Food

Are Natural Sweeteners Better For You Than Sugar?

Not every sweetener is the same. Find out which one is right for you.

Sugar is just one of those things that’s hard to get a grasp on; tons of products have hidden added sugars, there’s mixed advice on what’s considered ‘good’ or ‘bad,’ and of course, there’s the addictive taste. For runners, who need extra energy in their diets, it can be even more confusing.

First, it’s important to know what the body uses sugar for, which is mainly fuel. And when you’re running, it’s the main source of fuel from glycogen stores of carbohydrates. Simple carbohydrates are made up of one or two types of sugars. They are easy to break down and cause a quick spike in blood sugar. Complex carbohydrates have three or more sugars linked together and take longer to digest and raise blood sugar more gradually. Foods with added sugar (like desserts, sweet beverages, and candy) have more simple carbohydrates. Many sports drinks and food are made with a mix of carbohydrate to keep your blood sugar from dropping during a long run and to replenish glycogen stores.

In general, the Dietary Guidelines for Americans recommends 10 percent of daily calories to come from added sugars. “If you’re doing 2,000 calories, you’re doing 200 calories from sugar or about 50 grams, which is quite a bit,” says Dawn Holmes, a sports dietitian at OhioHealth. Currently, beverages such as soft drinks, sports drinks, sweetened coffee and tea, and alcohol make up the majority of added sugars consumed by Americans. So that’s a good place to start evaluating your own sugar consumption. You might try half and half instead of sweetened creamer for your coffee, but even that swap is not so straightforward.

“There was a big trend for a while to put honey in your coffee instead of sugar, but it’s still having the same nutritional impact,” says Holmes. “A sweetener is a sweetener is a sweetener. Your body treats them all the same.”

However, there are some other properties in naturally sweet foods that can help you make decisions about what to eat and when.

Natural Sweeteners and Your Body

Fruit

Before you reach for any sort of sugar or natural sweetener, Holmes recommends trying to use fruit to meet your craving. Dates, for example, are naturally very sweet, but they’re also high in fiber and are easy to carry on a long run. They are a common substitute in vegan and paleo baking.

Oatmeal is a typical breakfast that can be loaded with added sugar, whether you’re making it yourself or heating up an instant package. Consider skipping the brown sugar and instead mashing up a banana with it or add in blueberries and garnish with unsweetened coconut flakes (another high fiber food that is also rich in manganese) or your favorite dried fruit.

Honey

Although your body will process honey just as it would a less wholesome form of sugary treat, honey does have some beneficial properties, mostly as an antioxidant. Researchers at the University of Illinois linked the antioxidant content of honey to the color of the substance (which is determined by the floral source). In general, darker honey varieties have higher amounts of antioxidants.

A recent review of research involving honey and exercise found some evidence that honey could improve bone health, potentially due to its vitamin K, calcium, phosphorus, iron, and magnesium content. That same review also found that honey works just as well as other carbohydrate sources for performance, reducing fatigue, immune responses, and blood glucose concentration when eaten before or during exercise.

When thinking about how much honey you’re going to use, Holmes urges that you remember that it is still sugar, despite the other beneficial properties it has.

Maple Syrup

Maple products are rich in antioxidants and anti-inflammatories (with over 60 known phytonutrients) and they are naturally sweet. “It does have a little bit of those polyphenols to help reduce inflammation,” says Holmes.

A study out of the University of Rhode Island found that pure maple syrup contains the complex carb inulin, which acts as a prebiotic to promote the growth of good gut bacteria. “A healthy gut, with a balance of beneficial bacteria, helps to stimulate and support a healthy immune system. A healthy immune system, then, can help protect the body against chronic inflammation,” said Dr. Navindra Seeram, who studies medicinal plants, in a press release.

Holmes cautions, “That doesn’t mean that suddenly you’re pouring maple syrup on everything. It’s still sugar.”

Agave nectar or syrup comes from the agave plant and is maybe one of the most misunderstood natural sweetener. It is naturally very, very sweet and is often used as a substitute in vegan baking. Depending on the brand of syrup you purchase, it can contain anywhere from 75 to 90 percent fructose. “Fructose is broken down in the liver,” says Holmes. “So using a lot of that agave syrup actually may not be the best thing because your liver has to do a lot of work.”

Agavins, a long branched chain of fructose that is also found in the agave plant, are being studied as a potential sweetener alternative. Unlike the syrup version, agavins are not easily broken down, acting as a dietary fiber.

Tricks to Cutting Back on Sugar

“Extra carbohydrates for active people are really important. When you are an active person, your body is used to utilizing those carbohydrates and storing them in your muscles so they’re ready for the next workout. If anything, we want to choose things that will give us the best nutrition benefit. We want to put good stuff in most of the time, but it’s completely normal to still have treats,” says Holmes.

On the other hand, too much can affect your running goals. “If you’re eating it in excess, it can certainly cause inflammation, which is going to impair immune function,” said Greg Grosicki, director of Georgia Southern University’s exercise physiology lab in a recent nutrition webinar hosted by GU Energy Lab.

If you’re looking to break the tenuous hold your sweet tooth has on you, Holmes has some simple tricks to help you retrain your brain and your taste buds.

Ease away. If you rely on adding creamers, honey, or syrups to your coffee, tea, oatmeal, or yogurt, you can start by adding just a little bit less every day than you normally would.

Journal or be mindful about your cravings. Try to honestly think about why you’re craving something sweet. If it helps hold you accountable, write down what you’re feeling. “Has it been three or four hours since you’ve eaten and your body is legitimately hungry?” asks Holmes. Are you stress eating? What else can you do to ease that stress? Are you bored? Do you need to get up and do something?

Distract yourself. Holmes recommends drinking water or chewing sugar free gum to get your mind off the craving.

Reach for a healthy snack. Like we mentioned above, fruit is naturally sweet and contains carbs to fuel your brain and muscles. Holmes recommends you pair your sweet fruit or vegetable choice with protein, “so that you get that sweet, but that protein helps to curb the craving from continuing.” Some options: Apple and peanut butter, banana and peanut butter, cherry tomatoes and hummus, blueberries and cheese, or an orange with some nuts.