The 5 Best, and 5 Worst,
Sweeteners to Have in Your Kitchen By: Leah Zerbe
5 Best Sweeteners!
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 Donna Gates, who led the movement to bring stevia, a natural sweetener, into this country more than a decade ago. All types of stevia are extracted from the leaves of the stevia plant, but some forms taste better than others, says Gates.
Stevia contains zero calories, but its one downfall is that it doesn’t work well for baking. Be wary of some stevia-related products on store shelves, though. Coke and Pepsi got the green light to use Truvia (a sweetener made in part from stevia extract, along with a sugar alcohol), but some of the ingredients could be derived from genetically engineered crops. More juices and drinks, including Crystal Light Pure, are also sweetened with Truvia, but it should also be noted that Truvia is distributed by Cargill, an industrial food giant that also promotes many unhealthy products. The package label also lists “natural flavors,” which could include all sorts of questionable ingredients.
People tend to overuse the powdered version, so start with the liquid form. You can even grow your own stevia plant. It’s technically an herb, and you can use the leaves as you would any other kitchen herb for sweetening drinks or cooking.
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 Christine Gerbstadt, MD, MPH, RD, nutrition consultant and author of Doctor’s Detox Diet: The Ultimate Weight Loss Prescription (Nutronics 2011). Try to choose organic versions or ones derived from non-corn ingredients to avoid genetically engineered material. And if you do use it, just don’t overdo it—too much can cause GI distress. (Note: Xylitol is extremely toxic to dogs. Even a little bit causes life-threatening changes in a pooch’s blood sugar.)
Good Guy #3: 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 your use of raw honey to 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
Blackstrap molasses is rich in iron, potassium, and calcium, making it a healthier choice than nutritionally defunct artificial sweeteners or even regular refined sugar. In fact, one tablespoon of blackstrap molasses provides more iron—but fewer calories and fat—than a three-ounce serving of red meat. Molasses is the syrupy by-product of the process that turns sugar cane into refined white table sugar. Sugar cane juice is boiled three times to extract the crystallized sugar, which first creates a light molasses, then a dark molasses, and finally, the super-concentrated, nutrient-rich blackstrap molasses. It’s still sugar, however, and Dr. Gerbstadt warns that it’s not recommended for people with diabetes. We like the organic, Fair Trade Certified version of blackstrap molasses from Wholesome Sweeteners.
Good Guy #5: Real Maple Syrup
All types of sweeteners should be used in moderation, but turn to real maple syrup if you want a naturally sweet treat. It’s lower in calories and packed with more minerals than honey, and may even ward off cancer and heart disease. In 2011, a pharmacist from the University of Rhode Island discovered 54 previously unknown compounds in maple syrup from Canada, many of which were anti-inflammatory (which protects your heart) and exhibited cancer-fighting antioxidant properties. Ironically, two of the antioxidants they found were later discovered to fight enzymes that lead to type 2 diabetes. When you’re buying it, just make sure the label reads 100 percent maple syrup—not not high-fructose corn syrup and “natural maple flavoring.”