High fructose corn syrup. Refined sugar. You probably know by now that neither of these are that great for your health, right? But given all the marketing hype behind different “natural” alternatives, it’s hard to know if any of them are really any better for you.
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Complicating matters, new studies, like one just published in the journal Cancer Research, are finding that fructose, a sugar found in high-fructose corn syrup, agave, honey, and, in small amounts, even in fruit, actually feeds some cancers.
But don’t give up apples and oranges, or even honey, based on a single study!
“Natural sugars found in fruits and vegetables—things like berries, green apples, grapefruit, kiwi—are needed to feed beneficial microflora in the gut for a healthy immune system,” explains Donna Gates, who led the movement to bring stevia, a natural sweetener, into this country more than a decade ago. “That’s why nature put a little bit of sugar in fruits and vegetables. It keeps the ecosystem alive in us,” she says, adding that the small amounts of fructose in fruits and vegetables are balanced with minerals, vitamins, and other vital nutrients.
Fruits and vegetables provide a perfect sugar fix, but when you’re in need of a sweetener to add to iced tea, baked goods, or anything else, make sure you know which sweeteners really do belong in your kitchen.
You Don’t Want: Aspartame
There’s conflicting evidence regarding the safety of aspartame, a common chemical sweetener used in diet soda and other low-cal or low-sugar goods, but some people report headaches or generally feeling unwell after ingesting anything containing the chemical.
To make life easier for everyone, this is one instance where you may want to follow the “better safe than sorry” principle. That’s because a University of Liverpool test-tube study found that when mixed with a common food color ingredient, aspartame actually became toxic to brain cells. Making matters worse, aspartame is used in many diet sodas, and studies have found drinking diet soda may increase your risk of developing diabetes and metabolic syndrome. Also of concern with aspartame, researchers have found that one harmful breakdown product is formaldehyde.
You Don’t Want: Agave
While your health food store likely stocks agave sweeteners, it may be best to keep them out of your cart. Many agave nectars consist of 70 to 80 percent fructose—that’s more than what’s found in high-fructose corn syrup.
If you don’t want to give up agave, look for types that contain no more than 30 to 40 percent fructose, recommends Christine Gerbstadt, MD, PhD, RD, spokeswoman for the American Dietetic Association.
Agave is also very heavily processed in an extremely energy-intensive manner that’s similar to the way corn is converted into high-fructose corn syrup.
You Don’t Want: Sucralose