Sugar substitute, sugar or honey: Which is best?
In an occasional series of posts, I’ve written before about ingredients of various foods in my diet. Sometimes I’ve found out that there are things in my foods I’d rather not be eating, and it has caused me to change my habits.
I’ve written about coffee creamer and bagels. Today, I’m tackling various sweeteners – namely, sugar substitutes, good ol’ sugar and honey.
Let’s look at sugar substitutes, first as a category, then at the specific one I use in my diet.
According to Wikipedia, sugar substitute is a food additive that duplicates the effect of sugar or corn syrup in taste, but usually has less food energy. Some sugar substitutes are natural and some are synthetic. Those that are not natural are, in general, referred to as artificial sweeteners.
In the United States, five intensely-sweet sugar substitutes have been approved for use. They are saccharin, aspartame, sucralose, neotame, and acesulfame potassium. There is some ongoing controversy over whether artificial sweeteners are health risks.
The food and beverage industry is increasingly replacing sugar or corn syrup with artificial sweeteners in a range of products traditionally containing sugar. Artificial sweeteners cost the food industry only a fraction of the cost of natural sweeteners.
The particular brand of artificial sweetener in my kitchen is Splenda, made from sucralose. It is also available in generic brands, such as Kroger’s Apriva. Sucralose is approximately 600 times as sweet as table sugar, twice as sweet as saccharin and four times as sweet as aspartame. Unlike aspartame, it is stable under heat and over a broad range of pH conditions and can be used in baking or in products that require a longer shelf life. Sucralose also does not promote tooth decay.
Now for the sweetener we all grew up with: table sugar. Sugar is a class of edible crystalline substances including sucrose, lactose and fructose. Common table sugar (sucrose) is made from sugar beets or sugar cane. Sugar also appears in fruit, honey, sorghum, sugar maple (in maple syrup) and in many other sources. It forms the main ingredient in most candy. "Excessive" consumption of sugar has been associated with increased incidences of type 2 diabetes, obesity, tooth decay and gout.
The Sugar Association lists many sugar myths and debunks them with evidence.
As I read through them, some of them made sense, but I kept in mind that the Sugar Association would have a vested interest in debunking myths that would harm the sale of its product. That doesn't mean their evidence isn't true, but I like to keep in mind that they're not exactly objective.
And finally, let’s look at honey, that sweet and viscous fluid produced by bees and derived from the nectar of flowers.
Honey gets its sweetness from fructose and glucose and has approximately the same relative sweetness as granulated sugar.
Honey is a mixture of sugars and other compounds. With respect to carbohydrates, honey is mainly fructose (about 38.5%) and glucose (about 31.0%). Honey's remaining carbohydrates include maltose, sucrose and other complex carbohydrates.
Honey contains trace amounts of several vitamins and minerals, but it is not a significant source of either. Honey also contains tiny amounts of several compounds thought to function as antioxidants, including chrysin, pinobanksin, vitamin C, catalase and pinocembrin.
The specific composition of any batch of honey will depend largely on the mix of flowers available to the bees that produced the honey.
The World's Healthiest Foods site has some charts and information about the health benefits of honey. In addition to its reputation as nature's nutritive sweetener, research also indicates that honey's unique composition makes it useful as an antimicrobial agent and antioxidant.
For more information, also see the National Honey Board.
Of the three major sweeteners I’ve examined, I think the blue-ribbon winner overall is honey. It sweetens your foods naturally while delivering some health benefits. I don’t think table sugar in and of itself is bad for you – like anything else, it has to do with how you use it and what you eat it in. It’s all about moderation as part of an overall healthy diet.
As for artificial sweeteners, I think I’ll try to stay away from them. I wouldn’t say they’re the most horrible thing you could eat – and if they’re my only choice, I’ll go for it. But it falls in line with my recent efforts to stay away from things with the word “artificial” when I can.
Lately, I’ve switched to sweetening some of my foods with honey. I previously used sugar substitute in my coffee, but in my effort to use more natural ingredients in my foods whenever possible, I’ve been putting honey in it, and it tastes good. I have also been putting honey on my oatmeal for breakfast. All-natural oats topped with all-natural honey. It doesn’t get much better than that.
What type of sweetener do you use most often? Have you made any switches lately?