Category Archives: Food

The Best “Natural” Sweetener

By now, we’ve all seen the headlines. Sugar is “toxic.”It’s more addictive than cocaine. It may be the real cause behind America’s obesity epidemic.

But it’s one thing to demonize an ingredient and it’s another to make food choices that actually make a difference.

Too busy to read the whole article? [3500 words, a 17-minute read] Here are the takeaways:

  • Many sugars marketed as “raw” or less processed than white sugar have essentially no nutritional benefit.
  • There is also no benefit (and sometimes harm) to products sweetened with “evaporated cane juice,” “cane sugar,” or “dehydrated fruit juice.”
  • Honey shows the most promise of being superior to sugar, but health benefits may depend on the source of the honey.
  • Brown rice syrup also shows some promise, but I couldn’t find nutritional studies comparing it to normal sugar. It does, however, taste really good.

Why is it so hard to get a straight story on sugar? In 2009, Dr. Robert Lustig, a medical doctor and obesity researcher recorded a strongly-worded condemnation of sugar as a toxic drug and one of the main causes of obesity in the United States.

Since then, multiple public controversies have raged, targeting High Fructose Corn Syrup, the size of soft drinks in New York, and serving chocolate milk to children. And as public consciousness of the dangers of sweeteners have grown, so too has the market for alternative sweeteners. Large corporations are desperate to find and bring to market the “miracle” sweetener that can deliver all the taste of sugar without any of its unfortunate consequences.

For the same of clarity, I’m splitting this topic off into two separate articles. This first one focuses on “natural” sweeteners like different types of sugar, honey, and other sweeteners extracted from plants. The second article finds the best nonnutritive substitute for sugar.

Both articles ask two simple questions:

Is any sweetener really “healthy?” Or at least better than refined white sugar?

Let’s cut straight to the point:

The Best Sugar Substitute in Most Cases:

Just use sugar.

<$1 per pound

 

Why am I saying that sugar is the best sugar? Isn’t this sort of obvious? Hear me out.

When looking at sugar substitutes, I considered three factors.

#1: Is it better than sugar, nutritionally? Sugar substitutes can be better than sugar in two major ways: by containing beneficial vitamins and nutrients and by having less negative impact on metabolism. For example, honey contains beneficial vitamins; another example: molasses has significantly less impact on blood sugar than refined sugar does.

#2: Can the substitute actually be substituted for sugar? As it turns out, blackstrap molasses contains many healthy nutrients. It also tastes terrible and makes a miserable substitute for sugar. For something to be a good substitute, it should taste clean and sweet, and not like much of anything else.

#3: Price. Can I actually afford to use this stuff on a regular basis?

With those factors considered, plain old sugar won out. There simply wasn’t a substitute for it that was clearly better in all ways. There are, however, two very good runners up: honey and brown rice syrup, which I’ll discuss a little later. But let’s first dispel some myths about what sugar really is and why premium sugars are a waste of money.

A quick technical primer

Sorry to do this to you guys, but after writing the rest of this article, I thought it’d be helpful to start by explaining a few terms. The word “sugar” actually refers to more than just table sugar. All sugars are a type of carbohydrate. In the context of food, carbohydrates are a form of macronutrient eaten by many as a primary source of energy (the other macronutrients are proteins and fats). They are the primary constituent of flour-based foods such as pasta and bread, as well as of most vegetables.

Chemically, the term carbohydrate is synonymous with “saccharide.” There are four types of saccharides: mono-, di-, oligo-, and poly- saccharides. For our purposes, the term “sugar” refers to monosaccharides and disaccharides only. And that means the term “simple sugar” is essentially saying the same thing as “sugar,” since simple sugars include only mono- and disaccharides.

Monosaccharides are the most basic form of carbohydrates. Whereas we digest polysaccharides and disaccharides into simpler sugars, monosaccharides do not need to be further digested to be used. There are five monosaccharides, the most important of which for our purposes are glucose and fructose.

  • Glucose has many important functions in the body, from providing energy to the muscles to serving in the production of other important compounds, such as protein and vitamin C (asorbic acid). When people talk about “blood sugar,” they really mean “blood glucose”. A healthy level of glucose in the blood keeps the brain and body functioning optimally. Too little glucose can cause an energy crash, while excess glucose can thicken the blood, increasing the risk of heart problems.
  • Fructose is the sweetest naturally-occurring form of sugar and is prevalent in many fruits. Like glucose, fructose is an important enabler of metabolic functions.

