Worst and Best Sweeteners

lump sugarSearching for the healthiest low-calorie sweetener for your coffee in the morning? Seven sweeteners are discussed here. Find out if your favorite makes the best or worst list!

An article was released on Rodale the other day discussing the 4 best and 3 worst sweeteners for our bodies. Here is the gist of that article, and my take on the information provided.

The Worst List:

  1. Aspartame: This sweetener is a longstanding offender for health issues. There is still a large debate as to whether it is actually safe to consume. Some individuals suffer from harsh headaches if any aspartame is consumed. It is found mostly in diet drinks and products. A recent study in Liverpool found that if this sweetener is combined with specific coloring agents, toxicity of the brain results. Also, instead of helping those with diabetes (as it’s marketed to do) it may actually increase risk for the disease. My own experience with this sweetener in outpatient counseling is that those individuals that consume the most aspartame have the highest body weight and most out of control diabetes. I know for my own personal use, the fact that there is still a debate about the safety of aspartame keeps me away from it. Plus the taste isn’t all that spectacular.
  2. Agave: You think high fructose corn syrup is bad, agave may be the biggest sweetener offender. This sweetener is processed much like the notorious HFCS; a great deal of energy is used to produce it. Also, many preparations of it have more fructose in the final product than HFCS itself has. If you really want agave, search for preparations that have between 30 and 40 percent fructose. Fructose is metabolized in to fat faster than fat can be stored as fat. This is the reasoning why drinking HFCS (or agave…) adds body weight so easily.
  3. Sucralose: This sweetener, commonly known as Splenda, is processed with chlorine. The end product of this sweetener can’t even be broken down in water-waste plants after it’s passed through our bodies. Since it never breaks down, this could be affecting more than humans in the long run. I’ve never been a big Splenda fan, and am now very pleased to see it on the bad guy list (now I know my abstinence wasn’t for nothing!)

The Best List:

  1. Stevia: Since it is derived from a naturally growing plant, this is one of the lowest calorie, safe sweeteners around. Some preparations are better tasting than others. They have  a bit of a black licorice aftertaste. If one doesn’t suit your fancy, test out another.
  2. Sugar Alcohols: These are primarily used in chewing gums. Sugar alcohols are created by fermenting natural sugars. They have been demonstrated to help prevent cavities. They have a cooling effect, and have few calories compared to pure sugar. Eating these in high amounts can produce intestinal discomfort, so just be sure to limit your use.
  3. Raw Honey: Not only is this a natural sweetener, it has extra benefits. Honey contains many antioxidants to help fight cancer. Thank you bees!
  4. Blackstrap Molasses: This is not a low calorie sweetener. It is highly concentrate, but contains many vitamins and minerals along with the high calories. It has iron, calcium and potassium (minerals that most American’s are deficient in!)

Image credit to creative commons user Uwe Hermann

  1. RawFoodGuru

    The article’s facts are wrong regarding agave. Not processed at all like HFCS, and the problems from HFCS aren’t because it has fructose (GMO corn; heavily processed with chemicals; glucose spikes blood sugars; subsidized farming; cheap). Agave is hand-harvested and contains natural minerals and inulin fiber. Used in moderation (meaning a regular healthy diet) it does not cause weight gain. Just ask some of your healthy friends who use agave and are not gaining weight : ) It’s getting a bad rap.

  2. Anita Avalos

    Thanks for this post. The more peeps that get the word out, the better! As a health coach, I teach my clients how to get off the artificial sweeteners and down with more healthy alternatives. I would add Lankanto and Yacon Syrup as healthy alternatives as well…oh, and coconut sugar is awesome and low glycemic!

  3. John E. Garst, Ph.D. (Medicinal Chemistry, Pharmacology, Toxicology, and Nutrition)


    As a registered dietitian you know or should know the importance of folic acid. Following are the facts you don’t know about aspartame that are connected to that vitamin. To suggest that aspartame causes health problems could not be further from the truth, but those health issues are probably real too.

    First, the fundamentals of toxicology (the science of poisons) say “everything is toxic” and dose alone separates a food/drug from a poison. For example botulinum toxin, perhaps the most toxic substance known, is used extensively in cosmetic procedures. High toxicity cyanide found in plant products we all consume is, however, innocuous at those doses. In contrast low-toxicity water drowns hundreds yearly. Any claim a chemical substance is “toxic” or poison is by itself is MEANINGLESS. Such claims MUST include a specific toxic response and specific dose. Aspartame critics cannot do this!

    Second, aspartame is GI-degraded to its three components; they are more abundant in common foods and two are even essential for life. Food-borne methanol whatever its source is oxidized to formaldehyde and then formate. Formate is recycled (reduced) by the folate-B12 vitamins into methyl groups used to synthesize (thymine, in DNA), methylate (regulate) DNA, and detoxify truly-toxic homocysteine. Phenylalanine is used to biosynthesize epinephrine, etc. These ingredients are simply not a toxicological issue at the allowed doses of aspartame.

