Jane Says: All Sugar Substitutes Are Not Created Equal

If you're searching for a sweetener, it's best to know what you're buying.

What's inside those little packets? The answer isn't always sweet. (Photo: Gary Ombler/Getty Images)
Jane Lear was on staff at 'Gourmet' for almost 20 years.

I’ve received a number of questions from TakePart’s Facebook friends about various sweeteners, including stevia, Truvia, Splenda, and agave nectar. What are the pros and cons? Are they safe? What about drinks like Vitamin Water Zero and Zevia? Do our brains perceive stevia as sugar? Is agave syrup bunk? And what about Splenda?

First, a little context. The Food Police are going after sugar with a vigor not seen since 1975, when Sugar Blues, by William Dufty, became an instant bestseller. Not that it seemed to make much of a difference. The sugar habit is infernally hard to break, and today a quick Google search turns up a large array of moral support and/or confessional (“I ate a brownie and feel bad”) blogs, Sugarholics Anonymous postings on Pinterest and YouTube, and clearinghouse websites like ObesityinAmerica.org.

Of course, the sugars naturally present in fruits, vegetables, and whole grains can’t (and shouldn’t) be avoided—they are part of a healthy, varied diet. But studies show that the average American consumes a whopping 22.2 teaspoons (355 calories) of added sugar a day. That’s far more than we should be eating, according to new guidelines published by the American Heart Association. From the environmental and social justice aspects, too, sugar is fraught. Most beet sugar (which accounts for roughly half the white table sugar produced in the U.S.) is made from GMO beets. Most cane sugar isn’t organically grown or sustainably processed, and the ugly, age-old exploitation of plantation workers continues. 

MORE: Splenda Faces Backlash: Putting Vitamins Into Fake Sugar Doesn’t Make it ‘Essential’

It’s no wonder then, that sugar substitutes appeal to a wide range of people, including those with serious health concerns, desperate dieters, and vegans, who avoid cane sugar because it’s processed through activated carbon (charcoal that’s often made from animal bones).  

As usual, Big Biz and their marketers are one step ahead of us all. Although natural sweeteners like agave nectar and stevia may sound safer and more healthful than artificial sweeteners such as saccharine (Sweet’N Low), aspartame (Equal and Nutrasweet), and sucralose (Splenda), what you’ll read in the brief (and far from complete) sweet cheat sheet below may surprise you.

Stevia

Source: Made from the leaves of Stevia rebaudiana, a South American shrub.

Pros: Zero calories and 25 to 30 times sweeter than sugar. It’s long been used in South America, Japan, and Europe, so if there were any safety concerns, many health professionals feel that they would have surfaced by now. Does that mean you should be pounding down three or four cans of Zevia a day? What do you think?

Cons: Whole-leaf stevia or crude extracts are only FDA-approved for herb supplement use, not food use because of concerns about possible side effects, including those of the nervous system. In other forms, stevia isn’t as “natural” as marketing claims would have you believe. It is highly processed to remove its slightly bitter licorice-like aftertaste, and it’s often blended with maltodextrin or other fillers to cut the intensity and make it pour like table sugar.

Truvia

Source: This trademarked “natural” sweetener (pronounced tru-VEE-ah) was created by Cargill and Coca-Cola. It’s made from rebiana, a compound found in stevia leaves.

Pros: Zero calories. If you’re a fan of VitaminWater Zero or Sprite Green, then go for it.

Cons: If you like the taste of stevia, you’ll be disappointed. It’s primarily sweetened with erythritol.

Agave nectar (a.k.a. agave syrup)

Source: Made from several species of the agave plant (including the blue agave, from which tequila is made), a succulent common to Mexico.

Pros: It has a delicate, nuanced flavor and can be up to three times as sweet as sugar, so you use less of it. Because it dissolves quickly in water, it’s great in drinks. Suitable for vegans as no animal products are used in processing. Suitable for raw-foodists if processed with enzymes instead of heat.

Cons: It has the same amount of calories as table sugar, 16 calories per teaspoon. Here (again), the “natural” claim is pretty iffy. In her FoodPolitics blog, nutritionist Marion Nestle pointed out that it “contains inulin, a polymer of fructose, which must be hydrolyzed (broken down by heat or enzymes) to fructose to make the sweetener. It’s a processed sweetener requiring one hydrolysis step, requiring more processing than honey and less than high-fructose corn syrup.”

Splenda:

Source: This trademarked no-calorie sweetener from McNeil Nutritionals (a Johnson & Johnson subsidiary) is made by chemically combining sucrose (table sugar) with chlorine to form sucralose, a molecule that is 600 times sweeter than sugar.

Pros: No bitter aftertaste and heat stable up to 450°. You can bake with it, and although you won’t get the browning and texture effects you’ll get with sugar, the tasters at Cook’s Illustrated were “pleasantly surprised.”

Cons: Like other ultrasweet sugar substitutes, it’s cut with a filler like maltodextrin, which adds a few calories (4 per packet) to this no-cal sweetener. The “Splenda Essentials” line, which is fortified with B vitamins, antioxidants, or fiber is the target of a recent lawsuit that alleges the product provides no health benefits and short-changes customers.

Do you use sugar substitutes? Which one is your favorite?

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