Disaccharides are simply two monosaccharides bonded together. Disaccharides must generally be digested before entering the blood stream. Specific enzymes are responsible for the digestion of each disaccharide. The names of these enzymes are easy to remember: simply replace “ose” in the disaccharide with “ase” (sucrose/sucrase, lactose/lactase, etc.) , and you get the name of the enzyme. There are five disaccharides, the most important of which is sucrose.

  • Sucrose is just common table sugar. Chemically, sucrose is one glucose molecule bonded to one fructose molecule. Sucrose digestion is enabled by the enzyme sucrase. Sucrase is secreted by glands in the small intestine, so breakdown of sucrose begins in the small intestine, almost immediately after it passes the stomach. Once sucrose is cleaved into fructose and glucose, these monosaccharides enter the blood stream through the walls of the small intestine. 1

Next, we’ll look at some of the various types of sugar and try to figure out if any are better than normal sugar from a nutrition perspective.

Sugars processed from sugarcane

Most of us know sugar as small white granules, easily stirred into recipes or sprinkled over a plate. Most sugar around the world is made from either sugarcane or sugar beet, but mostly sugarcane. To make sugar, producers crush the sugar plants in large machines to extract their juice. The juice is then boiled to remove water and to promote the crystallization of sugar. Sugar extracted at this point is raw sugar and should have a dark, moist appearance and deep molasses flavor.

However, the term “raw sugar” doesn’t really mean much—many producers claim to produce raw sugar while their actual manufacturing methods vary significantly. The well-known sweetener brand “In The Raw®” clearly explains that its sugar products are actually Turbinado sugar, sugars that have been centrifuged to further dry them and remove plant impurities.2

Both turbinado sugars and Demerera sugars are centrifuged and have a golden, granulated appearance and a slight taste of molasses.

A few sugars are less processed than turbinado and demerera. Muscovado, Rapadura, Panela, and Sucanat Sugars—area all extracted from cane juice without a centrifuge. Either way, they look and taste the most like molasses and will also contain the largest concentration of naturally-occurring vitamins and minerals. Depending on the processing method used, they will also contain more complex carbohydrates than more refined sugars.

These types of sugars are arguably the most “healthy” of sugars, but the ratio of simple sugar to beneficial nutrients is still so high that you might as well think of them as sugar.3 When considering them as a sugar substitute, the negligible health benefits they offer couldn’t offset the increased cost and difference in taste over normal sugar.

Up to this point, I’ve mentioned Molasses, but I haven’t actually explained what it is. When sugar cane juice is boiled and granulated sugar is extracted what remains is molasses. The first processing of molasses typically results in a product with higher sugar content, so high that it is sometimes marketed as “golden cane syrup” rather than as molasses.4 The second and third processing of cane juice results in molasses containing less sugar and more residual vitamins and minerals. The most processed molasses sold in the United States is “blackstrap molasses” and is usually marketed as a health supplement rather than as a sweetener because it has a strong taste.

Although blackstrap molasses could have nutritional benefits as a supplement, it really doesn’t make sense to use it as a direct substitute for sugar. It’d be like comparing apples to apple cider.

The two most well-known sugars on the market are white sugar and brown sugar. To make white sugar, raw sugar that has been centrifuged from cane juice is repeatedly dissolved into water, evaporated, and centrifuged. Each time the sugar runs through this process, more impurities are removed and a more pure sugar results.

Once the sugar is sufficiently cleaned, it is processed with either sulphur dioxide or carbon dioxide to whiten it. Any sugar that is labeled as “unbleached” is simply processed sugar that hasn’t been treated for whitening. Brown sugar, though it might look similar to a raw sugar, is actually just white sugar that has had molasses added back in. Although brown sugar may contain some trace minerals and fiber as a result, like the raw sugars discussed above, the impact will be negligible.

The term organic sugar means relatively little from a nutritional standpoint. USDA organic guidelines don’t allow chemical processing, organic sugar cannot be be treated for whiteness. That, and organic sugar has to come from sugarcane that has been grown in accordance with USDA organic guidelines, which do not allow certain pesticides.

In theory, there should be less risk that pesticides used in the growth of sugar cane would make it into a final sugar product if you buy organic sugar. But, it seems unlikely that pesticides would actually make it into any sugar, given how much sugar is processed. Either way, I haven’t found any studies that further explore the topic.

One final annoyance: labels that boast cane sugar or evaporated cane juice. Both of these are nothing more than plain table sugar. Ideally, evaporated cane juice would be the least processed of all sugars and have a dark, clumpy appearance as shown in the above picture. However, there is no actual regulation of these terms on nutrition labels and many companies use the terms to describe sugar that is for all practical purposes no different from processed white sugar. Remember? Because technically all sugar begins as evaporated cane juice at some point.5

Maybe some companies are legitimately trying to use a better sugar (even though we’ve established it doesn’t really matter), but there’s just no way of knowing for sure.

