Whether you have a killer sweet tooth or are simply a creature of habit (“I’ll have a large coffee with milk and two Splendas, please”), you’re probably aware of how many sweeteners exist on the market, and you’ve most likely even tried to give one (or all) up at some point. After all, everyone hates on sugar.
Still, for some people, a life without a little sugar could be one not worth living at all—and ditching it entirely just isn’t an option.
If quitting the sweet stuff isn’t on your radar but you’re still determined to stay healthy, it’s important to understand a few things about sweeteners, like the difference between nutritive and non-nutritive sweeteners and where each sweetener falls on the glycemic index.
Nutritive vs. Non-Nutritive
Raquel Reyes, RDN, a registered dietitian at RoundTable Wellness in Lafayette, Indiana, and president-elect of the Western Indiana Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, says, “The main differences between all sweeteners are based on three criteria: nutritive versus non-nutritive, source of origin (where the sweetener comes from—is it natural or made in a lab?), and flavor profile (how it tastes).
To start, nutritive sweeteners (known as sugars) are those that provide energy in the form of calories, while non-nutritive sweeteners (known as sugar alcohols, or polyols, which are mostly sweet carbs used as alternatives to sugar) usually have low to no calories.
Nutritive sweeteners include sucrose (which is found in table sugar, raw sugar, cane sugar, brown sugar), honey, corn sugar, and fructose. Non-nutritive sweeteners are alternative sweeteners (typically called sugar-free sweeteners). You’ve probably used a few of these, including aspartame, xylitol, saccharin, or stevia.
The Glycemic Index
Each sugar falls somewhere on the glycemic index. “The glycemic index measures how a carbohydrate-containing food raises blood glucose,” says Reyes. High GI foods (think white bread, pretzels, or bagels) will raise blood glucose (causing insulin imbalance, potentially increasing risk of diabetes) more than lower GI foods (think fruit, brown rice, whole wheat bread, or veggies).
Typically, higher GI foods are composed of simple sugars that quickly break down into blood glucose for energy or storage. Lower GI foods typically contain more complex carbohydrates, which take longer for the body to break down into blood glucose.
So why does this matter?
“The glycemic index can be a useful reference for various reasons. For example, a person with diabetes could supplement their carbohydrate count by aiming for lower GI choices to enhance their glycemic control,” Reyes says. “A person aiming to lose weight may find that a diet with greater emphasis on lower GI foods to be more satiating for less calories.” To check the GI of any food, you can access the University of Sydney’s online database.
A Look At Common Sweeteners
Stevia: Stevia is a non-nutritive, low GI sweetener. It’s calorie-free, and very sweet. Taken from the stevia plant, it’s been shown to actually have some benefits for the body (a 2003 Clinical Therapeutics study showed that stevia might be able to help reduce hypertension). Often available in liquid form, it’s a good way to add a little sweetness to tea and coffee, baked goods, or other recipes. (It has been known to have a noticeable aftertaste, however.)
Xylitol: As a non-nutritive sweetener, xylitol is low on the caloric scale, coming in at 2.4 calories per gram. For cooking, you can find it in powder form—you can use about the same amount you would use of regular sugar. Xylitol is often a solid choice for people trying to avoid carbs (or those on a ketogenic diet) or people with diabetes, since it’s low GI—but beware if you have dogs, as it’s toxic to them.
Honey: One of the most natural sweeteners, honey is a good choice if you’re trying to avoid processed sweeteners. Honey has been shown to promote health with its immune-boosting antioxidants, too (so you’re getting some health benefits along with the added sweetness). However, it’s important to remember that, as a nutritive sweetener, honey has a medium GI and will affect your blood sugar.
Agave nectar: Popularly found in health foods, agave nectar (which is extracted from the agave plant) is a solid choice because it has a low GI. More research is needed on how agave affects the body, though a 2014 study in the Journal of Medicinal Food found that it may have a positive effect on glucose control. However, because of its high fructose levels (fructose is harder to digest, as it needs to be processed by the liver), it’s best to eat in moderation.
Coconut sugar: Coconut sugar is sugar that is produced from the cut flowers of the coconut. It gained popularity because of its low GI and higher nutritional content (coconut sugar is higher in potassium, zinc, and calcium than regular sugar). Its taste is also pretty sweet.
Sugar: Regular white table sugar is what a lot of us grew up on, of course, but it just isn’t the healthiest option. It has a high GI, and may increase your risk of heart disease. It may also cause metabolic problems, and is widely believed to be addictive (scientists have even linked the effects of sugar on the brain to that of cocaine or other addictive drugs, according to Current Opinion in Clinical Nutrition and Metabolic Care).
The Bottom Line
The World Health Organization’s guidelines recommend that adults and children consume no more than about six teaspoons daily of added sugar (sugars that aren’t naturally occurring in fruits, for example, but added to fruit juices and other snack foods).
So what’s a health-conscious sweets lover to do? To get your sugar fix, look to whole foods, advises Reyes: “In my experience, if you can get most sugars from natural food sources like fruits, vegetables, grains, and dairy, you will feel overall more well and balanced.” Plus, the fiber in whole fruits slows the rate at which your body processes sugars, making these foods healthier for your blood sugar.
In the end, it’s all about moderation. “Some people crave sweets more than others, and this is normal,” Reyes says. “Feel free to safely enjoy a range of nutritive sweeteners and nonnutritive sweeteners in moderation, while keeping in mind individual health goals and personal preferences.”