Best sweetener?
December 15, 2009 12:17 PM   Subscribe

What's the "best" sweetener? With sugar, HFCS, agave nectar, honey, sugar alcohols, stevia, and others all on the market, my head is spinning.

Obviously "best" is a vague word. And moderation is still key. But let's say I just wanted to sweeten a serving of Greek yogurt or choose between ice creams using different sweeteners. I know there's situations where one or another wouldn't work cooking wise, but speaking in general: what are the advantages and disadvantages of each of the alternatives?

A couple of more specific questions: Are there known ill health effects of the various sugar alcohols other than digestive ills? Is agave just a fancied up version of HFCS?
posted by kmz to Health & Fitness (33 answers total) 6 users marked this as a favorite
My general rule is that natural basics are always best. I steer clear of all the fake stuff and just use honey (as added to your example of Greek yogurt or something like oatmeal) or sugar.

Even if artificial sweeteners are proven to be "safe", it still creeps me out to put weird unnecessary chemicals in my body.
posted by something something at 12:22 PM on December 15, 2009 [7 favorites]

Not willing to take sides in the great big sugar fight (though I myself avoid HFCS since reading The Omnivore's Dilemna) but I can say that plain Greek yogurt tastes fantastic with honey drizzled on it. As for ice creams, I usually look for least processed and most whole ingredients, so tend to opt for cane or brown sugar sweetened varieties.

I really watch my sugar intake in general, though. It is extraordinary how many grams of the stuff we all eat daily, and I worry that too much for too long means a date with diabetes.
posted by bearwife at 12:24 PM on December 15, 2009

Honey and raw or brown sugar are all I'll use, but I don't use sweeteners very often (drink my coffee black). Chemical sweeteners just taste like chemicals, and I don't eat enough real sugar that I worry about it anyway.
posted by oinopaponton at 12:26 PM on December 15, 2009

HFCS is made in a factory; I don't trust the stuff for the sole reason that when I was pregnant, I would throw it up pretty much instantly, even if consumed in minute quantities. That disappeared within hours of birth, but it's caused me to be highly suspicious of it ever since.

I seem to remember that stevia was linked with cancer growth in some European study, but I can't find the reference now.
posted by KathrynT at 12:27 PM on December 15, 2009

Assume you spotted today's FPP on HFCS, by the way?
posted by bearwife at 12:28 PM on December 15, 2009

Place me in the stevia camp.
But yes, I also agree with bearwife in that the equation "honey + Greek yogurt = DELISH" is quite accurate and highly provable.
posted by willmize at 12:34 PM on December 15, 2009

All things in moderation, including natural and artificial sweeteners. One of the problems that people have with HFCS isn't just the composition of it, but the amount that they're putting away, which can be difficult to gauge because it's put in all sorts of things, not just to sweeten it up but also as a preservative. Drinking diet soda by the two-liter bottle isn't a good solution, either.

Fruits and vegetables are (for the most part, unless you're eating sugar beets) OK because they include a lot of water and fiber and you aren't mainlining sugar the way you are with regular soda. A tablespoonful or two of honey on your Greek yogurt won't kill you, unless you're allergic to the stuff, in which case whoopsie.
posted by Halloween Jack at 12:45 PM on December 15, 2009 [1 favorite]

Assume you spotted today's FPP on HFCS, by the way?

The takeaway from that is you want glucose.
posted by smackfu at 12:46 PM on December 15, 2009

I like sugar. In all its forms (fructose, glucose, sucrose, yourmomcose). I've never been a fan of the fake sweeteners, but that's because they taste different to me. I've tried stevia in beverages, but have never gotten the ratio right and it comes out tasting strange. For no good reason, I generally pick things that have sugar listed in the ingredients over corn syrup. Again, for no good reason.

But, all in all, nothing beats maple syrup. On, with or in anything.

