To appeal to people who want to reduce their sugar intake, companies have developed artificial sweetener products that you can now find in many diet foods and drinks. But are they any better than actual sugar or sugars found naturally in whole foods?
Let’s compare natural vs. artificial sweeteners, including the benefits and pitfalls of both, so that you can make an informed decision for your diet and sweets!
Natural sugars come from natural or organic sources. You may be thinking sugar cane, but natural sugars are also found in dairy products (lactose), fruits (fructose), and even grains (maltose). Often, the suffix -ose shows the nutrient is a natural sugar.
The main upside of getting your sugar naturally is that different types of natural sugars come with other nutrients that can be part of a healthy diet. Think about milk, which contains lactose. Not only are you getting that lactose, but also calcium, proteins, magnesium, potassium, and others. The same is true for fructose. For example, apples have fructose, but also are rich in fiber, antioxidants, and other vitamins, and minerals. Even something like honey, which is a natural sweetener and granulated sugar-alternative, has key nutrients and minerals like calcium, iron, magnesium, and zinc.
Of course, natural sugars are not perfect; they can be high in calories. This is especially true of added sugars, like granulated or brown sugar. Now, a few extra calories here and there aren’t a big deal, especially if you’re using a bit of sugar to enhance the flavor of something healthy (e.g., cantaloupe), but too much and you’ve got a lot of empty calories. A teaspoon of granulated sugar has 15.4 calories with almost no other nutrients. This can add up, especially if you’re regularly enjoying other foods with added sugars, like sodas, candies, or other treats.
Artificial sweeteners are sugar substitutes often derived from natural substances but processed. Most artificial sweeteners come with both a brand name and a generic name. The types of artificial sweeteners you may find in the grocery store are:
Starting in the 1970s, fear spread that certain artificial sweeteners — like saccharin, aspartame, and stevia — could cause anything from cancer to brain tumors and chronic fatigue syndrome. For the record, the cancer claim has been largely disproven.
The reason many people use artificial sweeteners in their diet, whether when cooking or to just sweeten their coffee, is that they are often calorie-free. These compounds have also been found to have no effect on your blood sugar, making them a great sweetener for people with diabetes. Finally, artificial sweeteners are much sweeter than sugar (or sucrose), allowing you to use less to get the same sweetness. For example, saccharin is 200 to 700 times sweeter than the same amount of table sugar and advantame is approximately 20,000 times sweeter than table sugar.
Calorie-free sweetening sounds like it has no downsides; however, this isn’t necessarily the case. Some studies have even called the health benefits into question. There’s some evidence that artificial sweeteners can confuse your brain into thinking you’re still hungry, though it’s contested. It’s also been suggested that artificial sweeteners can overstimulate our sense of taste, leaving less sugary, but healthier foods with natural sugars (like fruits) less appealing. Not only can artificial sweeteners leave you unsatisfied with what you’re eating, but they can also make you less satisfied with healthier foods. This can undo the calorie-cutting benefits they offer in the first place.
No! Sugar is an essential nutrient that helps our bodies produce the energy we need to survive. This and sugar tasting so good is why it’s so useful in cooking! The problem is when we have too much sugar, since this can cause weight gain and a number of other health issues.
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So, where should you turn if you’re looking for something sweet? In truth, both natural sugar and artificial sweeteners can be fine in the right amounts. If you’re enjoying either as a sweet treat without too much added sugar, you should be okay to treat yourself. That said, if you can, try to get your sugar from healthier, natural sources rather than candies or sugary sodas to get the most nutritional value out of your sugar intake.