Sweetness: good, bad and ugly

If you are in the habit of adding a little sweetness to your drinks or diet, then choosing the right one is important for your health, and your weight.


Many of us have a sweet tooth, and I am certainly one of them, but if you are in the habit of adding sugar or sweeteners to your diet they can be potential health hazards.

Too much sugar, in any form, is a high risk for diabetes and if you think artificial sweeteners are any better I am sorry to say they are not.

Any form of added sugar will stimulate your appetite, encourage your sweet tooth and  increase your weight.  What they also do is increase your risk for obesity, type 2 diabetes, heart disease and fatty liver.

I would be the very last one to say that it is possible to cut out all forms of sweetness, I have certainly never managed it myself, but it is possible to cut down and it is also possible to choose the more healthy ways to help your sweet tooth.

Good sweeteners

1. Fresh or frozen fruit is the one to choose first as it doesn’t have any empty calories, which makes it an ideal sweetener.

Some fruits are naturally higher in sugars such as melon and berries and an ideal way to get that sweetness in is by adding them to yoghurt or frozen fruit in smoothies made with coconut water.

If you a porridge fan, try sweetening it by mixing in banana or applesauce or add natural flavourings like vanilla or almond extract, and spices like cinnamon and clove.

2. Sugar substitutes are not all bad.

Stevia — in packet, drops or plant form — is one that dieticians tend to recommend along with xylitol. If you have pre-diabetes or diabetes, artificial sweeteners like these are preferable to real sugar as they  will not immediately raise your blood sugar like real sugar would.

However any sugar substitutes may cause you to crave more sweet and sugary foods and studies link artificial sweeteners, considered safe in moderation, with a higher risk of glucose intolerance, a precursor to pre-diabetes and diabetes.

Artificial sweeteners may be associated with changes in gut bacteria and lead to increased fat storage, which no one wants.

If you are craving a sweet treat then mixing one of these natural sweeteners into some plain yoghurt with plain peanut butter could do the trick.

3. Natural sugar substitutes:

Top ones here are raw honey, maple syrup, agave nectar and raw sugar.

Natural sweeteners provide a few more nutrients than table sugar but they’re all still forms of sugar and are high in calories, so no more than 1 to 2 teaspoons per day is recommended.

Raw honey and pure maple syrup both contain antioxidants and have prebiotic oligosaccharides that help feed gut flora. Raw honey has an added benefit of vitamins E and C as well as minerals.

Always read all food labels for hidden ingredients because commercial maple syrup brands often contain high-fructose corn syrup. High-fructose diets are linked to long-term metabolic complications like insulin resistance, belly fat accumulation and high triglyceride levels. When in doubt, stick primarily with pure maple syrup.

Agave nectar provides fewer nutrients than raw honey or pure maple syrup and has the same number of carbohydrates and calories as table sugar, but you get a lot of flavour from a small amount.  Agave nectar has a slightly lower glycaemic index but still contains sugar, so it will still raise your blood sugar.

If you are trying to lose weight then the golden rule is avoid all forms of sugar were possible and use any of the substitutes in moderation. They will always have an affect on your waistline, and not for the better.


Refined sugar is inflammatory, high in calories, offers no nutritional benefit and, is present in many of your favourite foods.

If you think you are eating healthily with cereal granola bars, or yogurts and breakfast cereals all can contain around 12 grams (1 tablespoon) of added sugar in a single serving. If your weakness is soft drinks then many can contain about 40 grams of added sugar per serving.

Adults should have no more than 30g of all types of sugar a day, (roughly equivalent to 7 sugar cubes) and even less than that if you want to lose weight – around 25g is recommended.

Potentially ugly

We’ve known for some time that artificial sweeteners can make you feel hungry and prompt you to eat more. I personally was not aware though of the wide range of increased risks that chemical artificial sweeteners can pose.

Andrew Weil, MD is a widely respected expert on nutrition and he had the following to say:

We’ve known for some time that artificial sweeteners can make you feel hungry and prompt you to eat more. Now a team of Australian researchers has determined why this happens, at least in fruit flies and mice. The investigators gave fruit flies an artificially sweetened diet for more than 5 days and found that the bugs ate 30 percent more calories than they did when given naturally sweetened food.

Not just extra eating, but sleep is affected too

Further investigation showed that the brain’s reward centers integrate sweet tastes with energy content (calories). But when the sweetness and energy are out of balance (as they are when a sweet taste lacks calories), the researchers found that the brain adjusts the balance by inducing more eating. They also found and were able to map a neuronal network in the brain that balances the palatability of food with its energy content.

In addition, the study showed that artificial sweeteners promoted hyperactivity, insomnia and decreased sleep quality. (The effects on sleep had been reported earlier in human studies.) The study team repeated the fruit fly experiment in mice and observed the same increase in food consumption when the animals’ food was artificially sweetened, as well as activation of the same neuronal network seen in the insects.

Want to break your habit?

No sugar or sugar substitute is healthy in excess and that is true whether it’s in soft drinks, in your tea or coffee or or chemically sweetened ‘fruit’ waters.

How can you break your habit? Use a measuring spoon to gauge how much added sugar you’re using daily and make a note of it.

Try decreasing the sweetener in your coffee or tea by 1 teaspoon per week and start diluting juices by mixing half your usual portion with water to retain some of the sweetness.  Try and drink plain water and try drinking unflavoured tea, coffee, fizzy water or water with a dash of fruit juice in it.

Best of all, start a habit of reading labels as much of the sugar in our diet is found in processed and sweetened pre-made food and drinks. The nearer to the beginning of the label listing, then the higher the sugar content will be.

Helpful information:

Maintaining a healthy weight can decrease your risk for chronic conditions like cancer, diabetes and heart disease.

Women who are struggling with weight due to sugar intake could benefit from trying a new diet that emphasises whole foods and fruit and vegetables like the one below.