Nearly three in four Americans are trying to limit sugar intake to improve their health. But we still want a sweet treat — indeed, we’re consuming 235 percent more artificial sweeteners today than we did eight years ago, say researchers at the University of North Carolina. But many of them come with dangerous downsides, not unless you chose any of the natural sweeteners on this list!
Case in point: A Yale University study finds that combining sucralose (Splenda) with carbohydrates — by having a diet soda with a sandwich or eating a food that combines the two — can raise blood glucose enough to cause diabetes. And studies show sweeteners like aspartame and saccharin light up the same pleasure center in the brain as sugar, keeping you dependent on them, says nutrition expert Fred Pescatore, MD. “Artificial sweeteners contain zero calories, but they still create sugar cravings,” he says. They can also cause headaches, GI issues, and weight gain. The good news? FIRST tracked down three natural sweeteners that not only dodge the downsides, they improve your health.
If you have diabetes: Stevia
“If you are concerned about your blood-sugar levels, stevia is hands down the healthiest choice, especially if you have diabetes,” says Dr. Pescatore. “Stevia doesn’t cause any blood-sugar disturbances.” In fact, a study in the journal Appetite showed that diabetics who used stevia had lower blood-sugar levels than those who used artificial sweeteners.
More good news: Stevia also acts as a prebiotic, which feeds the microbiome to further improve blood-sugar levels. “Stevia is 600 times sweeter than sugar, so use it sparingly,” says Dr. Pescatore. “One drop goes a long way.” A brand he likes: SweetLeaf Sweet Drops (Buy at Walmart, $8.99), which mixes well in drinks and recipes like many natural sweeteners (just 1 teaspoon is the equivalent of 1 ⁄2 cup of sugar).
If you have high cholesterol: Monk fruit
The unique compound mogroside that gives the plant-based sweetener monk fruit its sweetness also lowers cholesterol by easing inflammation. “The body sends cholesterol to areas with inflammation to clean up the mess.
This is good — unless you have body-wide inflammation, which causes the creation of too much cholesterol,” says Dr. Pescatore. “Lowering inflammation lowers cholesterol.”
Plus, Researchers at Nashville’s Vanderbilt University report that monk fruit raises levels of “good” HDL cholesterol. Dr. Pescatore likes Lakanto Monkfruit Sweetener (Buy on Amazon, $10.99). “It is perfect in baked goods,” he says. “And it’s an easy one-to-one swap for sugar.”
If you catch every cold: Manuka honey
Consuming 1 teaspoon of manuka honey was enough to neutralize 85 percent of illness-causing bacteria and halt its spread entirely, according to research in Microbiology. How?
Manuka honey contains a compound called methylglyoxal that stops germs from anchoring onto cells, preventing infection. “Quality is key,” says Julia Zumpano, RD, a dietitian at the Cleveland Clinic, who advises choosing honey with a unique manuka factor (UMF) of at least 10.
“The higher the UMF, the more methylglyoxal it contains.” And because manuka honey doesn’t come cheap, she suggests using it sparingly. For example, mix 1 teaspoon into a cup of tea. One to try: Steens Raw Manuka Honey UMF 10 (Buy on Amazon, $23.99).
This story originally appeared in our print magazine.
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