It's a sweet life. Our typical American daily diet includes an average of 475 calories from added sugar. For someone consuming 2,000 calories per day, that could mean that almost 25 percent of those come from added sugar. By "added sugar" we mean not only what you sprinkle on your food, but what's included in the ingredient list of packaged foods.
Sugar comes in many forms. The white table sugar we're all familiar with is sucrose. Fructose naturally occurs in fruit, and may be added to food, as well. Lactose is the naturally occurring sugar in milk. Other naturally occurring sugars include honey, agave, maple syrup and stevia. We manufacture high fructose corn syrup to replace the more expensive sugar in packaged foods. Sugar alcohols (examples: mannitol, sorbitol, xylitol) and artificial sweeteners like aspartame (Equal) and sucralose (Splenda) reduce calories. Then there are the hybrids of stevia and sugar alcohols or artificial sweeteners and sugar.
When choosing a sweetener or a sweetened food, consider the calories and impact on your blood sugar. Too many calories, especially from foods that don't provide other nutrients, contribute to weight gain. Effect on blood sugar is important to understand, as well. When we eat carbohydrates (sugar included), our bodies release the hormone insulin to help feed our cells with the resulting glucose.
Problems occur when we eat too much at one time, especially quickly digested simple carbs, spiking blood sugar levels. Lots of insulin is released to move the glucose from the blood into the cells, causing blood sugar levels to plummet and make us feel hungry again.
This roller-coaster effect makes us overeat (and feel cranky), which is why it's important for everyone, not just those with diabetes, to keep blood sugar levels steady.
What complicates things a bit with sweeteners is that some cause no insulin response. This may make you continue to be hungry, especially for sweet foods, because your body hasn't recognized that you've already eaten something sweet.
Sucrose, or table sugar, has four calories per gram, which translates to 16 calories per teaspoon. It's rapidly metabolized, meaning it has a quick impact on blood sugar.
High fructose corn syrup has about 3 calories per gram. It's a controversial sweetener, with people like Dr. Oz condemning it as a major factor in obesity and the Corn Refiners Association touting it as perfectly healthy.
Honey has about three calories per gram and less of an impact on blood sugar levels than regular sugar. Honey also contains B vitamins and the minerals iron and manganese.
Agave nectar or syrup comes from the agave plant. It has about the same calorie count as sugar, but is much sweeter, so you'll likely use less. It also has much less of an impact on your blood sugar.
Maple syrup, made from the sap of maple trees, has about three calories per gram. Like honey, it's a good source of some vitamins and minerals.
Sugar alcohols have between one and three calories per gram, with little to no impact on blood sugar levels. Not to be confused with alcoholic beverages, they're found in sugar-free sweets, sugarless gums, toothpaste and more. One downside of sugar alcohols is they may have a laxative effect.
Stevia has no calories and a negligible effect on blood sugar. It's about 300 times sweeter than sugar, so you'll definitely use less. Many commercial stevia products are processed with sugar alcohols.
Artificial sweeteners typically have no calories and no carbohydrates, meaning they have no impact on blood sugar. They also tend to be sweeter than sugar.
So which is the best one to choose?
For health benefits and peace of mind, I choose natural over manufactured. I put pure stevia in my coffee every day. I have used stevia blends before, but find they are far too sweet for my taste. I drizzle a little honey on fresh fruit. Only pure maple syrup tops my waffles; it's much more satisfying than the low-calorie fake syrup. I don't fret over the occasional packet of Splenda. I try to avoid foods high in sucrose and sugar alcohols, mainly because they tend to be processed and I prefer whole foods.
And, with apologies to the Corn Refiners, I avoid high fructose corn syrup as much as possible because my gut tells me that our bodies really don't recognize it as sugar. When I can, I skip the sweetener completely because sometimes life is sweet enough without it.