We tap a registered dietitian and nutrition expert to take a look at real and artificial substitutes.
It’s probably no surprise when we tell you that simple sugar is a runner’s best friend. The carbohydrate is absorbed quickly by the body, which gives your muscles the energy it needs during workouts, especially harder efforts when you need that fuel fast.
But a diet high in processed sugar—anything that’s not fructose or lactose, which are found naturally in fruit and milk, respectively—has been linked to a host of health issues, prompting many people, including us runners, to try sugar alternatives.
Not all sugar substitutes, however, are created equal. Some are zero-calorie sweeteners developed in a lab, while others are not quite as natural as fructose or lactose, but are considered real, whole foods.
Here are some of the most common sugar alternatives and the best uses for each to help you determine the right choice for you.
Nutrition Info: One tablespoon of honey contains around 64 calories, and 17 grams of carbohydrates, slightly more than white sugar (around 12 to 13 grams of carbs).
Honey, created by bees when they process nectar, is both a natural food, and a version of sugar. “It’s just a combination of a couple simple sugars, so it is not as pure of a source as table sugar (sucrose),” says Pfau. Because it is technically a whole food, it may offer some minor health benefits. If you buy local honey, it can protect you from local allergens, says Lindsey Pfau, R.D., C.S.S.D., owner of Rise Up Nutrition.
There has been some research that suggests honey has antioxidant properties, but you’re better off eating fruits and veggies to max out those benefits. That said, honey is made up of fructose, glucose, and sucrose, which may offer midrun fueling benefits, Pfau says. Consuming a fuel source with different forms of sugars can improve absorption.
Best Use: Honey is an excellent sweetener in your oatmeal, and because it’s sweeter than table sugar, you may decide you don’t need as much for the same sweetness level, Pfau says. Honey packets are also a popular midrun fuel source.
Nutritional Info: One tablespoon contains around 52 calories and 13 grams of carbohydrates.
Like honey, maple syrup is also found in nature—it’s essentially concentrated sap from a maple tree. But unless you’re tapping your own syrup, choose one that’s 100 percent pure maple syrup.
“Many brands mix maple syrup with corn syrup or cane sugar syrup or artificial flavorings due to the immense amount of work and sap it takes to produce maple syrup,” Pfau says.
While maple syrup is less sweet than table sugar, it does have a richer flavor, and the calorie makeup is about the same.
Best Use: Take advantage of maple syrup’s liquid consistency and mix it in plain iced tea or use as a marinade, Pfau says. It also works well on oatmeal. Some athletes even fuel endurance events with maple syrup packets like UnTapped Pure Vermont Maple Syrup.
Nutritional Info: One tablespoon has about 63 calories and 15 grams of carbohydrates.
If you’ve ever ordered a smoothie in a hip neighborhood in Brooklyn, Portland, Austin, or Denver (to name a few), it was probably sweetened with agave. Agave is still sugar, which means it’s not healthier than the white stuff. But it’s a whole food, found in nature, and is about half as sweet as table sugar, Pfau says. Important to note: You may see products labels as agave nectar, syrup, and even juice. There’s not really agreement amongst brands on what qualifies as nectar, versus syrup, versus juice, so do your homework and read the labels closely to determine how the product was made.
Best Use: Mix into a smoothie, cocktail, or iced tea—it’s a liquid, which makes it easier to dissolve than granular sugar.
Nutritional Info: One tablespoon has about 48 calories and 12 grams of carbohydrates.
This sweetener, made from coconut palm sap, is on the rise, Pfau says. It has slightly fewer carbohydrates per tablespoon compared with other sugars. Coconut sugar may retain some of the nutrients from the original palm, including iron, zinc, calcium, and potassium. But, like honey, you’re better off getting these nutrients from whole foods.
This table sugar substitute is made primarily of sucrose—table sugar—plus some glucose and fructose. Unlike other sugars, coconut sugar has a lower glycemic index thanks to its fiber content.
Best Use: Try baking with coconut sugar, or mixing in coffee or tea. Compared to other sugar alternatives, coconut sugar bakes well, and it is slightly less refined and has a slightly lower GI than sugar.
Nutritional Info: One tablespoon has 0 calories and 1.5 grams of carbohydrates.
We’ve written extensively about stevia, but the rundown is this: Stevia leaf extract is a zero-calorie sweetener that comes from the stevia plant. It’s 200 to 300 times sweeter than sugar, which means you don’t need to use as much for that same sweetness. That said, it does taste distinctly different than regular table sugar.
