One of the nutritional “vices” I feel that I have struggled with over the last few years is the use of artificial sweeteners in my tea/coffee 😦 I’m not going to name specific brands, but let’s just say that I’ve used the rainbow of varieties that are available in most grocery stores, along with the more natural varieties of stevia. Suffice it to say that I didn’t really like the stevia, and unfortunately reverted back to the less natural stuff.
So how bad are artificial sweeteners, and why do I feel guilty (?) about using them when I do try to maintain a healthy lifestyle? Well, there are mixed opinions on the use of artificial sweeteners. Some critics argue against their use entirely – saying that they increase cravings for sweet products because people either feel that it’s OK to consume more artificially sweetened goods since they don’t contain sugar (and thereby increasing their cravings for sweet products) or because artificially sweetened goods don’t create the same sense of satiety that we get by eating “the real stuff.” (I tend to lean towards the latter argument judging from my own experience). Other individuals say that consuming artificial sweeteners in moderation is fine and does not adversely affect most individuals. Note this article from the Mayo Clinic which does not make artificial sweeteners seem that bad…in moderation. (However, there is still debate on how much is considered a moderate amount… 1–2 packets of artificial sweetener a day? What about other artificial sweeteners in food products…are they included in this “moderate amount?”) They argue that artificial sweeteners can help people who are overweight and addicted to sugar, reduce the amount of sugar in their diet and thus help them lose weight.
Maybe so…but at the end of the day, artificial sweeteners are just that… artificial. Here is a link to an interesting article on artificial sweeteners that discusses their chemical composition, and their pros and cons. It is interesting and rather eye-opening to note that Splenda (trade name for sucralose) was originally discovered in 1976 by scientists in Britain who were looking for a new pesticide formulation. In fact, the sucralose molecule looks more like a sugar molecule than it’s other artificial competitors – except that it contains chlorine atoms in place of three hydroxyl groups that are found in regular sugar molecules. So we’re consuming chlorine atoms when we use sucralose in place of real sugar… as I admit I do…
And that’s why I feel uncomfortable using an artificial sweetener in my tea/coffee. Because it’s artificial, and because we may not know all the long-term side effects of using these sweeteners in place of sugar.
So what can we use instead of artificial sweeteners? How about regular sugar? 🙂 As my dad would say – just use the “real stuff” in moderation and you’ll feel more satisfied. So of course, there’s regular table sugar. Other alternatives to regular white table sugar are: brown sugar, raw turbinado sugar, honey, molasses and agave nectar. I don’t know why I feel avert to adding white sugar to my tea/coffee (maybe because I feel that it’s been stripped of all the nutrients found in sugar cane), but I feel that replacing my artificial sweetener with a more nutritious “real” sugar would help me actually make the mental and physical transition to using the real stuff.
White Sugar is typically made from sugar cane juice or sugar beet juice that is bleached with sulphur dioxide and then put through a centrifuge to strip away the outside layer of crystals. (See this article for a brief summary of the process).
Brown Sugar – (Light or Dark) is simply white sugar that has had molasses added back. See this article that discuses the difference between brown sugars. The nutritional benefits of this type of brown sugar over white are still unproven, and they both contain around 15 calories per teaspoon.
Raw or Turbinado Sugar is often considered a healthier alternative to white or brown sugar because it is less processed. Raw/Turbinado sugar is not bleached; rather, the sugar cane juice is pressed and then heated to remove some of the dark color from the molasses. This type of sugar is coarser than refined white sugar, and has larger, golden colored crystals. It also has a richer flavor than white sugar, and retains some of the nutrients that are found in molasses (see below), namely, trace amounts of calcium, potassium and iron. It also contains slightly more calories per teaspoon than white sugar (20 versus 16 in white sugar), but it is less processed. Raw/Turbinado sugar is found in most grocery stores and in the brown packets at most coffee shops and restaurants. M and I tend to keep the Trader Joe’s or Whole Foods varieties at home.