    Third, aspartame has been extensively studied; adverse claims have been consistently disproven time after time, one of the latest being last year in New Zealand. Anti-aspartame arguments fostered by internet conspiracy theorists, who profit from books, false detoxification kits, etc., all predate 1998. In 1998 in the USA and in Canada, and Chile folate vitamin supplementation was mandated for cereal grain products, because of population-wide deficiency. That was not done in Europe, however.

    Any disease connections for aspartame most likely reside instead in personal folate deficiency (see http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/19005123 or …./18208952) or related underlying biochemical issues (well-known folate or related enzyme polymorphisms). These personal problems are often mistaken for arguments against aspartame. But such arguments are like saying it was the ‘straw that broke the camel’s back, not the tons of cargo already there.’ Such cargo includes caffeine and alcohol, which provide twice the formaldehyde/formate of aspartame or inhibit folate-mediate enzyme reactions, respectively.

    Aspartame linkage to diabetes is highly suspect too for the same reason. Two highly publicized papers (one in humans the other in diabetic mice) both neglected even to consider folate status in their subjects. Folate deficiency is a substantial issue with regard to insulin resistance and insulin issues (http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed?term=folate%2Cinsulin; over 345 references). And obese/diabetic mice have serious known issues with folate, http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed?term=folate%2Cdiabetes%20mice. Perhaps people you think are affected by aspartame are really affected by medical (folate, B12) vitamin issues?

    So in summary, aspartame is perfectly safe used as recommended, but issues with it are likely because of hidden, but real risks from the now-known and potentially population-wide folate deficiency or related enzyme issues that are also known to be connected to many types of cancer, as well as headache and lesser issues.

    John E. Garst, Ph.D. (Medicinal Chemistry, Pharmacology, Toxicology, and Nutrition)

    1. Becky Striepe

      A quick google search of an excerpt from this comment revealed that you’ve been leaving similar comments on other articles about aspartame on the Web. Are you working for a company that produces aspartame, by any chance?

      1. John E. Garst, Ph.D. (Medicinal Chemistry, Pharmacology, Toxicology, and Nutrition

        Hi Becky:

        Good question. No, I actually was an academic toxicologist with no prior connection to aspartame at all. I got involved in this about 5 years ago; the conspiracy theorists tried to ban aspartame a few years ago in my state. Since I and my family have used it for years, I undertook an independent study of this issue. Then is when I discovered that this bunch of critics had no valid science behind them. I found a lot of issues with both the supposed experts and their allegations. And then just several years ago, I discovered that all their criticisms could be explained by the folate paradigm, as I wrote above.

        Then is when I set out to correct this falsehood with the facts by first making the science clear to our state authorities, then to authorities in other states, and have continuing to write websites trying to perpetuate this fallacy. This is a whopper of an old wives’ tale.

        I have made it a retirement project to stop this conspiracy theory cold. For more independent reading about the aspartame ‘conspiracy theory’, check more facts at ‘what does the science say’ http://whatdoesthesciencesay.wordpress.com/2011/07/08/sweet-misery-fact-check-part-1/) or Snopes.com. Remember regardless what websites say aspartame is approved by all the relevant regulatory agencies in the US, Europe, and the western world. My goal is just to educate and provide the interested or concerned reader a better understanding of those factors that underlie regulatory decisions.

        One last point is that I really don’t care whether you use aspartame sweetened drinks or not. No one has a gun to your head. There are some other sweetener alternatives. But I will stick with aspartame for two reasons. All three of aspartame’s constituents are natural substances consumed in food and beverages daily-yes, that includes low dose methanol–and all three are well studied substances known for a very long time. Moreover, aspartame has a 20+ year record of safety, unlike some of the newer sweeteners that have only been approved a few years; no one really knows what might be the long term ramifications of some of the other sweeteners.

        John E. Garst, Ph.D. (Medicinal Chemistry, Pharmacology, Toxicology, and Nutrition

          1. John E. Garst, Ph.D. (Medicinal Chemistry, Pharmacology, Toxicology, and Nutrition)

            Thanks for writing back. When one creates an entirely new substance, it opens the door to entirely new problems. Problems that might not have been imagined in the testing process.
            Take just for example this reference, http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/21130828. Who could have predicted this one?

            John E. Garst, Ph.D. (Medicinal Chemistry, Pharmacology, Toxicology, and Nutrition)

    1. John E. Garst, Ph.D. (Medicinal Chemistry, Pharmacology, Toxicology, and Nutrition)

      It was removed from Wikipedia, because it is all a scientifically-disproven argument led by a few profiteering physicians, chiropractors, and the like (see http://whatdoesthesciencesay.wordpress.com/2011/07/08/sweet-misery-fact-check-part-1/) ; their arguments have evolved into a conspiracy theory by non-scientists who profit with books, aspartame detoxification kits and the like. For the other readers I have never received a penny from any aspartame organization or anyone else for my comments. In my original comments recall I said most all the claimed adverse effects of aspartame likely involve personal folate or folate-related issues. These critics refuse to even consider this single paradigm argument that refutes their position completely, so let me revisit that paradigm below.