Also, brown sugar is generally just granulated sugar and molasses. "Brown sugar is often produced by adding cane molasses to completely refined white sugar crystals in order to more carefully control the ratio of molasses to sugar crystals and to reduce manufacturing costs." (wiki)
posted by General Malaise at 12:53 PM on December 15, 2009 [1 favorite]

FWIW, honey gets its sweetness from fructose and glucose, and regular cane sugar (sucrose) is immediately broken down in the body into 50/50 glucose + fructose as well. So unless there's something magical about the glucose/fructose balance, most of the ill effects attributed to the fructose in HFCS should also be associated with excessive consumption of honey or sugar.
posted by Bardolph at 12:57 PM on December 15, 2009 [2 favorites]

As Halloween Jack points out, it's more of a lifestyle thing. I rarely eat candy or drink soda, but I'm sure that if I consumed more sweet things in general, it wouldn't matter much whether the sugar was natural or not.

When you use sweeteners in very small quantities (honey in yogurt, brown sugar or maple syrup in oatmeal, etc.), it makes more sense to go for the one that tastes better.
posted by oinopaponton at 1:02 PM on December 15, 2009 [1 favorite]

@smackfu: The real take-away from all this is the following: every cell in your body can and will metabolize glucose. Fructose is only metabolized in the liver. It causes liver disease in the same way that heavy drinking does
posted by phrakture at 1:05 PM on December 15, 2009

I like agave syrup a lot. It is like honey without tasting like honey, pure sweetness. Plus it dissolves nicely in warm beverages, and a little goes a long way.
posted by pinky at 1:19 PM on December 15, 2009

Very occasionally, I have used stevia in black tea, otherwise I use sugar, honey or maple syrup (the tastiest!). However, I halve the sugar in most baking recipes. I'd probably use stevia more, but I find it too strong to use easily, and the liquid form doesn't lend itself well to sweetening anything other than tea, IMO. If I'm looking at pre-processed products like ice cream, I look for sucralose which I believe is less bad.

The Nutrition Action Healthletter (PDF link) did a survey of sweeteners, but I reckon some of that information is dated by now. I found one follow up that's kind of down on stevia, actually.
posted by Kurichina at 1:21 PM on December 15, 2009

I'm a big fan of xylitol. It prevents cavities rather than causing them, is natural, can be used just like sugar (except in bread baking, because it kills yeast), has fewer calories, and a lower glycemic load (if you care about that sort of thing). I find, also, that I feel better in general when I eat xylitol as opposed to sugar. I get fewer yeast infections, my contact lenses are more comfortable, my hands don't get so dry and cracked, other little things like that. YMMtotallyV.
posted by rabbitrabbit at 1:22 PM on December 15, 2009 [3 favorites]

Psst: If you're doing honey, try different varieties, and try to go local. I don't think there's a lot of proof on the whole honey helping with allergies thing, but it seems to anecdotally work for some people. If you've got farmer's markets where you are, there'll often be a honey farmer that offers samples of their wares and you can pick the one you like the best.
posted by NoraReed at 1:23 PM on December 15, 2009 [1 favorite]

There's never been an artificial sweetener as good as cyclamate. It's legal in Europe and Canada, but not in the US.

Back in the day, a lab experiment showed that it caused cancer in lab rats, so the FDA banned it. Since then, other experiments have failed to replicate that result, and it's been shown that the original experiments were faulty. However, the FDA won't spontaneously reclassify it, and the cost and expense of a company petitioning the FDA would be enormous. Since cyclamate is out of patent, if one company shouldered that expense and made it happen, everyone would then sell the stuff as a generic and that one company would gain no advantage to compensate for that expense. So no one is willing to do that, and unless Congress passes a law it'll remain illegal in the US.