Corn syrup and high fructose corn syrup (HFCS)

As sugar has developed a bad reputation, many products have sprung up to replace it on supermarket shelves. Here are some of the more well-known.

Let’s start by talking about corn syrup and high fructose corn syrup (HFCS). Corn is high in glucose and when you cook it down and purify its sugar, you end up with a syrup made almost entirely of glucose. In fact, in the United States, all glucose syrup is essentially corn syrup and can be labeled with either name.6 In other countries, glucose syrup might be made from other sources. Glucose syrup makes a poor sweetener by itself; it is less sweet than sucrose while delivering more calories. It’s more often used to give baked goods texture and moisture.

High fructose corn syrup has been widely antagonized in recent years. To make high fructose corn syrup, producers add fructose to glucose syrup to create a product that is approximately 45% glucose and 55% fructose. This syrup has almost the exact same glucose-to-fructose ratio as sucrose. And that, in essence, has been the corn lobby’s argument against the anti-HFCS movement: as far as the body is concerned, HFCS and plain table sugar are functionally equivalent.

Here’s the history:

  • 2004: Researchers link HFCS availability in the U.S. food system to increased obesity7
  • 2007: An expert panel reviews the available literature on HFCS and finds no significant difference compared to sucrose. 8
  • 2008: HFCS and sucrose shown to have essentially identical short-term metabolic effects.9
  • 2009: More researchers fail to identify a reason why HFCS might be worse for health than sucrose.10
  • 2010: Researchers publish an article arguing that rats fed HFCS gain more weight than rats fed an equivalent amount of sucrose. 11
  • 2010: Marion Nestle quickly finds flaws with the rat study and writers stop touting it as conclusive evidence of HFCS’s evils.12

The takeaway? There’s no significant difference between high fructose corn syrup and sucrose. And that’s not just my opinion after reading a few articles. An excellent 2010 article from the Atlantic13 as well as a more recent 2013 analysis of the HFCS debate both came to that same conclusion. In fact, to quote the 2013 study, “the scientific debate related to the initially proposed link between HFCS and the obesity epidemic has been largely settled.”14

“the scientific debate related to the initially proposed link between HFCS and the obesity epidemic has been largely settled”

But with all that being said, that doesn’t mean that HFCS is good for you, it’s just about equally as bad as plain old sugar, which is basically what the corn industry has been saying all along.

Some other syrups, however, claim to actually be healthier than sugar itself.

Sweeteners extracted from other plants

Agave syrup is made from agave plants—the same plants used in the production of tequila. A few years ago, agave syrup started finding room on American store shelves because some science suggested it might be healthier than sucrose. The basic argument goes like this: agave naturally contains a higher percentage of fructose than glucose or sucrose. Since fructose is sweeter than sucrose, you can use less agave nectar (and thus fewer calories) to achieve the same sweetness. On top of that, fructose doesn’t directly affect glucose levels in the blood, which means that it does not register as high on the glycemic index.

Since agave was introduced to the market, most medical professionals have reached agreement that fructose may have worse long-term effects on health than sucrose does alone.1516

One  more problem with agave syrup: marketers would have you believe that agave syrup comes from inside the plant’s leaves, or that it is extracted from nectar. In reality, farmers harvest the thick, woody base of the plants and cook them to convert the complex carbohydrate inulin into fructose.17 Verdict: far from being a healthy alternative to sugar, agave syrup may actually be worse for the body than both sugar and high fructose corn syrup.

For a truly natural sweetener, look no further than honey. Bees actually do make honey from the nectar of flowers. They then use the thick syrup as a form of energy storage, a way to keep the bee colony fed through long winter months when no flowers are in bloom. Honey doesn’t need to be further processed for human consumption; it naturally resists microbial growth and spoilage.

honey

Honey is one of the few sweeteners covered in this article that might actually demonstrate some health benefits. However, those effects vary depending on the type of honey consumed. For example, Acacia honey contains a higher concentration of fructose than other honeys. It therefore has a lower glycemic index than other sweeteners, though higher fructose levels may cause their own problems, as I mentioned while discussing agave, above.

As far as metabolism in general, studies on insulin response and blood sugar comparing honey to sucrose are can be contradicting. 181920 The current general consensus in the medical community, however, seems to be that honey is not significantly better for weight or diabetes management than sucrose. I do think that some of the research looks promising, but it’s not enough to draw any real conclusions. At the very least, though, I didn’t see any studies that showed honey to be worse than sucrose.

