteners have pros and cons, or risks and benefits. There is not one perfect sweetener. We have to recognize that in choosing sweeteners, we always have tradeoffs associated with them, such as taste, cost, or culinary roles. There isn't a one-size-fits-all.
Since each sweetener has weaknesses and benefits, simply getting the details on the weaknesses of one option does not prove it should be abandoned. We also need to scrutinize the flaws of the alternatives. One sweetener is not necessarily better than another. Each one is useful for some applications and not to others. Each and every one has its own distinctive qualities.
We should choose sweeteners for reasons important to us such as their unique flavor, culinary benefits, or our pleasure. Sugars should not be selected based on their nutritive value, as one is not much different from the other.
AVOID THE GOOD-OR-BAD APPROACH
Eliminate sweeteners completely is not practical or recommended. We are hard-wired to love sweeteners and sweet foods. Unless you want to forgo all sweet foods and beverages, you are going to have them. In moderate intake [amounts we can reasonably expect someone to consume] by most people [the general population], all FDA-approved high-intensity sweeteners, reduced-calorie sweeteners, and sugars are safe.
People and the popular press often mention one study to claim a sweetener is bad, ignoring a dozen that show the opposite. They also often jump into conclusions about the cause and effect of one option and overgeneralize to a whole group of sweeteners. However, studies need to be placed in the context of the broader literature.
As there is so much controversy, myth, and misunderstanding, how to make sure both sides are fully represented? Let people who really understand the issues evaluate the evidence as studies are not of equal quality and value. National and international organizations, that know how to evaluate studies, grade them as "convincing", "probable", "possible", "suggestive", "limited", "unlikely", etc.
THE SAFEST SWEETENER
With the overwhelming amount of information about the effects of sweeteners on health, where to seek knowledge? Who to trust? My advice is to choose different types of organizations to find credible information --- from government agencies to healthcare & professional associations, to non-profits. Browse national and international regulatory authorities and food safety websites.
I particularly like the European Commission Knowledge Gateway (click on "Sugars and sweeteners intake: effects on health"). It gives clear reference to national and international institutions that have recently examined the potential impact of all sweeteners consumption on health.
Here is an example of what I would do. The evidence supports artificial sweeteners do not cause cancer, but people often point to rat studies, some from decades ago, even though a link was never confirmed in humans. Rats are highly susceptible to some cancers, and so, those studies were shown to be irrelevant to humans. To read the consensus on that, I would check sites such as the National Cancer Institute, Food and Drug Administration (FDA), European Food Safety Authority, and Cancer Council Australia.
When gathering and filtering information, most of us are not aware, but we all have flaws in our reasoning process. We tend to listen more carefully and pay attention to information that supports our viewpoints or existing knowledge while ignoring evidence to the contrary. Called confirmation bias, it acts at a subconscious level. To change our beliefs, we need to be aware of that.
If a litany of facts about a sweetener's safety and its approval by a hundred countries is not enough to help us have rational decision making, it will require overcome these ingrained biases. Skepticism is a good thing. However, we are good at being skeptical when information conflicts with our viewpoints. We are bad at being skeptical when data is in line with our existing knowledge.
Sweeteners may also be an emotional subject. Some of us, especially caregivers, have strong opinions on what we want to use to sweeten our children's food or beverage, and what we definitely will not use. No matter how safe a sweetener might be, under no circumstances, they will ever consider buying it.
THE HEALTHIEST SWEETENER
Many of us are often confused about what constitutes a healthy sweetener. The expectation of what a healthy sweetener should mean varies from person to person depending on their priorities, concerns, and needs. For some, it is a natural, minimally processed sweetener, without anything artificial, synthetic, or GMO. For others, it is a sugar-free, low-calorie, or low-carb option.