But if you're American, you can still drive up to Canada and buy it there. (As long as you aren't trying to bring it back in truck-load quantities.)
posted by Chocolate Pickle at 1:34 PM on December 15, 2009

I don't keep anything made with sugar alcohols in the house (mints, gum) because it's highly toxic to dogs (who are apt to get into my purse). Your paranoia may vary.
posted by fiercecupcake at 1:37 PM on December 15, 2009 [1 favorite]

I use stevia extract powder in my tea/milk/juice.
It's light and somehow improves fresh fruity taste.
It's great in lemonade. But I don't like it in my coffee (metallic aftertaste?).
It would be my preferred choice if I ever had to give up sugar.
posted by leigh1 at 1:45 PM on December 15, 2009

We use Splenda. It is not nice cooked but it's fine in the raw - you use about 1/3rd of the amount of normal sugar.
posted by DarlingBri at 1:59 PM on December 15, 2009

I agree with the idea of eating the best-tasting sugar in moderation. However, if you want to choose a sweetener based on what's best for your health as interpreted by current research, glucose is the clear winner. It's less likely than the fructose-containing sugars (including HFCS, honey, sucrose, and agave syrup) to cause such ills as metabolic syndrome, it tastes a lot better than artificial sweeteners or stevia, and it doesn't cause intestinal upsets or gas the way sorbitol and agave syrup do.

To buy glucose, go to your local homebrewing supply store. (I go to Defalco's.) They sell something called "corn sugar", which is 100% pure glucose (also known as dextrose). It's used in brewing beer and costs ten pounds for $9.99. Unlike high-fructose corn syrup, it contains no fructose at all. It can be metabolized by any organ in the body, and it does not cause intestinal gas the way agave syrup does.
posted by Ery at 2:01 PM on December 15, 2009 [5 favorites]

Just plain sugar is likely the 'best'. That 'sugar in the raw' stuff is nutritionally no different so don't waste your money. For 'alternative' sweeteners, I prefer agave nectar above all others - and I can't have sugar, so I go through a ton of agave nectar.
posted by mattholomew at 2:17 PM on December 15, 2009

But, all in all, nothing beats maple syrup. On, with or in anything

This is my approach. I use regular white or brown sugar for baking but anything else that's sweetened [except the occasional diet soda] including coffee, tea, lemonade, yogurt, banana bread, granola, salad dresssing, etc. gets Grade B maple.
posted by jessamyn at 3:23 PM on December 15, 2009


I prefer Saccharin (discovered 1879; AKA Sweet'n Low), Aspartame (discovered 1965; AKA Equal), Sucralose (discovered 1976; AKA Splenda), all in moderation.

I also enjoy white sugar, honey, molasses, and cane syrup, in even greater moderation.

Personally, I've noticed the following side effects from natural caloric sweeteners:
Food Cravings

Many people have advocated stevia. For many people, stevia as a primary sweetener is not economically feasible. Further stevia has only been mass marketed since 1971, so it's safety claims (long term), despite being natural, are less valid than that of Saccharin.

For zero calorie sweeteners, my pick is Saccharin, based upon price and the fact that it is one of the oldest mass-market sweeteners.
For caloric, natural sweeteners, I would say honey is the best due to it's health benefits, however, it is also the most expensive.

In conclusion, for personal health, I'd advocate that everyone attempt to eat less foods that require sweeteners, whether natural or artificial.
posted by mhuckaba at 3:34 PM on December 15, 2009

It seems that the word 'best' in your question is indeed the problem which has elicited a very wide range of responses. I wouldnt pay any attention to any of the options above if the sole reason for suggesting it is the fact that it is 'natural'. So is snake venom and poison ivy. 'Pure' sucrose, produced in factories is a chemical.

There is nothing 'natural' about loading your body with large amounts of fructose (which, for the avoidance of doubt is a byproduct of breakdown of even the purest form of sugar and 'natural' honey). Fructose is toxic to your liver and scientific evidence demonstrates that it causes obesity and Type 2 diabetes (several times stronger evidence than any correlation between artificial sweetners and any disease by the way).

Given that obesity is one of the leading causes of death in the world and that there is not proven association between use of artificial sweetners so if health is a consideration I would recommend that you avoid anything that contains fructose. Glucose (dextrose) may be a good 'natural' alternative.