Various studies have shown that honey fights oxidation, inflammation, tumor growth, and has overall better impacts on cardiovascular health than an equivalent amount of sucrose.21 But, many of these studies look at relatively large doses of honey—between 50g and 80g per serving (about 3-4 tbsp.) Also, many studies fail to sufficiently describe the sourcing of their honeys. The trace nutrients found in honey can vary depending on the species of bee and the source of nectar used to produce the honey. And since it is most likely these nutrients that are responsible for honey’s health effects, it’s hard to recommend a particular type of honey over others without more research.

Also keep in mind that because honey is a natural product, it can contain trace amounts of toxins and microbes, although the microbes will be inactive. That’s why unpasteurized honey is not recommended for infants.

Verdict? From all I’ve read, it seems that honey is at least a little better than sugar in almost every way and it’s almost always minimally processed. To me, it seems like a no-brainer for everyday use whenever possible. The only downside to honey is that, well, it tastes like honey. While honey does taste awesome, it’s also a distinctive flavor that’s not easily masked by other flavors.

I came across one final caloric sweetener choice when researching this article. Brown rice syrup is made by enzymatically treating the starches found in brown rice to produce simple sugars, then boiling the resulting liquid until it turns into a syrup. The syrup itself is nutty and flavorful and less sweet than an equivalent amount of sucrose syrup. The primary sugars in brown rice syrup are maltose and maltotriose, though the concentration can vary depending on production method used.2223.

Good source of nutrients, great taste, possibly good metabolic impact

Brown Rice Syrup

Price:$11/21 fl. oz.

Metabolically, I wasn’t able to find any studies that tested the effects of brown rice syrup on humans. The good thing, though, is that both maltose and maltotriose fully digest down to glucose, with no fructose at all. But the exact impact on blood sugar and insulin response will depend on how quickly the body can digest maltose and maltotriose, and that’s something I wasn’t able to find.

Compared to table sugar, brown rice syrup is significantly less processed and contains many of the acids, minerals, and complex carbohydrates normally found in brown rice itself.

Unfortunately, toxins carry over into brown rice syrup as well: in 2012, a research team from Dartmouth School in New Hampshire measured high levels of arsenic in brown rice syrup.24 Arsenic is common in rice used for food, but organic brown rice syrup was of particular concern due to its minimal processing. My best advice is to know your sourcing. Popular brand Lundberg releases a detailed archive of resources explaining how they test for arsenic in their rice supply. Hopefully, whatever brand you purchase tests to the same standard.

For now, I can only conclude that this sugar alternative looks promising, but without further testing, that conclusion is tentative.

What does “natural” really mean, anyway?

Contrary to popular belief, the U.S. Food and Drug administration does not regulate the term “natural” when used on food labels. Instead, it “objects” when food producers use the term on anything that includes “added color, artificial flavors, or synthetic substances.”25

By that definition, all of the sweeteners we’ve covered so far are indeed natural, even though enzymes, processing agents, and complex machines are used to transform starchy vegetables into simple sugars.

But, natural does not necessarily mean healthy.

Consider, for example, products sweetened with “nothing but fruit juice.” While fruit juice might sound like a healthy alternative to processed sugar, in fact fruit contains a higher percentage of fructose than normal sucrose does. When you eat fruit in its natural form, the fiber in the fruit’s meat helps to slow down the digestion of simple sugars, which protects your body from metabolic effects. But use a machine to juice the fruit, and you lose much of the fruit’s fiber with it.

In this article, I’ve stuck to sugar alternatives that are clearly derived from plant sources and intentionally left out a few of the lesser-known processed sugar alternatives, such as trehalose and the family of sugar alcohols. I’ll cover those in my article on nonnutritive sweeteners (forthcoming) because, as you’ll see, it makes more sense to compare those products rather than against things like honey and agave.

Do you use a sugar substitute at home? If so, why and how?

Liked this post? Make sure to check out my article on nonnutritive sugar alternatives.

Notes:

