If I am going to use a sweetener, what is the healthiest sweetener to use?

We have a couple FAQs on this topic that we'd like to share with you. The natural sweeteners that we recommend include: maple syrup, honey, agave nectar, blackstrap molasses and stevia. Kicking the Sugar Habit

Is one type of sweetener better than the other for my body and the way my body processes them?

Your question can be answered in a variety of different ways. First, in terms of overall nutritional quality, it's always better to get your "sweeteners" as part of whole, natural foods rather than separately purchased products that you add to your food.

I realize that many people simply have a "sweet tooth" and are accustomed to sweetening a good number of foods and beverages. However, the routine use of added sweeteners can sometimes detract from the naturally sweet flavors of foods.

Carrots, for example, are a naturally sweet vegetable. They're about 15% sugar in terms of total calories; they contain an array of sugars including sucrose, glucose, and fructose. However, to many people carrots do not taste sweet, and the reason sometimes involves the total amount of sugar to which a person has become accustomed. A large carrot will contain about three-quarters of a teaspoon of sugar at most. If you're accustomed to one to two teaspoons of any added sugar in your coffee or tea, or as an added glaze on an entrée, your carrot may no longer be as enjoyable to you because it may seem non-sweet by comparison.

Second, in the same way that I prefer natural foods as a source of all dietary sugars (please see the carrot example above), I also prefer natural sources of extracted sugar products. For example, agave nectar is a sweetener extracted from the agave plant, and it contains a variety of nutrients that are naturally found in the agave plant. While these nutrients are found in relatively small amounts in agave nectar, this sweetener is still a better nutritional choice because of this natural diversity. Agave nectar is about 70% fructose in terms of its sugar composition. However, this abundance of fructose is not the reason I favor its use as a sweetener for individuals who have decided to use added sweeteners. The reason I favor its use is because agave nectar is more natural and less processed than many other available sweeteners. Table sugar, for example, provides no nutritional variety whatsoever, even though it originates in a natural plant (sugar cane).

Your best choice of sweeteners always involves those sweeteners that are most natural and least processed. This is the reason I like whole, natural foods as the source for sweetness in a Healthiest Way of Eating. However, for individuals wanting added sweeteners, my top choices would be honey and natural nectars, including agave nectar. I strongly recommend the purchase of organic honey, since bees can inadvertently pick up pesticide residues and other potential contaminants while gathering pollens in any pesticide-containing environment. Organic agave nectar would also be my recommended choice for this sweetener. Other sweeteners that I also like are organic maple syrup and organic blackstrap molasses. If you need to use a product that acts like regular sugar, then I would suggest organic evaporated cane juice, since it is less processed than refined sugar and contains more nutrients.

When it comes to dietary sugars, the key to supporting your body's metabolism is moderation. Any dietary sugar can disrupt your body's metabolism if eaten excessively. I don't believe that the research supports intake of any added sugar in large amounts, regardless of its "naturalness" or degree of processing. I also don't believe it makes sense to focus on the exact composition of sugars within a natural food or within a natural, minimally processed sweetener. Different foods have different sugar composition, and I believe that these differences are healthy provided that the foods are organically grown and are consumed as close to their whole, natural condition as possible.

What do you think of stevia?

I think that stevia is one of the best natural sweeteners available. It is natural, virtually calorie-free, and can be used as is or in baking and cooking.

Stevia is a deciduous shrub that grows naturally in the southwestern United States but is originally native to Central and South America. It's about two to three feet tall, and it is unique in terms of its taste. The sweetness of stevia depends upon the species involved; there are several hundred different species of this plant and only a dozen or so seem to have the sweetness characteristics desired. The chemical composition of stevia is complicated, and there are dozens of different glycosides involved in its sweet taste. Among the most important of these glycosides, however, are steviosides, rebaudiosides, and dulcosides. In December 2008, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) took a major step toward recognition of stevia as a rightful member of the food supply. While the FDA did not grant approval for stevia itself to be added to the Generally Recognized as Safe list (GRAS list), it did award GRAS status to a purified extract from one of the stevia glycosides (rebaudioside A, also called reb A). This purified stevia extract is being marketed under a variety of different brand names, including Truvia and PureVia. While we would prefer to see FDA recognition of stevia itself rather than a purified stevia extract, we are glad to have this natural sweetener brought further into the public spotlight in a favorable way.

While it is possible to buy fresh leaves or dried leaves from the plant itself, when you purchase stevia in the store, you are most likely going to be purchasing a powdered extract from the plant or a liquid concentrate. Many different glycosides-including steviosides and rebaudiosides-are found in the powdered extracts and some may have health-supportive properties.

If you purchase the liquid concentrate, the composition of the stevia depends on the method of production. Sometimes these liquid concentrates are produced by boiling the leaves directly in water and sometimes the leaves are steeped in water or a water-plus-alcohol mixture. Although it's not clear from the research exactly which form of stevia is the most health supportive, there is no question that stevia extracts in any form come out far ahead of white table sugar or high fructose corn syrup in terms of their potential health benefits. Among the possible benefits here are potential hypoglycemic (blood sugar lowering) effects and potential hypotensive (blood pressure lowering) effects.

Stevia has been used in many cultures as both a sweetener and a medicinal agent. Thanks to an FDA decision in December 2008, one purified extract from stevia (rebaudioside A) fits into the Generally Recognized as Safe (GRAS) category and can be found in drinks, beverages, and other products in the U.S. marketplace. Stevia is also approved by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) for sale as a dietary supplement. One thing you'll notice about stevia is that it is very sweet. In its refined, white powdery extract form in which there is a very high concentration of steviosides, it may be several hundred times sweeter than regular table sugar. It should therefore be used sparingly when substituted for sugar, whether it is for sweetening beverages, in baked goods recipes, or for any other ways that you choose to use it.

Like many people, you may be wondering why I don't feature stevia in my book, The World's Healthiest Foods, or on the WHFoods website. The reason is that while I think stevia can be a great natural substitute for sugar, notably for those who have blood sugar concerns, stevia is not usually purchased as a whole food (in the fresh or dried leaf form), but rather as a powdered extract or liquid concentrate. This key difference between a whole food and an extracted component also applies to the GRAS-listed extract from stevia-rebaudioside A-which is added to boost sweetness in beverages and other foods. In my book and on our website, I try to spotlight the unique benefits that come from consumption of whole, natural foods.

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