Indeed, taste is an important conisderation so maybe using, in moderation, the one you like the taste of may be the best solution keeping in mind that your palate will adjust to a new taste over a period of days to weeks.
posted by london302 at 3:48 PM on December 15, 2009 [1 favorite]

While not an unbiased review, the All About Agave site compares agave to all sorts of sugars and sweeteners and includes recipe information on substituting agave for other sweeteners if you're interested in experimenting. May be worth checking into.
posted by BlooPen at 3:53 PM on December 15, 2009

There's a book called "Sweet Deception," which contains some truths (based on citations, at least) about all the major natural and manmade sweeteners. It's worth a read, but is also totally manipulative in certain ways.

Here's an interesting tidbit from the book: Sucralose (Splenda) was originally developed to be an insecticide. It was supposed to be a kind of trojan horse compound; they were experimenting with getting nasty things into the cells by using something that's normally broken down and happily taken in by cells. So they took sucrose (yay!) and replaced some of the hydroxyl groups with chlorine (boo!). Apparently the lead scientist told whoever was doing the sucralose-synthesizing to "test it," but the guy thought he said "taste it." Har har. And the rest is history.

Here's where the manipulation comes in: the whole OMG-it-was-meant-to-be-a-pesticide thing should not be sufficient to conclude that the stuff is dangerous or poisonous to us. Also, the author uses arguments like "X contains sulfur. You know what else contains sulfur? Fertilizer! And you wouldn't want to eat that, would you?" to justify why you shouldn't eat X.

Regarding the splenda/pesticide/chlorine-delivery-system phenomenon: it does seem reasonable for a person to question the safety based on this, especially when the stuff hasn't been extensively tested or studied over any long period of time. But the scare tactics are silly. Basically, some of the author's conclusions are valid (based on science!), but his arguments don't always justify the conclusions.

Anyway, the moral of the story is that on the whole, many artificial (and some natural) sweeteners haven't been extensively studied or tested over long periods of time, and that the FDA isn't completely reliable, so we should be wary of using certain sweeteners. And the book is worth a read, as long as it's with a critical eye. (Oh -- he also explains that most agave syrup isn't actually agave syrup at all, which is kind of interesting.)

My opinion in terms of specific sweeteners: I think the most safe of the big three (in the us) is saccharin. Stevia is ok, and my favorite sugar alcohol is erythritol given that it's not digested or fermented (thus no digestive upset or glycemic response). Honey is good in terms of caloric sweeteners.

BTW, the problem with HFCS is not so much a property of its composition, so much as the fact that it's in friggin everything, so we eat a lot of it.

posted by sentient at 4:24 PM on December 15, 2009

Isomalt is frequently found in sugar-free candies, and it tastes quite good, but if you eat more than one within a few hours of another, you will soon find yourself in the bathroom wishing you hadn't.
posted by Countess Elena at 5:36 PM on December 15, 2009

Something I have noticed - if I sweeten things myself, I seem to use a lot less sugar than what must go into things that are pre-sweetened. For example - a cup of unsweetened almond milk is 40 calories - to make it sweet enough to taste good on a bowl on unsweetened cereal takes a spoonful - 15 calories. Sweetened almond milk is 70 calories a cup.
posted by 5_13_23_42_69_666 at 8:22 PM on December 15, 2009

Life is too short to worry about this. Seriously. Just use sugar, brown sugar, or honey depending on which will go best with what you're eating. There is no reason to do anything else. If you're worried that you're consuming too many calories doing so, that means you're eating way too many sweet things.

Sugar. And then worry about something more important.
posted by Justinian at 9:47 PM on December 15, 2009

This handout from the Canadian Diabetes Association might help you. The dietitians I work with hand this out to people looking for info on sugar and substitutes.
posted by Ouisch at 11:34 PM on December 15, 2009 [1 favorite]

Oh, and here's some more info on sugar alcohols in particular.
posted by Ouisch at 11:37 PM on December 15, 2009

The healthiest sweetener is blackstrap molasses. Unlike most sweeteners, blackstrap molasses actually has nutrients - manganese, copper, iron, calcium - and antioxidants. I use it instead of sugar when I make bread.

Yeah, life is short... so you might as well eat right! Thinking about these things means you might even live a little longer, or at least be in better health during your brief lifetime.
posted by acridrabbit at 11:52 AM on December 16, 2009 [1 favorite]

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