The 4 Best, and 3 Worst, Sweeteners to Have in Your Kitchen

Some sweeteners aren't good for our bodies or the environment, but there are a few that actually boost vitamin and mineral intake while satisfying your sweet tooth.

RODALE NEWS, EMMAUS, PA—At this point, it's common knowledge that high-fructose corn syrup and refined sugar are bad for us. But given all the marketing hype behind different "natural" alternatives, it's hard to know which ones really are the best sweeteners. Complicating matters, new studies, like one just published in the journal Cancer Research, are finding that fructose, a sugar found in high-fructose corn syrup, agave, honey, and, in small amounts, even in fruit, actually feeds some cancers. But don't give up apples and oranges, or even honey, based on a single study. "Natural sugars found in fruits and vegetables—things like berries, green apples, grapefruit, kiwi—are needed to feed beneficial microflora in the gut for a healthy immune system," explains Donna Gates, who led the movement to bring stevia, a natural sweetener, into this country more than a decade ago. "That's why nature put a little bit of sugar in fruits and vegetables. It keeps the ecosystem alive in us," she says, adding that the small amounts of fructose in fruits and vegetables are balanced with minerals, vitamins, and other vital nutrients. "Our body reads it differently," she notes.

Fruits and vegetables provide a perfect sugar fix, but when you're in need of a sweetener to add to iced tea, baked goods, or anything else, make sure you know the difference between the good guys and bad guys of the sweetener world. (Some of the not-so-sweet details could leave you gagging.)

Bad Guy #1: Aspartame

There's conflicting evidence regarding the safety of aspartame, a common chemical sweetener used in diet soda and other low-cal or low-sugar goods, but some people report headaches or generally feeling unwell after ingesting anything containing the chemical. To make life easier for everyone, this is one instance where you may want to follow the "better safe than sorry" principle. That's because a University of Liverpool test-tube study found that when mixed with a common food color ingredient, aspartame actually became toxic to brain cells. Making matters worse, aspartame is used in many diet sodas, and studies have found drinking diet soda may increase your risk of developing diabetes and metabolic syndrome. Also of concern with aspartame, researchers have found that one harmful breakdown product is formaldehyde. Sweet? We don't think so.
Bad Guy #2: Agave

While your health food store likely stocks agave sweeteners, it may be best to keep them out of your cart. Many agave nectars consist of 70 to 80 percent fructose—that's more than what's found in high-fructose corn syrup! If you don't want to give up agave, look for types that contain no more than 30 to 40 percent fructose, recommends Christine Gerbstadt, MD, PhD, RD, spokeswoman for the American Dietetic Association.

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An earlier version of this story incorrectly indicated that processing agave is extremely energy-intensive.

Bad Guy #3: Sucralose

While sucralose, better known by its brand name, Splenda, may originate with sugar, the end product is anything but natural. It's processed using chlorine, and researchers are finding that the artificial sweetener is passing through our bodies and winding up in wastewater treatment plants, where it can't be broken down. Tests in Norway and Sweden found sucralose in surface water released downstream from treatment discharge sites. Scientists worry it could change organisms' feeding habits and interfere with photosynthesis, putting the entire food chain at risk. The chemically derived artificial sweetener acesulfame K (sold under the brand name Sunett) was also detected in treated wastewater and tap water.
Good Guy #1: Stevia

"We need to be off of sugar, but we need good alternatives, and stevia is the safest sweetener there is, period," says Gates, who coauthored The Stevia Cookbook: Cooking with Nature's Calorie-Free Sweetener (Avery Trade, 2004). All types of stevia are extracted from the leaves of the stevia plant, but some forms taste better than others, says Gates. People tend to overuse powders, in which the sweetness is really concentrated, so if you've tried powders in the past and didn't like them, try liquid forms, explains Gates, who helped develop a liquid stevia sweetener product. Stevia contains zero calories, but its one downfall is that it doesn't work well for baking. Expect to see more stevia on store shelves, as Coke and Pepsi got the green light to use Truvia (a sweetener made in part from stevia) starting later this year.
Good Guy #2: Sugar alcohols

Popular sugar alcohol sweeteners include xylitol, sorbitol, and erythritol, natural sweeteners made through a fermentation process of corn or sugar cane. They contain fewer calories than sweeteners like pure sugar and honey, but more than stevia. They also leave a cooling sensation in the mouth, and have been found to prevent cavities, explains Dr. Gerbstadt. Just don't overdo it—too much can cause GI distress. (Note: Xylitol is extremely toxic to dogs. Even a little bit causes life-threatening changes in a pooch's blood sugar.)
Good Guy #3: Organic, raw local honey

While honey does boast higher fructose levels, it also contains a bounty of cancer-defending antioxidants, and local honey has been said to help alleviate allergy symptoms. Don't limit raw honey's use to your tea, either. Use it to speed healing on burns, and as a natural antiseptic on cuts and scrapes. Honey also has a low glycemic index, so adding it to your tea or yogurt won't lead to energy-busting blood sugar drops later in the day.
Good Guy #4: Blackstrap molasses

Although heavy on the calorie content, blackstrap is rich in iron, potassium, and calcium, making it a healthier choice than nutritionally defunct artificial sweeteners or even regular refined sugar, despite the fact that blackstrap and refined sugar both come from sugar cane. (Dr. Gerbstadt says calorie-containing sweeteners are not recommended for people with diabetes.) We like the organic, Fair Trade Certified version of blackstrap molasses from Wholesome Sweeteners.

