Are there any healthy alternatives to sugar?

Are there any healthy alternatives to sugar?

—Andrew Young, New York, NY

Perhaps since the diet crazes of the 1970s, Americans have been looking to cut back on their intake of sugar. And doctors couldn’t be happier, as they consider the prevalence of sugar in our society a root cause of numerous health problems, including the recent trends in obesity and adult onset diabetes.

By far the most commonly used sugar alternative today is aspartame. Most diet sodas contain aspartame, and it is the main ingredient in artificial sweeteners Equal and Nutrasweet, among others. But aspartame itself has been linked to a host of health problems, including Parkinson’s disease, anxiety attacks, depression, and brain tumors. A recent report by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services listed 90 documented symptoms associated with aspartame exposure. And according to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA), aspartame accounts for 75 percent of reported adverse reactions to food additives.

Honey, another popular sugar substitute, contains vitamins C, D, E and B-complex, as well as traces of amino acids, enzymes and minerals. However up to 50 percent of these nutrients are lost, unfortunately, when honey is commercially processed. Also, honey is high in calories and is absorbed by the body in much the same way sugar is, so it’s not good a good choice if you are diabetic.

Luckily for those with cravings for sweets, several healthy alternatives to sugar do exist and can be found at most natural foods markets if not in mainstream supermarkets which increasingly have natural foods sections. For a taste similar to honey with fewer calories, agave nectar—made from the Mexican agave plant—is a good choice. Agave nectar is a fruit sugar, which absorbs more slowly into the bloodstream and is suitable for diabetics. It has a light, mild flavor with a thinner consistency than honey. One organic brand is Colibree. Another comes from Sweet Cactus Farms and can be ordered from their website online.

For baking, date sugar is a good alternative to conventional sugar. Actually consisting of finely ground dates, it contains all the fruit’s nutrients and minerals. Date sugar isn’t highly processed, and it can be used cup-for-cup as a replacement for white sugar. Also good for baking is xylitol, which sounds like a chemical but is actually birch sugar. Unlike conventional sugar, xylitol is actually reported to fight tooth decay, and has fewer calories. Both date sugar and xylitol are suitable for diabetics and others who are sugar sensitive.

Another sugar alternative—and one that has grown in popularity in recent years—is stevia, which comes from the stevia leaf in Paraguay. It is about 300 times as sweet as sugar, but has no calories. The FDA considers stevia a dietary supplement, because in its unprocessed form it is very nutritious, containing such vitamins as magnesium, niacin, potassium and vitamin C. But Japanese drink manufacturers have been using stevia as a sweetener for more than 30 years. Because stevia is so concentrated, it is best used as an additive to drinks, cereals or yogurts, and not for baking, as it doesn’t have enough bulk.

CONTACTS: U.S. Food and Drug Administration, (888) INFO-FDA, www.fda.gov; Colibree, (866) 635-8854, www.agavenectar.com; Sweet Cactus Farms, (310) 733-4343, www.sweetcactusfarms.com.