      While I could criticize most every sentence in this Source Watch document with facts, that this was removed from Wikipedia pretty much says it all. Note their point 7, the Sweet Misery video was refuted by the citation in the preceding paragraph. Next, I invite the reader to scan the Brain Functioning section on phenylalanine. Sounds bad when you read it, but then consider that later Wurtman (Spiers et al) research completely refuted that assertion, see http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/9734727. Where is that citation in their list? It was conveniently missing and that pretty much defines the critics of aspartame—they make a case with websites like this, but ignore that science which not just destroys, but obliterates their case.

      [Through the following modify the previous citation with a different last number or put the cited PubMed ID (PMID) number in the search line at http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/sites/entrez/ for the reference to my point].

      Consider next, just for example, the basis of questions raised about aspartame and brain cancer (word search the SourceWatch article). Olney et al (– 8939194) conclude “the artificial sweetener aspartame is a promising candidate to explain the recent increase in incidence and degree of malignancy of brain tumors”. Hardly proof! And that was all, but the claim was made, so let’s see what was found.

      Lim et al looked at this issue and found no support for any such conclusion. Davis et al rebutted his comment with an epidemiological study (PMID 18483354; both papers appear at http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/sites/entrez/18483354). The problem is also that Davis et al were using epidemiology an approach that fails when you don’t know what you are doing. Aspartame’s methanol is metabolized by the folic acid vitamin system. They conveniently failed to consider or even mention folate and related issues amongst their “users.” Again note that there was no control for folate status.

      Folate is important, because it is required to metabolize and recyle methanol’s formaldehyde and formate metabolites to methyl groups. Folate deficiency and many related issues are serious health problems. It is not aspartame safety, but these PERSONAL issues and the disease they can cause, that underlie all issues with aspartame. Besides associations between meningiomas and hormones-HRT, the documented association between folate issues and meningiomas or gliomas is very relevant (Bethke et al, 2008; PMID: 18483342). They conclude that “the results of our study are consistent with an increased risk in subjects with reduced conversion of homocysteine to methionine due to either reduced MTRR enzyme activity or reduced activity upstream at the MTHFR enzyme [both folate enzymes], which could result in aberrant promoter methylation. The biological basis of PBT [primary brain tumors]; development is unclear. The role of aberrant methylation has, however, been documented in both gliomas and meningiomas (16-19). Given that studies have shown that the MTHFR 677TT genotype can be associated with decreased global DNA methylation and promoter-specific methylation in tumors (20), it is entirely plausible that the variants we have studied will affect the risk of PBT.” Semmler et al, 2008; PMID: 18447718 and Sirachainan et al, 2008; PMID: 18406541 both found similar associations.

      Now consider the SourceWatch cited Ramazzini Foundation’s Soffritti et al papers. They have been dismissed completely by the scientific community, but are cited as gospel. The regulatory agencies have their reasons, but new evidence suggests intentional, pre-mediated bias would seem a very real possibility with these Soffritti et al papers. Four points make this likely. First, besides many criticisms after their publication, an exceptional article (and editorial) appeared about their use of sick rats in all their experiments on aspartame or even other chemicals (PubMed 19430000, –19429982). Second in a yet unreported personal investigation, I found strong, documentable evidence that their rats were deficient in folate before the experiment, made more deficient by improperly designed experiments that did not provide the equivalent amount of methanol to control rats. Although not important until folate is already low (as it is in their rats), methanol [and ethanol] and many, many other substances naturally deplete or affect folate. That natural depletion from many food sources is why folate is a vitamin required daily. Thus their very treatment by its very design exacerbated the result especially in deficient animals. Third, in another fatal error they used a strain of rat (Sprague-Dawley) already known to become age-deficient in folate (—12042458). So Soffritti et al’s very unusual lifetime experiments, whose extraordinary time period guarantees that deficiency (and bias), only made their rats more deficient in folate as they aged. Lastly, I can and will demonstrate that the above cited “sick” rats problem stems directly from this folate deficiency issue. Moreover, folate was not mentioned in any Soffritti publication (aspartame, methanol, ethanol or other similar substances), yet methanol (formaldehyde/formic acid) metabolism has been known to be critically important for forty years (see Tephly’s 1991 review, PMID 1997785). Doesn’t it seem that this work could well have been designed to discredit aspartame from day one? Is it any wonder why the FDA, the EFSA and all other relevant regulatory agencies have dismissed all the Soffritti et al papers?

      So in summary ALL issues with aspartame arise not from any aspartame safety issue, but from heightened PERSONAL sensitivities in some users caused by deficiency of the vitamin folic acid (folate deficiency, which is not uncommon and a big cause of birth and other defects), by genetic folate enzyme differences (called polymorphisms that require more folate for the same function; up to 40% of certain populations have them) or with related methyl cycle issues like low B12 (not uncommon especially in older people), high homocysteine (also not uncommon), ethanol abuse (potent inhibitor, ‘fetal alcohol syndrome’; not uncommon), etc (including childhood insect stings that can make a person frankly allergic).

      John E. Garst, Ph.D. (Medicinal Chemistry, Pharmacology, Toxicology, and Nutrition)

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