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Published on: August 9, 2010

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The seven sweeteners are just

The seven sweeteners are just amazing and i tried all. This is amazing technique that you shared with us. Thanks for this wonderful info.
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I only agree with things that

I only agree with things that are medically proven. But the older myths are something which have come into picture due to experiences. So when there is a possibility, i stay away from it. I would not take a risk in such situations.

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Overall a good article,

Overall a good article, however I am in shock that you would rate agave as worse than sucralose, I mean come on, seriously? I buy the raw organic version, that is certainly not heavily processed, recommended to me my a naturopath I wanted to say also. I did however appreciate the information about sucralose(Splenda) that it may be a threat to our food chain. I also wanted to point out that sucralose is often found in canned drinks that aren't even labeled low calorie, such as Monster.

I only agree with things that

I only agree with things that are medically proven. But the older myths are something which have come into picture due to experiences. So when there is a possibility, i stay away from it. I would not take a risk in such situations. Mario Games

Aspartame headaces are real

Well your wrong I make #4...I get bad headaches to the aspartame also and I know others who also have reactions ..Who ever you are you need to ask around. if you choose to eat toxic stuff go ahead its your life, People like you also think smoking is safe too!!!!Get a clue.

Aspartame Myths

Please stop posting false statements not supported by science. "three people said they got a headache" Give me a break!

Article not reflective of leading health organizations

As a dietitian with the Calorie Control Council, I am very concerned about the misinformation presented in this article. With more than half of Americans overweight or obese, low-calorie sweeteners are a safe, simple and effective tool in helping to manage weight and caloric intake. Further, the information presented in this article is not reflective of the weight of the scientific evidence nor the position of leading health and regulatory agencies such as the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, the American Dietetic Association and the American Diabetes Association. ( Low-calorie sweeteners have been very thoroughly studied and found to be safe time and time again.

Most health professionals would agree that making small, lifestyle changes is one of the best ways to lose weight and keep that weight off. It is unfortunate that this article contains misinformation that may unduly alarm people when sugar substitutes (and the foods and beverages that contain them) can be a simple (and safe) lifestyle change that can easily be incorporated into an overall healthy eating plan to manage calories and weight. For example, a reduced calorie yogurt is a great option for someone trying to reduce calories while still getting the same nutrition as a full calorie yogurt.

-- Beth Hubrich, RD with the Calorie Control Council

I'm sticking with local raw organic honey

I am glad to see Rodale chose to speak out about agave as a questionable sweetener. I do think it is still questionable, and there is a lot of conflicting information - just google the words "is agave truly safe" or "is agave truly highly processed." Supposedly if it is ORGANIC it cannot be processed with chemicals, so that is good. Nothing was even mentioned about sustainability aspect of agave. Honey is also low glycemic. I will only keep organic agave on my shelf for the most rarest of uses - using it to replace (not 1:1) Karo Corn Syrup for my pecan pie at Thanksgiving. I use a mix of organic agave and organic maple syrup. Thanks to Rodale for speaking up about agave. You bet I'm on the bandwagon about something so questionable and so highly UNsustainable.

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I'd expect better research

Re the claim: "Agave is also very heavily processed in an extremely energy-intensive manner that's similar to the way corn is converted into high-fructose corn syrup."

Have you or your researchers ever witnessed the process for yourself? It is not "very heavily processed" - agave nectar is produced with 3 steps: 1. filter out the solids 2. add heat 3. evaporate the moisture. You call this very heavily processed? It doesn't even hold a candle to the massive processing and nasty chemicals used to convert corn into HFCS. Not even slightly close. Not to mention that agave is grown and harvested by hand (no big farming machinery like in the U.S.), does not contain GMO's, is not subsidized like big corn farming, and doesn't have a political lobby.

So why is it on your "worst" list? Worse than HFCS, artificial sweeteners, and honey containing 40 - 70% fructose?

Seems you've jumped on the trendy "fructose is evil" alarmist bandwagon.

How about using moderation and including ranges that are fine for consumption. Here are 4 peer-reviewed scientific studies conducted on humans (not rodents) that need to be considered in understanding fructose.


I have to disagree with your assertion that agave is a bad sweetener! Of all establishments, I would have expected Rodale to have done their homework a bit more on this one!

Agave gets its sweetness from a complex form of fructose derived from inulin and has a very low glycemic index value when compared to other sweeteners like corn syrup! This is great for people like me who are hypoglycemic! Stevia tastes funky and honey is something I can only use sparingly as it tends to spike me up!

Fructose levels in agave products vary from brand to brand and depend on which plant they cultivate from as well as the amount of processing used. Raw agave or low-processed agave is best. Amber agave is generally less processed and sweeter than dark agave.

Most importantly, you DO NOT use agave 1:1 as a sugar substitute. 0.25:1 agave:sugar is already more than enough for most!

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