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Sugar vs. artificial sweeteners: making the right choice

Choosing the healthiest sweetner isn't always easy.
Choosing the healthiest sweetner isn't always easy.

The grocery store shelves have an ever-expanding selection of sweeteners, artificial and natural.  Read on to decipher the language of sweeteners, and make an informed decision when you reach for that something sweet. 

Factors to take into consideration are: where your sweetener falls on the Glycemic Index,  how it reacts with heat and cold (will it dissolve in iced tea or caramelize when heated),  how does your body process it, and how does it taste. 

Below you will find a guide to different forms of sugar.  There are properties for which non-sugar sweeteners cannot substitute.  Sugar is essential in browning and caramelizing.  It's antimicrobial properties extend the shelf life of canned jams and jellies.  Sugar helps the yeast rise in breads.  It also keeps ice cream from freezing too hard, allowing it to scoop easily and maintain a soft texture.   

  • Table sugar: Sucrose is the most commonly used natural sweetener in kitchens across the country, derived from sugar beats and sugar cane.  It actually is not as high on the Glycemic Index (GI) as one would expect.  It has a rating of 64 (out of 100), which is lower than potatoes (98 without skin)  and white bread (71).  
  • Glucose: An astounding 96 on the GI, this is commonly labeled as corn sugar or dextrose on nutrition labels. 
  • Fructose: Rating a low 22 on the GI, fructose has been recommended for diabetics.  It has been shown, however, to have a negative effect on cholesterol and triglycerides, as the body converts it into fat. 
  • High-Fructose Corn Syrup: Found in all major sodas and many foods, this is a blend of fructose and glucose (combining high GI with negative effects on cholesterol and triglycerides).  
  • Honey: Raw honey rates 30 on the Glycemic Index.  It dissolves easily in hot or cold.  Using local honey (and eating locally grown food) year-round may decrease seasonal allergies by familiarizing your body with local pollen.
  • Agave Nectar: With a low GI rating of 15, and 1.5 times the sweetness of table sugar it may prove the best option yet.  Like honey, it dissolves well and could substitute for table sugar in some recipes. 

The best selection of local honey and agave nectar in Birmingham can be found at the organic grocer closest to you.  Choose from among Honey and Spice in Trussville, Golden Temple downtown, Whole Foods on 280, and Organic Harvest in Hoover. 

Continue reading part 2 to learn what non-sugar sweeteners you can choose from. 


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