#WellnessWeds: Are All-Natural Sweeteners Really Healthier Than Sugar?

Who doesn’t like a sweet treat every once in a while? I know I do. Many people who avoid sugar feel that calorie-free sweeteners like stevia or natural alternatives like agave nectar are the answer to all of their weight-loss goals. Are they right? Or are these alternative sweeteners merely patching over larger dietary problems?

With Michigan being the 10th most obese state in the nation, there is a large focus on cutting calories and losing weight. Even with natural, calorie-free stevia, you have to be careful. Think about it, the more that sugar substitutes are being used in food products, the more people are choosing processed foods.

Sweetener Options

There is a variety of ways to sweeten foods or drinks. There are natural sweeteners with calories, such as raw sugar, agave nectar and honey. There are also sugar substitutes that contain few or no calories that are chemically made, like saccharin (the pink packets), aspartame (blue), and sucralose (yellow).

With the rise of obesity, Type 2 diabetes and heart conditions, many people are looking for calorie-free sweeteners. However, some people do not like the chemically made non-sugar sweeteners that are available. Surveys have found that more consumers avoid non-natural sweeteners like aspartame and saccharin than natural sweeteners other than sugar.

Natural Sweeteners

One popular example of a natural sweetener is agave nectar, referred to as “honey water” in Mexico. It is made from the agave plant and is sometimes referred to as agave syrup. Agave is comparable to honey, with a similar consistency, and  is used as a substitute for honey or sugar as well. One very important thing to note: All three of these products — sugar, honey and agave nectar — contain calories and carbohydrates. A tablespoon of agave contains about 50 calories and 15 grams of carbohydrates. Each brand is a little bit different, so always read your labels.

Stevia is a natural sweetener that comes from the stevia plant, originally a South American herb that has been used for centuries as a natural sweetener in Asia and South America. There are about 240 different species of stevia, also known as sweet leaf. About 3 tablespoons of chopped stevia leaves will produce the sweetness of 1 cup of sugar.

This stevia sweetener has zero calories, zero carbohydrates and is a zero on the glycemic index, meaning it digests slowly and slowly raises blood sugar and insulin levels. It is also about 30 times sweeter than sugar, so a little bit goes a long way.

Stevia is now used in the United States as a sweetener. You can also buy stevia from health food stores in liquid, powder or even tablet form to add to your favorite drinks or food. You may see it sold in green packets with the brand name Truvia. There is also Pure Via or Stevia in the Raw. Truvia also has a baking blend that can be used for cooking.

The Verdict?

As a registered dietitian, I appreciate the fact that stevia is all natural. I also like that the stevia sweetener does not have any calories as an alternative for those trying to lose weight or for those that may be diabetic and counting carbohydrates.

That said, like anything else, I recommend that you always use moderation when using or consuming anything, including stevia. And don’t say I didn’t warn you regarding how sweet it really is. Use it sparingly. Before I was pregnant, I would use less than half of a packet to sweeten my coffee.

What do you use to sweeten your favorite foods or drinks? Have you ever tried stevia before? What do you think of it?

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  1. I learned to control my craving for added sweeteners while preparing myself for life after bariatric surgery. I used the nutrition plan at the free nonprofit site LiveFitRevolution.org to accomplish this, and now, on the rare occasions when I choose to use a sweetener, I use liquid stevia as is recommended on the site.

  2. I have always felt that artificial sweeteners were not safe or good for your health. I think all natural is the way to go. I have been eating all natural food i’ve been on a natural weight loss diet and losing weight more than ever before. I get my natural weight loss tips and diet reviews at http://www.weightnatural.com

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