Honey – is a natural sweetener that is produced by honey bees from the nectar of flowers. It has also been used for many years as an antioxidant and an antimicrobial substance. Some of the advocated health benefits of honey are that it is an effective cough suppressant, it boosts immunity, helps manage blood sugar and is an effective treatment for wounds, as described in this article. Honey is also known to be a great natural energy booster for athletes – I have even used it as a natural source of fuel during long runs, instead of using commercial energy gels. Honey also has approximately 22 calories per teaspoon – higher than the caloric content of a teaspoon of white sugar, but again, it is an all-natural sweetener with other health benefits.
Molasses – These are the syrupy by-product of processing sugar cane or sugar beets into white sugar, and they resemble a thick, viscous, dark liquid, much like a thick version of maple syrup. There are also different types of molasses – first, second and third (or blackstrap) molasses that are produced during different stages of sugar production, and this Wikipedia article provides a brief outline of the different types, including those produced via the processing of sugar beets. I have actually become more interested in third molasses, otherwise known as Blackstrap Molasses. As noted in the Wikipedia article, blackstrap molasses are produced during the third boiling of sugar cane syrup, which produces a thick, viscous syrup with a strong flavor… the same flavor that characterizes baked beans, Christmas cake and gingerbread cookies. In comparison to white and turbinado sugar, blackstrap molasses actually contain good amounts of several vitamins and minerals that are very good for you. In fact, two teaspoons of blackstrap molasses contain approximately 32 calories (so 16 calories in 1 teaspoon…which is the same as for white sugar!) but also provide approximately 18% of the daily recommended value (DV) for manganese, 14% of the DV for copper, 13% of the DV for iron, almost 12% of the DV for calcium, and almost 10% of the DV for potassium. Those same 2 teaspoons also provide approximately 5% of the DV for vitamin B6, one of the essential B vitamins, and trace amounts of other nutrients as outlined in this article on this natural sweetener. So rather than adding chlorine and other substances to our bodies with artificial sweeteners, we could be boosting our nutritional intake of these important minerals and vitamins via a mere two teaspoons of blackstrap molasses.
Hmmm…looks like I may be switching to blackstrap molasses in my tea/coffee instead of an artificial product. Calcium and iron are certainly two important minerals that many women just don’t get enough of…so adding two teaspoons of this sweetener to tea or coffee in place of sugar or artificial substances may be a much needed boost for them.
Agave Nectar is another natural sweetener that has been in the media and news a great deal lately. It is a syrup that is produced from the Blue Agave plant in Mexico. Ironically, the agave plant is also used to produce tequila – although agave nectar does not seem to have the same intoxicating effects as tequila! This site provides a detailed history and description of agave nectar, and also outlines why many people use it in place of artificial sweeteners. Mainly because it is advertized as having a lower glycemic index than white sugar. However, other individuals argue that agave nectar/syrup isn’t necessarily healthier for you, and that it is still a processed food (but so are blackstrap molasses if you think about it…although the latter have a much better nutritional profile). Still others argue that as a concentrated sweetener, agave syrup can still become addictive for some people, much like regular white table sugar. So the debate on the use of agave is still on and has both its proponents and critics. I for one, am not a big user of agave syrup – and am probably more inclined to use blackstrap molasses instead, for the nutrient density of the latter.
So in summary….I am going to try and switch away from using artificial sweeteners as much as possible, and use blackstrap molasses and/or turbinado sugar instead. I have grown to be more and more uncomfortable with the thought of adding artificial substances to my body, especially not knowing their long-term side effects, and so maybe this will be a New Year’s resolution that I make and keep. To stop adding artificial sweeteners to my daily coffee and/or tea.
PS: I will let you know how blackstrap molasses taste in coffee. If they butcher the taste, I’ll switch to turbinado sugar…and then maybe try “no sweetener” in my coffee… (gulp!)