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The lowdown on natural sweeteners

By Lesley Rotchford, SELF
August 11, 2014 -- Updated 1544 GMT (2344 HKT)
Natural and artificial sweeteners are in more food products than you might expect. Find out how many calories are in your favorite sweetener and see which ones have the most nutritional bang for your buck. Natural and artificial sweeteners are in more food products than you might expect. Find out how many calories are in your favorite sweetener and see which ones have the most nutritional bang for your buck.
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The sweet truth
White sugar
Brown sugar
Molasses
Maple syrup
Honey
Corn Syrup
Agave nectar
Stevia
Artificial sweeteners
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STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Sweeteners are derived from natural substances rather than synthesized
  • They haven't been studied as extensively as sugar and artificial substitutes
  • FDA considers most of them to be generally recognized as safe

(SELF) -- With regular sugar taking a nutritional beating and artificial sweeteners unable to shake their sketchy made-in-the-lab connotations, it's no wonder newcomers like stevia and agave are conquering our morning coffee (and the world of packaged foods).

The new low-cal sweeteners are derived from natural substances rather than synthesized like saccharin and aspartame, so choosing them can make you feel at least somewhat healthy and virtuous. Still, there are concerns.

Put down that sugar!
Sugar has become public enemy No. 1 in the nutrition field -- doctors and public health advocates alike are "Fed Up" with the amount Americans are consuming.
The World Health Organization recently proposed new guidelines that recommend consuming less than 5% of our total daily calories from added sugars. For an adult at a normal body mass index, or BMI, 5% would be around 25 grams of sugar -- or six teaspoons.
While food accounts for a large portion of the added sugar in our diet, many experts recommend cutting back on sugary beverages to reduce daily intake.
In the following slides, we compare the amount of sugar found in some of America's top-selling beverages -- according to Beverage Industry magazine's 2013 State of the Industry Report -- to the sugar found in common sugary snacks.
Many of these companies offer lower or no-sugar versions of their drinks, says American Beverage Association spokesman Christopher Gindlesperger. "Nearly half -- 45% -- of all non-alcoholic beverages contain 0% (sugar)," he says.
Click through to see the comparisons. Keep in mind that we are matching the amount of sugar, not calories, in each of the following examples. Sugar has become public enemy No. 1 in the nutrition field -- doctors and public health advocates alike are "Fed Up" with the amount Americans are consuming. The World Health Organization recently proposed new guidelines that recommend consuming less than 5% of our total daily calories from added sugars. For an adult at a normal body mass index, or BMI, 5% would be around 25 grams of sugar -- or six teaspoons. While food accounts for a large portion of the added sugar in our diet, many experts recommend cutting back on sugary beverages to reduce daily intake. In the following slides, we compare the amount of sugar found in some of America's top-selling beverages -- according to Beverage Industry magazine's 2013 State of the Industry Report -- to the sugar found in common sugary snacks. Many of these companies offer lower or no-sugar versions of their drinks, says American Beverage Association spokesman Christopher Gindlesperger. "Nearly half -- 45% -- of all non-alcoholic beverages contain 0% (sugar)," he says. Click through to see the comparisons. Keep in mind that we are matching the amount of sugar, not calories, in each of the following examples.
How much sugar is in that drink?
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Sugar-sweetened beverages Sugar-sweetened beverages
When taken at face value, diet soda seems like a health-conscious choice. It saves you the 140-plus calories you'd find in a sugary soft drink while still satisfying your urge for something sweet with artificial sweeteners like aspartame, saccharin, and sucralose. But there's more to this chemical cocktail than meets the eye.
Health.com: The 25 best diet tricks of all time When taken at face value, diet soda seems like a health-conscious choice. It saves you the 140-plus calories you'd find in a sugary soft drink while still satisfying your urge for something sweet with artificial sweeteners like aspartame, saccharin, and sucralose. But there's more to this chemical cocktail than meets the eye. Health.com: The 25 best diet tricks of all time
10 reasons to give up diet soda
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10 reasons to give up diet soda 10 reasons to give up diet soda

Are they safe?

Some of these natural sweeteners are relatively new, so they haven't been studied as extensively as sugar and artificial substitutes have.

And though you would expect natural to mean that a product contains nothing artificial, some new sweeteners may have undergone chemical processing to extract them from their original sources, says Barry Popkin, a professor of nutrition at the school of public health at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

The processing involved may affect their healthfulness, though we can't be sure since manufacturers provide few details. However, the FDA has reviewed provided data and considers most of them to be generally recognized as safe.

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In fact, the food-safety watchdog group Center for Science in the Public Interest believes this new generation is probably safer than aspartame and saccharin, which it asserts could increase cancer risk. (The FDA and the American Cancer Society dismiss the talk of cancer, because it's based on older animal studies involving very large amounts of artificial sweeteners.)

There is one new sweetener CSPI has put in its "caution" category: the monk-fruit extract found in products such as Nectresse, which CSPI says has been poorly tested for safety.

"But since it's derived from a fruit, it is probably safe," says Michael Jacobson, CSPI's executive director.

And slimming?

With the exception of agave syrup, the new naturals are very low-calorie or calorie-free, so you would think they'd be a great way to help decrease your daily calorie intake. But it's complicated -- mostly because there's no research that specifically looks at how these sweeteners affect weight loss.

SELF: How the naturals stack up

Existing studies on dieting focus on the older generation of artificial additives. And on that front the evidence is mixed.

"Our research shows that artificial sweeteners do appear to reduce the risk for weight gain when combined with a healthy, well-balanced diet," Popkin says.

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On the other hand, a 2013 study review in Trends in Endocrinology & Metabolism found that artificial sweeteners -- as little as the amount in one diet soda a day -- are associated with an increased likelihood of weight gain and diabetes.

"Sweeteners may be interfering with the physiological responses that help us regulate body weight and control blood sugar," says the study's author, Susan Swithers, professor of behavioral neuroscience at Purdue University.

In other words, when we taste something sweet, our bodies expect actual calories to hit our bellies soon afterward. To prepare for that, we release insulin and other hormones to react to the influx and register fullness. But in the absence of actual calories, the insulin and other hormones may not only cause your blood sugar to plunge but could actually make you crave more sweets and overeat.

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Though the study focused on artificial low-calorie sweeteners, experts think the effect would hold true for natural ones, too, since mere sweetness jump-starts this chain reaction.

"We would not expect natural low-calorie sweeteners to be any better than artificial sweeteners when it comes to weight management," says Swithers.

However, you may be able to counter the overeating effect if you consume sweetened foods that contain fiber, like oatmeal. The fiber will help keep insulin levels steady so blood sugar doesn't plunge, says New York psychologist Stephen Gullo.

The sweet lowdown

One thing's certain: As a range of new studies continues to show that sugar is a major factor in not only obesity but heart disease, inflammation and other chronic health conditions, many experts now advocate controlling added sugar intake in the diet as much as possible.

"If you have a sweet tooth, consuming sugar substitutes is better for you," says Cindy Fitch, a registered dietician and director of Families and Health Programs at West Virginia University's extension service.

Reprinted with permission of Conde Nast.

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