  1. eHow, How Sugar is Digested
  2. In The Raw, Frequently Asked Questions, Sugar in the Raw.
  3. Kimball, Katie. Are Sucanat and Rapadura Healthier than Sugar? (August 10, 2011).
  4. Wikipedia, Molasses, accessed 01 May 2014.
  5. McCaffrey, Dee. The Skinny on Evaporated Cane SugarProcessed Free America (3/5/2014)
  6. Leibovitz, David. Why and When to Use (Or Not Use) Corn Syrup. 2009.
  7. George Bray, Samara Nielsen, and Barry Popkin (2004), Consumption of high-fructose corn syrup in beverages may play a role in the epidemic of obesityAmerican Journal of Clinical Nutrition. 79(4):537-543
  8. Forshee R.A., et al (2007), A critical examination of the evidence relating high fructose corn syrup and weight gain. Crit Rev Food Sci Nutr. 47(6):561-82
  9. Theodore Angelopoulos, et al (2009), The Effect of High-Fructose Corn Syrup Consumption on Triglycerides and Uric AcidJournal of Nutrition. 139(6):1242S-1245S
  10. Moeller S.M., et al (2009), The effects of high fructose syrupJ Am Coll Nutr. 28(6):619-26.
  11. Miriam Bocarsly, et al (2010), High-fructose corn syrup causes characteristics of obesity in rats: Increased body weight, body fat and triglyceride levelsPharmacology Biochemistry and Behavior, 97(1):101-106.
  12. Marion Nestle, HFCS makes rats fat? Food Politics.
  13. James McWilliams, The Evils of Corn Syrup: How Food Writers Got It Wrong. The Atlantic. Sep 21, 2010.
  14. Klurfield, D.M., et al (2013), Lack of evidence for high fructose corn syrup as the cause of the obesity epidemic. Int J Obes (Lond). 37(6): 771–773.
  15. Kathleen Zelman, The Truth About Agave, WebMD
  16. Joseph Mercola, This Sweetener Is Far Worse Than High Fructose Corn Syrup. Huffington Post 
  17. Alfredo Sanchez-Marroquin and P. H. Hope (1953). Agave Juice, Fermentation and Chemical Composition Studies of Some Species. J. Agric. Food Chem., 1 (3), pp 246–249
  18. Shambaugh P., Worthington V., and Herbert J. H. (1990), Differential effects of honey, sucrose, and fructose on blood sugar levelsJournal of Manipulative and Physiological Therapeutics 13(6):322-325
  19. Noori S. Al-Waili. Natural Honey Lowers Plasma Glucose, C-Reactive Protein, Homocysteine, and Blood Lipids in Healthy, Diabetic, and Hyperlipidemic Subjects: Comparison with Dextrose and Sucrose. Journal of Medicinal Food. April 2004, 7(1): 100-107.
  20. Mamdouh Abdulrhman, et al (2011), The glycemic and peak incremental indices of honey, sucrose and glucose in patients with type 1 diabetes mellitus: effects on C-peptide level—a pilot study. Acta Diabetologica. 48(2):89-94. 
  21. Many interesting studies are cited in this review article: Stefan Bogdanov, et al (2008), Honey for Nutrition and Health: A Review. Journal of the American College of Nutrition. 27(6): 677-689. 
  22. Lundberg Family Farms, Rice Syrup FAQs.
  23. Patent US 4876096 A, Nutritional, non-allergenic; liquefaction, saccharification using amylase, glucosidase
  24. Brian Jackson, et al (2012), Arsenic, Organic Foods, and Brown Rice Syrup. Environ Health Perspect. 120(5): 623-626.
  25. U.S. Food and Drug Administration, What is the meaning of ‘natural’ on the label of food?

Stop “aspiring” to cook; just start cooking

How many of you own or know a non-photographer friend who owns a nice DSLR camera? Ok, great. Now, those of you with your hands raised, how many of you can explain the terms ISO, focal length, or crop factor? How many of you have successfully used that fancy DSLR in anything other than “auto” mode?

Hmm. I see a lot of hands going down.

Gadgets are supposed to make our lives easier and better, which is why we spoon out our hard-earned dollars on fancy cameras: We imagine that if we only owned better gear, our pictures would instantly improve. But, they don’t.

Ready for the secret of how to take better pictures? Take a lot of pictures.

So, what does this have to do with cooking?

Mom did not own kitchen gadgets.

My mom is amazing (hi mom). No, but seriously, she has three master’s degrees, heads up a multi-million dollar research budget at work, and she still manages to be the best cook I know.

But did my mom own a kitchen full of widgets designed to make her cooking better? A $300 le creuset dutch oven to pair with her $800 DSLR?

Heck, no.

Mom uses cheap knives from the Asian market, a nonstick pan that may actually have been nonstick at some point, and a rolling pin that I’m pretty sure she brought with her from China. 25 years ago.

So, if mom can make do with just the basic implements, why do we young people feel the need to drool over the latest kitchen “accessory?”

If the wedding registries I’ve doled out for in the last few years are any indication, we 20-somethings feel culinarily incomplete without at a minimum: a 5-qt kitchenaid stand mixer, a 14-piece set of All-Clad tri-ply cookware, and a professional knife set (Shun and Henckels are both acceptable. Just make sure to get forged. Why, you ask? What are you, a caveman??)

