At this point, it's common knowledge that high-fructose corn syrup and refined sugar are bad for us. But given all the marketing hype behind different "natural" alternatives, it's hard to know which ones really are the best sweeteners. Complicating matters, new studies, like one just published in the journal Cancer Research, are finding that fructose, a sugar found in high-fructose corn syrup, agave, honey, and, in small amounts, even in fruit, actually feeds some cancers. But don't give up apples and oranges, or even honey, based on a single study. "Natural sugars found in fruits and vegetables—things like berries, green apples, grapefruit, kiwi—are needed to feed beneficial microflora in the gut for a healthy immune system," explains Donna Gates, who led the movement to bring stevia, a natural sweetener, into this country more than a decade ago. "That's why nature put a little bit of sugar in fruits and vegetables. It keeps the ecosystem alive in us," she says, adding that the small amounts of fructose in fruits and vegetables are balanced with minerals, vitamins, and other vital nutrients. "Our body reads it differently," she notes.Fruits and vegetables provide a perfect sugar fix, but when you're in need of a sweetener to add to iced tea, baked goods, or anything else, make sure you know the difference between the good guys and bad guys of the sweetener world. (Some of the not-so-sweet details could leave you gagging.)
Bad Guy #1: Aspartame
There's conflicting evidence regarding the safety of aspartame, a common chemical sweetener used in diet soda and other low-cal or low-sugar goods, but some people report headaches or generally feeling unwell after ingesting anything containing the chemical. To make life easier for everyone, this is one instance where you may want to follow the "better safe than sorry" principle. That's because a University of Liverpool test-tube study found that when mixed with a common food color ingredient, aspartame actually became toxic to brain cells. Making matters worse, aspartame is used in many diet sodas, and studies have found drinking diet soda may increase your risk of developing diabetes and metabolic syndrome. Also of concern with aspartame, researchers have found that one harmful breakdown product is formaldehyde. Sweet? We don't think so.
Bad Guy #2: Agave
While your health food store likely stocks agave sweeteners, it may be best to keep them out of your cart. Many agave nectars consist of 70 to 80 percent fructose—that's more than what's found in high-fructose corn syrup! If you don't want to give up agave, look for types that contain no more than 30 to 40 percent fructose, recommends Christine Gerbstadt, MD, PhD, RD, spokeswoman for the American Dietetic Association. Agave is also very heavily processed in an extremely energy-intensive manner that's similar to the way corn is converted into high-fructose corn syrup.
Bad Guy #3: Sucralose
While sucralose, better known by its brand name, Splenda, may originate with sugar, the end product is anything but natural. It's processed using chlorine, and researchers are finding that the artificial sweetener is passing through our bodies and winding up in wastewater treatment plants, where it can't be broken down. Tests in Norway and Sweden found sucralose in surface water released downstream from treatment discharge sites. Scientists worry it could change organisms' feeding habits and interfere with photosynthesis, putting the entire food chain at risk. The chemically derived artificial sweetener acesulfame K (sold under the brand name Sunett) was also detected in treated wastewater and tap water.
Good Guy #1: Stevia
"We need to be off of sugar, but we need good alternatives, and stevia is the safest sweetener there is, period," says Gates, who coauthored The Stevia Cookbook: Cooking with Nature's Calorie-Free Sweetener (Avery Trade, 2004). All types of stevia are extracted from the leaves of the stevia plant, but some forms taste better than others, says Gates. People tend to overuse powders, in which the sweetness is really concentrated, so if you've tried powders in the past and didn't like them, try liquid forms, explains Gates, who helped develop a liquid stevia sweetener product. Stevia contains zero calories, but its one downfall is that it doesn't work well for baking. Expect to see more stevia on store shelves, as Coke and Pepsi got the green light to use Truvia (a sweetener made in part from stevia) starting later this year.
Good Guy #2: Sugar alcohols
Popular sugar alcohol sweeteners include xylitol, sorbitol, and erythritol, natural sweeteners made through a fermentation process of corn or sugar cane. They contain fewer calories than sweeteners like pure sugar and honey, but more than stevia. They also leave a cooling sensation in the mouth, and have been found to prevent cavities, explains Dr. Gerbstadt. Just don't overdo it—too much can cause GI distress.
Good Guy #3: Organic, raw local honey
While honey does boast higher fructose levels, it also contains a bounty of cancer-defending antioxidants, and local honey has been said to help alleviate allergy symptoms. Don't limit raw honey's use to your tea, either. Use it to speed healing on burns, and as a natural antiseptic on cuts and scrapes. Honey also has a low glycemic index, so adding it to your tea or yogurt won't lead to energy-busting blood sugar drops later in the day.
Good Guy #4: Blackstrap molasses
Although heavy on the calorie content, blackstrap is rich in iron, potassium, and calcium, making it a healthier choice than nutritionally defunct artificial sweeteners or even regular refined sugar, despite the fact that blackstrap and refined sugar both come from sugar cane. (Dr. Gerbstadt says calorie-containing sweeteners are not recommended for people with diabetes.) We like the organic, Fair Trade Certified version of blackstrap molasses from Wholesome Sweeteners.