Stevia as a sugar alternative is still relatively new, and there isn’t a whole lot of research out there. The Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI) classifies stevia as ‘safe’ based on the research available, but its senior scientist, Lisa Lefferts, M.S.P.H., says in a perfect world, it would be better studied.
Best Use: Foods that you might otherwise avoid if you’re watching your sugar intake, such as gummy candies or flavored waters.
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Nutritional Info: One tablespoon has 0 calories, but the branded version, Splenda, contains 4 calories and 1 gram of carbs per packet. It is advertised as a “no-calorie” sweetener because it meets the FDA standards for no-calorie foods, which is less than 5 calories per serving.
You probably know sucralose as its brand name, Splenda. While sucralose is derived from a sugar molecule, it’s not actually sugar—it’s artificial. Sucralose is about 600 times sweeter than sugar, and it offers neither calories nor nutrients.
While the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) says sucralose is “generally recognized as safe,” or GRAS, it has been linked with cancer in animal studies. For this reason, CSPI has categorized sucralose as ‘unsafe’ and recommends people use stevia or sugar alcohols.
That said, consuming a diet drink sweetened with sucralose every few weeks likely won’t cause any harm, Pfau says. And, zero-calorie sweeteners, like Splenda, offer a temporary solution for people who are trying to lose weight and cut back on their sugar intake.
Best Use: If you have a hankering for a soda but don’t want the calories, a diet drink sweetened with sucralose won’t kill you. Just keep it limited or use it as a method to wean off soda entirely. And remember, non-calorie sweeteners won’t fuel your runs or your recovery.
Nutritional Info: Like sugar, it has 4 calories per gram, but the idea is that you would need less of it as it tastes sweeter than sugar.
Better known as NutraSweet or Equal, aspartame is an artificial zero-calorie, non-nutritive sweetener that, like sucralose, is commonly used in diet drinks.
CSPI has also categorized aspartame as ‘unsafe’ based on animal studies that linked the sweetener with cancer. It also cites a 2012 Harvard study on humans that found aspartame may be linked with a slightly increased risk of cancer in men, not women.
However, the researchers write that due to the inconsistent effects on men and women, and the “apparent” cancer risk in people who drink regular soda, they could not say aspartame is, indeed, a carcinogen.
Best Use: Like sucralose, an occasional can of diet soda sweetened with aspartame is probably fine, but your best bet for a refreshing beverage is calorie-free seltzer or water with lemon.
Nutritional Info: One packet of the branded version, Sweet ‘N Low has fewer than 4 calories.
The OG in artificial sweeteners, saccharin is commonly known as Sweet ‘N Low and is about 350 times sweeter than sugar.
In the 1970s, the FDA proposed that saccharin be taken off the market because of studies that linked the sweetener with cancer in animals. But the proposal failed, and while there was one human study that found saccharin was associated with a higher incidence of bladder cancer, other studies have not confirmed these findings.
Best Use: Based on the available research, most of which has been done on animals, saccharin is fairly comparable to sucralose and aspartame. Although the FDA did not propose the latter two be removed from the market.
Nutritional Info: Sugar alcohols contain around 1.5 to 3 calories per gram.
You may have seen your favorite sugar-free gum sweetened with xylitol or erythritol. Those are sugar alcohols, which are neither carbohydrates nor sugar, Pfau explains. “[They’re] an alcohol counterpart,” she says.
Some sugar alcohols can be found naturally in fruits and vegetables but most are created from a sugar molecule and used in “diet” foods, Pfau adds. Sugar alcohols are digested differently than regular sugars, and because the bacteria in your mouth cannot digest sugar alcohols, they won’t cause cavities. That explains why you’ll see them in your sugar-free gum or hard candies.
Lefferts, from CSPI, recommends erythritol as a safe low-calorie sugar alternative, but research has found that consuming more than 30 grams of sorbitol in one sitting is not recommended because of GI distress, but as little as 5 grams (like in an energy bar) could cause problems, Pfau says.
“Despite the temptation for a high-protein bar, I rarely recommend these [low-carb, low-calorie, high-protein] bars for runners,” she says. “Runners already have so many GI issues, I don’t want to add to it. Plus, carbs are fuel. So instead of a sugar alcohol bar, opt for the rice cakes, apple, and almonds as a snack.”
Best Use: Sugar-free gums often use sugar alcohols as sweeteners, and they won’t rot your teeth.
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