Wow, all of that cool equipment sounds awesome, and your kitchen looks damn sexy! So are you going to cook me up a nice sole meuniere with a side of mushroom risotto, topped with a chiffonade of fresh basil?

Whhaa–? Why not?

I don’t have the time or energy to cook

Ohhh, I see.

Don’t worry, I understand. You’re a very busy young professional, and you are much too busy/stressed/tired to cook for yourself.

Besides, you ran the numbers one time and it actually makes more financial sense to order takeout than to waste your valuable time (worth at least $30/hour) standing in front of the stove.

And all those terrific pots and pans you own from Williams-Sonoma?

Well, they’re there, you know, in case one day you get around to cooking for yourself. Just in case.

PEOPLE.

We all keep bucket lists with items like “sail Everest” or “climb the Atlantic Ocean” (just stay with me here), but do you really want to look down at that list when you’re 85 and realize you’ve never cooked a decent meal in your life?

Cooking is like walking; it is a defining characteristic of humanity

Without getting all anthropological on you, cooking is arguably the one aspect of human evolution that allowed homo sapiens to separate himself from the rest of the animal kingdom.

If you don’t cook at least one dish, from scratch, in your life; then I submit you have lost a key part of the human experience.

Maybe you’ll never cook again after that one dish, but trust me, even creating one dish will be worth it.

A few basic tools are worth buying

Ok, enough preaching.

How do you get started in the kitchen? If you already own the laundry list of gear I went through above, it’s easy enough to get started. Most grocery stores sell pre-packaged raw ingredients that come with a recipe card.

Fantastic startups like Plated will even deliver the ingredients of a gourmet meal straight to your door.

If you don’t own the basics, they won’t set you back as much as you think:

One of the most highly rated knives online is just $40. And if you already own a chef’s knife, make sure to get a solid $8 knife sharpener.

I like a nice large plastic cutting board. Though some people prefer a smaller one. Whatever your preference, the real important thing to buy is a cheap roll of cabinet liner to put under your cutting board—it makes your cheap plastic board feel like an expensive heavy wooden one by sticking the board to the top of your counter.

And here’s where I’ll go against the recommendations of many food blogs out there and say that for the beginner cook, your best best is a 10” nonstick pan. Sure, you shouldn’t be searing steaks at blazing heats in a nonstick, but you can still get a decent crust in a nonstick and you run a lot lower chance of ending up with half your dinner stuck to the bottom of a skillet—a very serious risk for the beginner cook.

And finally, skip the spatula, and just grab a pair of these OXO Good Grups tongs with nylon tips. They are the ultimate multitasker in the kitchen.*

So what’s our total bill? Around $150. And that’s if you buy everything I just listed.

Now stop reading this post and go cook something.

*actually, chopsticks are the ultimate multitasker in the kitchen, but not everyone is good with those

The Best Nonnutritive Sweetener

We dig through troves of research and decades of legislative battle to find the best nonnutritive sugar substitute, taking into account taste, safety, and overall effect on health.

Too busy to read the whole article? [3000 words, a 15-minute read] Here are the takeaways:

  • There are two main types of low-calorie sweetener: sugar alcohols (polyols) and “nonnutritive” or “intense” sweeteners
  • I picked Splenda over dozens of other candidates because it’s readily available, easy to use, and has been thoroughly tested for safety.
  • Erythritol, a sugar alcohol, tastes more like sugar than any other alternative and has no measurable calories, but it’s a little pricey and could use some more testing for long-term effects.
  • Stevia has been widely praised for having health benefits, but mass-produced stevia in the U.S. is largely a processed chemical with questionable nutritional value. It’s hard to recommend any whole Stevia extracts in the U.S. without additional testing and research.
  • Looking at the bigger picture, the scientific community is still divided on whether replacing sugar with a nonnutritive sweetener actually helps prevent disease or manage weight, so if that’s your goal, you may want to consider a different strategy.

Here are some of the headlines that have been making the rounds about how much sugar we eat: Sugar is “toxic.”It’s more addictive than cocaine. It may be the real cause behind America’s obesity epidemic.

Read more about “natural” alternatives to sugar.

So are there any sugar substitutes worthy of buying? After looking at the five main nonnutritive sweeteners on the market as well as over a dozen less-known options, I came to strong conclusion:

The Best Nonnutritive Sugar Substitute:

Splenda (Sucralose)

$16 for the equivalent of 10 lbs

splenda

The best nonnutritive sweetener for most people is sucralose, often sold under the brand name Splenda. It’s easy to find, relatively cheap, tastes pretty good, and can be used in most cases just like sugar.

From a health standpoint, sucralose is the most widely-studied sweetener with the fewest reported negative effects. It has no significant calories and no measurable impact on metabolism.

