Sugar is just as sweet — or sweeter — by any other name

By Shayna Brouker • Published: March 29th, 2011
Category: Health in a Heartbeat

Aspartame, agave nectar and stevia are just a few substitutes for plain old white table sugar. From highly processed artificial sweeteners to fresh-from-the-hive raw honey, sugar fiends seeking less caloric or less processed ways to satisfy their sweet tooth have plenty of fructose and sucrose to choose from. But is sugar by any other name just as sweet? And is it as safe as the real thing?

The truth is our bodies can’t tell the difference between real, fake or processed sugar. Research shows that even calorie-free sweeteners, though they can taste up to six hundred times sweeter than sugar, may still cause a spike in blood sugar and actually trigger sugar cravings.

But for those looking to nix processed foods from their diet, honey and maple syrup sweeten naturally and offer a dose of disease-fighting antioxidants, too. Agave nectar made from Mexican blue agave plants is the latest star in the whole foods industry, boasting better taste and less impact on blood sugar. Stevia [STEE-vee-uh], granulated from a South American shrub, sweetens foods two hundred times better than sugar but with zero calories.

On the other end of the table, chemical concoctions made in labs show up in many sugar-free foods. The xylitol in sugarless gum can cause upset stomach and bloating. Aspartame, found in some yogurts and diet sodas, has been vilified for causing cancer in lab animals, but its potential harm to humans remains unproven. Sucralose is essentially sugar stripped of its calories and carbs, but six hundred times sweeter. Splenda, as it’s known, is widely regarded as a safe way to satisfy a sugar fix.

So whether you’re trying to cut calories, eat clean or simply slash your sugar intake, consider the source. Not all sugars are as “sweet” as they sound.