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Just Curious

How Do I Choose a Healthy Sweetener?

By Joe Sugarman
Joshua Nachman is a nutritionist at the Johns Hopkins Integrative Medicine and Digestive Center, where he works with adults and children to support well-being for everything from fatigue and irritable bowel syndrome to pregnancy planning and oncology.
When it comes to choosing which sweetener to add to our morning cup of joe, we’re faced with a smorgasbord of possibilities. There’s the blue packet, the pink packet, the yellow one, the white, the brown. Sometimes, there’s even the option of adding honey or agave nectar. So how is a health-conscious consumer to choose?

At least when it comes to the rainbow of artificial sweeteners out there, Joshua Nachman can’t be more succinct: “Avoid them. Period,” he says.

The primary problem with products such as aspartame, sucralose, and saccharin is that while they may not contain calories, they taste far sweeter than sugar. “Those sweeteners can contribute to people having an addiction to ‘sweet’ and not being able to fulfill that addiction via healthier whole foods,” he says.

While we’re hard-wired to crave sweet treats, such as apples and oranges, studies have shown that foods spiked with high amounts of sugar or artificial sweeteners can alter taste buds, creating stronger cravings for a sugar fix. Sugar, in turn, has been shown to contribute to ailments, such as chronic inflammation, diabetes, heart disease, and obesity.

Nachman recommends stevia, a natural sweetener extracted from the leaves of a plant. Like other substitutes, stevia is sweeter than sugar, but it doesn’t raise the glycemic index or blood sugar, nor does it adversely affect taste buds. Be advised: Some brands contain potentially unhealthy additives, so choose products that primarily contain stevia leaf extract.

In weighing in on the agave vs. honey debate, Nachman picks honey over agave, which is 1.4 times sweeter than table sugar. “Stick to raw honey, which has a host of antioxidants that are also health-promoting. When honey is heated or pasteurized, those benefits go away.”

He doesn’t advise clients to eliminate all sweeteners, just to be mindful of how much they consume. “The advice I give is to track your diet for a day or two,” says Nachman, who notes the World Health Organization recommends 25 grams of sugar a day. “If you’re looking for a simple way to cut back on sugar, something like stevia can help.”

Nachman recommends that clients curb sugar cravings by adding healthy fats like nuts, avocados, or fish to lunch, which helps combat a late-afternoon energy crash. Another strategy is eating something sweet at the beginning or halfway through a meal. “Desserts can leave you wanting more because of that addiction aspect, so if you end the meal on a fat or protein, the odds of the same degree of craving later will be lower.”

When it comes to sweetening his own meals or morning smoothies, Nachman says he sticks to whole foods, like dates and apples, as well as raw honey. As for regular old table sugar, he says, “we don’t even have it in the house.”

Illustration of types of sugar
Image by Meredith Miotke

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