There’s a chance that other sweeteners such as those derived from Stevia might some day trump sucralose, but for now, sucralose leads in all areas. I would particularly keep an eye on multi-sweetener blends, such as those containing erythritol, my runner up choice.

Also good, but needs sweetening help and more health research:

Erythritol

$20 for 2.5 lbs (equivalent to around 2lbs of sugar)

erythritol

Erythritol is a type of sugar alcohol or polyol. But, unlike most sugar alcohols, erythritol has no effective calories and none of the bowel problems caused by other sugar alcohols. With that being said, it’s also hard to get, expensive, and can cause intestinal discomfort and allergic reactions in some. It hasn’t been as carefully studied as sucralose, so while it seems very promising, I expect new research to come out as erythritol gains popularity.

Now that you know my conclusions, the rest of this article will be about how I tested and evaluated my research.

Nonutritive sweeteners have significantly fewer calories than normal sugar

When I researched all the “natural” alternatives to sugar, I found that there aren’t any great substitutes for plain white sugar, but that honey and brown rice syrup are worth trying in some cases. So, if other caloric sweeteners don’t hold the answer to the sugar controversy, will it help to try a nonutritive substitute? First, let’s talk about what these sweeteners are and how they came into being.

There are two types of sugar alternatives that contain fewer calories than sugar itself. Sugar alcohols or polyols are made from chemically-manipulated sugar molecules. Most polyols deliver fewer calories than sugar to achieve the same sweetening effect, though it depends on the particular polyol (more on that later). The other nonnutritive sweeteners are a family of “intense sweeteners” that may contain some calories, but that are so sweet, they make essentially no noticeable change to metabolism when used in reasonable amounts. Both intense sweeteners and polyols might be referred to as “artificial sweeteners.”

Sugar Alcohols: Hard-to-digest chemical cousins of sugar

You’re more likely to see the term “sugar alcohol” on a package than “polyol”, but I think “sugar alcohol” is somewhat of a misnomer. Sugar alcohols are so named because on one end, they look chemically similar to an alcohol (like ethanol), while on the other they resemble a standard saccahride. Since these chemical cousins of sugar don’t behave anything like alcohol, I think a much better name for the stuff is their other name, “polyol.” Here’s a breakdown of the polyols most often used as sugar substitutes:

Ingredient Sweetness Relative GI Cal/g
Sucrose 100% 1 4
Maltitol Syrup 75% .87 3
Hydrogenated Starch Hydrolysate 33% .65 2.8
Maltitol 75% .60 2.7
Xylitol 100% .22 2.5
Isomalt 55% .15 2.1
Sorbitol 60% .15 2.5
Lactitol 35% .10 2
Mannitol 60% 0 1.5
Erythritol 70% 0 0.2

[Table adapted from about.com]

Of these, the most commonly used are sorbitolxylitol, and erythritol.

what happens when lactose-intolerant people drink milk? Same thing goes for eating too much polyol sweetener.

The common problem among most polyols is that they can cause intestinal distress. That’s because while we do possess the enzymes necessary to digest real sugars, we don’t have the enzymes necessary to digest polyols. The only way our guts can deal with them is through bacterial fermentation. And when we digest food through fermentation, the result can be pain, diarrhea, and gas.

Think about it this way: what happens when lactose-intolerant people drink milk? Same thing goes for eating too much polyol sweetener.

But erythritol might be the one shining star in this family of sweeteners

Here are the facts about erythritol:

  • Erythritol is around 70% as sweet as sugar with practically zero caloric impact.
  • When fed to healthy adults, erythritol had no impact on insulin or other important hormones that are usually driven up by sugar intake.1, 2
  • That’s probably because about 80% of ingested erythritol is excreted without being metabolized.3, 4
  • Then what about all that erythritol that floats in your blood stream? Short-term human studies showed minimal effects.5, 6
  • And long-term animal studies haven’t shown any evidence of toxicity.7, 8
  • There have been a few reported cases of allergic reaction to erythritol. The number now is few, though it’s unknown whether reactions would increase if erythritol became more popular.9, 10, 11

For all these reasons, I would easily classify erythritol as the most promising of the sugar alcohols/polyols, though the allergic reactions currently reported should be more carefully studied.

Nonnutritive Sweeteners

Nonnutritive sweeteners are sweeteners that essentially contribute no measurable addition to energy intake (calories) when used in normal amounts. That’s because most of these compounds are many hundreds of times sweeter than sugar. You use so little to get the desired level of sweetness, the calories don’t matter.

When considering the nutrition of nonnutritive sweeteners, you need to ask two questions: (1) is it safe? and (2) is it better for me than sugar?