According to the FDA, a food labeled as healthy (healthful, healthier, healthiest) is one that, each serving, is a good or excellent source of certain beneficial nutrients important in sustaining body function and reducing the risk of disease. Nutrients include vitamins, minerals, protein, and dietary fiber. Although you are going to hear claims that one sweetener is healthier than others, the fact is the vast majority of sweeteners in this website does not fit this "healthy" criteria.
Quick facts about sweeteners:
Sugars (excluding those intrinsic and intact in whole foods like milk and fruits) are harmless in small amounts but can be harmful in large quantities. They are energy-dense, 4 to 13x more than fruits. High intake of sugars significantly increases your risk for dental caries, weight gain, obesity, and other chronic diseases. It is easy to have too much of them as we are hard wired to love them. They are widely available, can be stored for a long time, and often inexpensive. What I call "sugars" is referred to as "added sugars" by the Food and Drug Administration, American Heart Association (AHA), and in the Dietary Guidelines for Americans 2015-2020 (DGA). The World Health Organization (WHO) calls them "free sugars." How much sugar is too much? The AHA suggests no more than six teaspoons per day for women and children. Men's upper daily limit is nine teaspoons. The WHO and the DGA both advise limiting sugars to 10% of daily calories, which is twelve teaspoons a day on average. The WHO states it is best to keep it below 5% of daily calories, meaning no more than six teaspoons a day. If you are having more than that, it is probably too much.
High-intensity sweeteners (HIS) that have been approved by the FDA allow you to enjoy sweetness with no calories. They are several hundred times sweeter than table sugar, and so, used in tiny amounts. Based on the available scientific evidence, they have been determined to be safe for the general population. It means there is a reasonable certainty they do not damage your health if we use them as intended. The FDA has determined that the estimated daily intake of HIS would not exceed the acceptable daily intake, even for high consumers. HIS do not affect blood glucose and are non-cariogenic. They do not cause cancer at the doses that we consume them. They are safe for people with diabetes, children, pregnant, and breastfeeding women. According to the DGA, questions remain about their effectiveness to help you lose weight in the long-term. The effect of HIS in the gut microbiome is a developing area of research. Their role in enhancing appetite and food cravings is controversial.
Reduced calorie sweeteners (RCS) may be blends of sugars and HIS, but the most widely available are low--digestible carbohydrates. Even though these carbohydrates offer mild sweetness, they provide bulking (weight and volume) to your recipes with fewer calories than sugars. They have reduced, or no effect at all, on blood sugar levels and are non-cariogenic. Common adverse effects caused by them, especially at high intake, may include digestive discomfort, bloating, flatulence, and laxation. Some are prebiotics as they stimulate the growth of healthy bacteria in the large intestine.
THE BEST TASTE SWEETENER
Taste is one of the most important factors we consider when choosing a sweetener. However, be aware that the best tasting sweetener for me is probably not the best for you. What I taste and what you taste is different. The choice of sweetener with the best taste is not only subjective but also influenced by genetic and anatomical variations.
Different people experience sweeteners differently depending on factors particular to each of us, such as age, sex, health, education level, income, food preferences, and consumption habits, as well as the environment or context in which the sweetener is consumed. People also have differences in their taste buds and their saliva. Therefore, it is almost impossible to choose the best tasting sweetener that everyone will accept. We can find what we think is best for most people.
Table sugar is the most familiar sweetener of all, and so, considered the gold standard of sweet taste. It has a clean, pleasant sweetness from start to finish, that hits quickly, without lingering. All you taste from sugar is sweet, as it has no secondary taste or aftertaste. Because it is the favorite and most recognizable sweetener, most of us dislike sugar substitutes that do not match the sweetness profile of table sugar. Some of us may be more worried about the "healthfulness" of a sweetener and more accepting of "off" tastes such as bitter, metallic, cooling, or licorice-like.
Making a decision involves reflecting on the pros and cons of a sweetener, ranking their importance, and maximizing the most essential advantages (what matters the most to you) while minimizing the most important disadvantages. Read my blog posts and take into consideration all weaknesses and benefits of an option so you can make a sound decision.