Sugar Substitutes or Sugar in Your Coffee?

Experts weigh in on sugar use amid an onslaught of alternative sweeteners

sugar substitutes

A glut of new sugar substitutes and artificial sweeteners can cause confusion for the health-conscious coffee drinker. (Photo by: Maximilian Stock Ltd/Getty Images)

Steve Holt is a regular contributor to TakePart. He writes about food for 'Edible Boston,' 'Boston Magazine,' 'The Boston Globe,' and other publications.

So, we now know that a few cups of coffee isn’t actually bad for us—and it just might save your life. Now that that’s settled, on to the next dilemma: to sweeten, or not to sweeten? And with what?

There’s always ordinary table sugar. But we now have an abundance of highly processed sugar substitutes and artificial sweeteners to choose from: stevia extracts, sucralose (Splenda), saccharin (SugarTwin, Sweet ’N Low), and aspartame (Equal, NutraSweet). While those are all non-nutritive (containing few or no calories), more natural nutritive artificial sweeteners like agave nectar, molasses, maple syrup, and honey are also making a comeback.

For answers on how best to sweeten our morning fix, we turned to a handful of New York City dietitians:

First of all, what is the long-term effect of two to three cups of coffee daily, each with about a tablespoon of sugar?

Julie: As long as adults can keep their total added sugars to the recommendations from the American Heart Association—100 calories per day for women, 150 calories for men—there are no adverse health problems. That’s just 6 teaspoons for women and 9.5 teaspoons for men.

That said, keeping added sugars to that level is almost impossible if you eat any processed packaged foods during the day AND try to add a teaspoon or two of sugar, honey or agave to your coffee or tea. Breads, cereals, sauces, soymilk, rice milk, soups, and condiments are all surprising sources of added sugars.

Claudia: Sugar is 20 calories per teaspoon or 60 calories per tablespoon. Two to three tablespoons contain 120 to 180 wasted calories per day and over time can cause weight gain or prevent weight loss. In one year, 120 calories per day is 43,800-65,700 calories per year, enough calories to put on 12 to 19 pounds in one year and significantly more over 30 years.

Lisa: Sugar or sugar substitutes in moderation are both OK. If you can, I tend to think it is best to stick to the real thing.

Which natural alternatives do you recommend, and why?

Julie: I recommend using brown sugar, honey, agave, molasses, and dark turbinado sugar, because when they are darker they provide more antioxidants.

Claudia: If there are no issues about weight or blood glucose, the natural sweeteners agave nectar, maple syrup, honey and molasses would be my first choice. Of course, the portions on these also needs to be limited. If a person has pre-diabetes, diabetes, insulin resistance, or weight issues the non-nutritive artificial sweeteners would be a better choice, still limiting portions but leaving calories free.

Samantha: Agave nectar, because it doesn't create a large rise in blood sugar ...it has a low GI (30) compared to sugar (65).

Finally, bottom line, for sweetening coffee, what do you recommend: cane sugar or alternative sweeteners?

Julie: Stick with regular sugar—just eat less of it. If you use a sugar substitute, use half as much as recommended to help prevent you from becoming accustomed to the intensity of the sweetness that sugar substitutes provide.

Claudia: Adjust your taste preference to allow for smaller portions—the use of only one teaspoon of sugar in your coffee, if that’s what you like, or consider switching to a sugar substitute if you need to manage your calories as well as total starch and fat intake.

Samantha: I rarely recommend sugar substitutes to my clients unless they are diabetics. The reason being, the receptor in our brain reacts differently when we have had something with sugar versus artificial sweeteners. Subjects given sugar tend to be able to satisfy that craving with sugar alone. However, with artificial sweeteners the brain doesn't recognize the artificial sweetener, and it craves more sugar or sugar substitute. That is why so many people drink large amounts of diet soda.

Lisa: I think you should stick to the real thing, but scale back a bit. If you are having a tablespoon (which equals three teaspoons) in your coffee, perhaps you can try to shave down to a teaspoon. Or, have two cups of coffee/tea instead of three.

Do you sweeten your coffee with sugar substitutes or artificial sweeteners? 

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