Sugar is an ever-present antagonist in our pursuit of a healthier life. Despite our best efforts to avoid the classic sweetener, it rears its ugly head in so many of the meals we crave and even sneaks its way into surprising foods. To make matters worse, it turns out that even when we sub in alternative sweeteners, they aren’t guaranteed to be much better for our health. MyBody+Soul recently tapped a dietitian to weigh in on this especially difficult aspect of the war against sugar—how do alternative sweeteners stack up?
According to accredited practicing dietitian Joel Feren, a spokesperson for the Dietitian’s Association of Australia, we should focus less on the actual type sweetener and more on the amount we’re consuming.
“Sugar is sugar,” he says. “Things like sugar, honey, maple syrup, stevia, it’s doesn’t really matter what you use, as long as you use less.” Though it is better for your body overall to consume natural sources of sugar, at the end of the day, if you’re overdoing it, the effects will be just as undesirable. Even the World Health Organization recommends being mindful of these natural, non-refined sugars. “It should be less than 10% of our overall energy intake and ideally less than five,” notes Feren.
He explains that “They’re all just sources of sugar, though honey, the so-called ‘nectar of the gods,’ has very minor advantages.” Going overboard is especially likely when we’re working with healthier alternatives. Honey can be especially precarious as a sugar replacement because although it is only 75% sucrose, it’s nearly twice as dense as sugar.
The one sugar alternative Feren does endorse as a superior option is stevia. “Stevia is natural and doesn’t seem to have the calories that sugar and honey have. So, if you’re looking for a slightly better option stevia probably is the way to go,” he advises. If you’re just craving something sweet, Feren endorses truly natural sugars versus added sugars. “Natural sugars, in my mind, are those found in fruit and dairy, whereas added sugars are maple syrup, honey, agave, rice malt syrup, golden syrup - all those kinds,” he explains.
“A piece of fruit does contain sugar, but there are so many important plant based ‘phytochemicals’ that are wonderful for our health. They’re also full of vitamins and minerals. Compare that to things like honey and maple syrup and you’ll see they’re really just sugar and their advantages are minor.”
For more sugar-fighting strategies, check out 11 nutrition label ingredients that are basically code for "sugar."