Trying to nail down which beverage sweetener is the least damaging to your health and the most flavorful has been a challenge. Just when I think I have found a good one I could recommend to a guest, I learn about a report that finds something wrong with it. You can find information all over the web, on podcasts, on TV, and in books and magazines on this subject, and it will make your head spin, because a lot of the information is contradictory, depending on the background of the person making the analysis – whether they’re a doctor, nutritionist, biologist, chemist, or researcher hired by the manufacturer. The subject of safe sweeteners is controversial to be sure, because people are so often dogmatic when it comes to health and nutrition.
Guests often come into our store asking for blue, yellow, brown, or green packets for their tea based on what they have heard or read about. If it’s not a packet, it’s been agave, because of clever marketing, product branding, and champions in the natural foods sector. This past year, many people were asking for Truvia (manufactured by Cargill and Coca Cola), believing it to be natural and good for you, because hey, it comes from a leaf, right?
Amidst all the controversy and contradictions, here are the most common issues and recurring themes that I keep hearing about with regard to sweetener consumption (take them with a grain of, er, sugar!):
- Regular usage of (pick your sweetener) has been shown to increase hunger, resulting in increased food consumption, resulting in weight gain. I keep hearing that diet soda drinkers weigh more than regular soda drinkers. This could be because some sweeteners inhibit leptin levels, the hormone that tells your body it’s full.
- I’ve read mixed opinions on this, but some claim that artificial sweeteners cause an insulin response because your body thinks it ate something sweet. Of course, makers of aspartame and sucralose deny this. There is controversy over whether or not stevia, even in its natural form, will cause this, as stevia proponents claim it increases insulin sensitivity, which is a good thing.
- Aspartame, although tested and considered safe by the FDA, has been linked to autoimmune diseases, brain cancer, and a variety of other neurological ailments, but confirmation of this by any federal agency isn’t likely to happen anytime soon. Given the sheer volume of products containing aspartame, this isn’t surprising. Still, if you consume a lot of NutraSweet or another aspartame-containing product, you may want to read further about it, because the reports are hard to ignore.
- Obvious, but regular consumption of sweeteners promotes our psychological dependence on sweets. This is counterproductive to your goals if you’re trying to clean up your diet and eat and drink more healthfully.
- The most commonly available agave syrup is a man-made sweetener that has been highly refined through a complicated chemical process. Because of its high-fructose content, it’s especially hard on the liver. I’ve heard nutritionists and other experts claim that it may cause mineral depletion, liver inflammation, insulin resistance, and obesity, because fructose is metabolized in your liver, and then turned into triglycerides (or stored body fat).
I turned up much more on this subject, but I think you get the idea. Nutritionists say that sweeteners should comprise less than 10% of daily calories. There really is no free ticket when it comes to putting sugar or another sweetener in your tea. But if you must and you want to stay as healthy as possible, most experts recommend minimal amounts of the natural stuff: raw honey, organic maple syrup, or even stevia in its natural state, which you can grow and use alongside your tea.
Your safest bet is to sensitize your palate to sweetness by reprogramming it. You could try gradually stepping down your consumption little by little each day, or try going cold turkey (not recommended if you’re a hardcore sweets addict). Every once in awhile, I reboot my palate for a month and avoid as much added sugar and salt to my foods as I can. After that time, things taste really salty and sweet. I also noticed that if I put a drop or two of pure almond extract in a smoothie or tea latte, it tastes a lot sweeter to me, so that might be something to try as well.
I’d love to hear what you prefer to do for adding sweetness to your tea and am open to suggestions!
This post first published on January 23, 2012.