A couple of weeks back I wrote about the use of artificial sweeteners for weight loss. I’m not convinced these sweeteners are a good choice for many reasons. Natural sweeteners would seem to be your best bet. But hold on, will these sweeteners save you any calories and are they good for your health?
Natural sweeteners, in my opinion, ARE a better choice than artificial sweeteners but ONLY when used in moderation. Sweeteners can make food taste better! In moderation, caloric natural sweeteners may have a reduced potential to cause health problems.
Unfortunately, the average American is getting far too many added sugars each day from many sources (both obvious and hidden sugar), as much as 22 tsp. a day or 352 calories worth. This crowds out healthier foods or creates a calorie surplus, which can lead to fat storage and potentially, an increased risk for heart disease, stroke, type 2 diabetes, cancer, and more. (see Weight Loss for Women: Does it Matter?).
Non-caloric natural sweeteners may offer a better alternative. But these sweeteners won’t necessarily make weight loss any easier.
What You Need to Know
White table sugar, powdered sugar, and even brown sugar, both light and dark, are highly refined. These sweeteners offer little more than just calories. Other natural sweeteners are less highly processed and a few offer more in the way of vitamins and minerals from the original sugarcane or other sweetener source. Some, such as maple syrup and honey may have antioxidants along with traces of minerals.
Many, but not all natural sweeteners have a calorie count similar to or even greater than white table sugar. There are a few with little or no calories because their intense sweetness requires just a tiny amount to achieve the same effect as table sugar.
Unfortunately, there is no evidence that natural sweeteners promote weight less any better than artificial sweeteners. On the other hand, certain non-caloric sweeteners have only recently become available in the United States. Evaluating the effectiveness of these sweeteners for weight loss may require more time.
Zero calorie or non-caloric sweeteners might benefit weight loss but only if you exchange a low calorie food or a zero calorie beverage for one of greater calories. It’s all too easy to compensate for the calories you may forgo either consciously or unconsciously. Have you ever said told yourself that you’ve saved calories on a certain low calorie food or beverage and then rationalize that it’s O.K. to have a high calorie treat? There goes the calorie savings. How helpful is that when calories count?
Made from a South American shrub, Stevia is a natural sweetener 300 times sweeter than table sugar. Until recently the FDA limited the sale of Stevia to dietary supplements because of concerns about its safety. With its recent FDA approval it is now showing up in everything from diet drinks to sugar-free candies. Stevia is also know as rebiana.
The new Stevia is actually a mixture of the purified extract along with other sweeteners such as erythritol. This combination helps to temper the intense natural sweetness of the pure sweetener and to reduce the licorice-like taste that some people do not like.
There are some consumer groups who claim the product has not been adequately tested for cancer risk. Other organizations including the FDA and the United Nations Joint Food and Agriculture Organization have determined that food-grade rebiana (Stevia) is safe for its intended use as a general-purpose sweetener.
Erythritol is a naturally processed sugar alcohol that has been approved for use in the United States and in many other countries around the world. It is about 70% as sweet as table sugar yet it has virtually no calories (0.2 calories per gram compared with 4 calories for table sugar).
Erythritol seems to be gentler on the digestive tract than many other sugar alcohols. Because it is normally absorbed before it enters the large intestine it does not cause the laxative effects of other sugar alcohols. The only exception might be if you were to consume such a large amount that your body does not have time to absorb it before it passes on to the large intestine.
Because erythritol is not as sweet as table sugar (sucrose) it is often combined with other sweeteners to take the edge off the intensity of the other sweeteners. The natural sweetener Stevia comes with a small amount of erythritol already present. Erythritol and Splenda can also be combined when baking at home to improve the taste of the final product.
This natural sweetener comes in both granulated and powdered forms. I understand powdered is preferred over granulated because the granulated form seems to stay grainy unless dissolved in water.
There are quite a number of caloric natural sweeteners for baking, cooking, or sweetening beverages. A few offer a little more nutrition than the empty calories of table sugar, but you won’t gain much if any savings on calories. Some of these sweeteners actually have more calories than table sugar.
Sweeteners Made from Sugarcane
Evaporated Cane Juice
Other Natural Sweeteners
Agave Nectar (Produced from agave, a succulent plant native to Mexico.)
Brown Rice Syrup (This sweetener is made from cooked rice that is cultured with enzymes. It has about half the sweetness of table sugar.)
Only Blackstrap molasses, evaporated cane juice and maple syrup contain a significant amount of vitamins and minerals from the original source.
All of these natural sweeteners have calories and most are approximately the same as white table sugar (about 15-16 calories per teaspoon). Agave nectar and brown rice syrup have about 20 calories per teaspoon. Honey and maple syrup have approximately 22 calories per teaspoon.
[Update: Another article you may find helpful is The Best Natural Sweetener from Health Magazine.]
Cooking and Baking
Depending on the replacement amount per cup of white table sugar when cooking or baking some sweeteners may offer somewhat less calories and others significantly more. Sugarcane products with the exception of molasses (which has a very strong flavor) are used at a 1:1 replacement for table sugar in cooking and baking. Only 2/3 cup of agave nectar is needed per cup of table sugar. This might save a few calories even though gram for gram agave nectar has more calories than table sugar. Brown rice syrup on the other hand is not as sweet as table sugar and requires more in replacement. Using brown rice syrup would significantly increase the calorie count over that of table sugar.
Both honey and maple syrup are substituted at ¾ cup per cup of table sugar. But each teaspoon has significantly more calories. So NO calorie savings here: 1 cup table sugar = 720 calories and ¾ cup honey or maple syrup = 792 calories or more.
I use both white and brown sugar, honey, and maple syrup in my cooking and baking. Because none of the alternative natural sweeteners save me calories and may even result in more calories, I choose to limit my intake. This benefits my weight maintenance efforts and my health! I hope you find a mix that works for you. The key is to keep sweetened food and beverages for occasional treats and limit how much you eat.
Till next time, watch those calories and eat healthy food!
This article was reviewed and updated June 2012.