Is it Safe?

The Food and Drug Administration of the United States recognizes several nonnutritive sweeteners as “Generally Recognized as Safe” or GRAS. These include Aspartame, Saccharin, SucraloseAcesulfame Potassium (Acesulfame K), and Neotame. In the case of sweeteners, the public is actually benefiting from the powers of large corporations. The nonnutritive sweetener companies want the government to label their products safe, but sugar producers would love to see all these sweeteners banned. The result is that the FDA has been able to analyze troves of research on both sides of the debate.

I drew most of my conclusions from these already well-documented controversies.

Aspartame

First introduced in 1974, then banned over concerns about brain damage. In 2007, a review of existing research on Aspartame concluded that “the weight of existing evidence is that aspartame is safe at current levels of consumption as a nonnutritive sweetener.”12. The argument from the anti-aspartame side would qualify, though, that most studies on Aspartame have been funded or influenced by corporations, so review studies such as the 2007 one are invalid to begin with.13

Aspartame is the most controversial and potentially most dangerous sweetener of all the nonnutritive sweeteners.

The FDA does recognize that people sensitive to phenylalanine may be intolerant of aspartame (aspartame breaks down in the body into aspartic acid and phenylalanine). A 2008 study also illustrated the dangers of aspartame to the brain 14 The most recent research I could find on aspartame dates to 2014 call for an “urgent review” of existing carcinogenic studies. Aspartame is the most controversial and potentially most dangerous sweetener of all the nonnutritive sweeteners. 15

Saccharin

Saccharin is the oldest of the nonnutritive sweeteners and is considered one of the most studied. Today, it is considered safe for human consumption, but has waned in popularity in recent years due to its bitter aftertaste. The best known brand of commercial saccharin is Sweet ‘n Low. Saccharin was the subject of considerable controversy in the 1970s. Studies showed that it was responsible for causing cancer in rats. There were many powerful companies interested in weighing in on the debate. The key players were producers of saccharin and the sugar lobby, as well as the producer of aspartame, then the biggest competitor to saccharin in the nonnutritive sweetener space.

Several studies of saccharin in rats associated saccharin consumption with the development of bladder cancer. 16, 17, 18, However, later studies showed that rats digest saccharin in a way not relevant to humans and the FDA subsequently removed warning labels that saccharin may be a carcinogen.19 By the early 2000s, the consensus of the food science community was that although saccharin does indeed cause bladder in rats, it does no harm in humans.20

Sucralose

Several health experts claim that isolated patients have had allergic reactions to Splenda, but the only two references I found to reactions were two papers from 2006 that identified two single instances of sucralose being linked to migraines.21 The widely-propagated notion that Splenda was approved by the FDA as safe without proper testing also seems ill-founded, as multiple sources claim the FDA reviewed over 100 studies before giving sucralose approval.22, 23, 24 One recent review called sucralose “one of the most researched and reviewed food additives today.”25

A recent study that received attention in health- and natural-food circles found that sucralose negatively altered the gut flora of rats26, but a later expert review of that study concluded that it was not “scientifically valid.”27 Concerns had also been raised the rat study was funded in part by the Sugar Association.28 Although the matter seemed to remain of some debate, I have been unable to find any follow-on research from the original researchers and more recent research on Splenda in the human gut has found no significant negative effects.

Acesulfame Potassium and Neotame

Both Acesulfame Potassium and Neotame are more likely to be found in your diet coke than on store shelves. For that reason, it appears that they have less often been the subject of scientific investigation. Acesulfame potassium was approved in the 1980s as a food additive, but it was less-often used due to a bitter aftertaste. In recent years, it’s come back into favor because it can be mixed with other sweeteners to produce a desirable taste. I couldn’t find comprehensive review articles about Acesulfame potassium, though several sources have called for more thorough carcinogenic testing.29

Neotame is in a similar boat with acesulfame: neotame is a modified version of aspartame. Like the other nonnutritives covered here, there are plenty of sources that claim neotame is safe and has been well-tested, but I am reluctant to recommend it without seeing more debate and research on the sweetener. Neotame is still not popular both for retail sales and in the industry due to its poor aftertaste.

Stevia

When I started researching this article, I genuinely thought that I would be giving the crown to stevia. In recent years, stevia, or more precisely the concentrated extract of the Stevia rebaudiana plant has become the darling of natural-food enthusiasts looking for a safe, healthy alternative to sugar.

Here are the arguments in favor of stevia:

  • Stevia is extracted from a plant. All the other nonnutritive sweeteners are synthesized in a lab.
  • Many cultures have used stevia as a natural sweetener. Studies dating back to the 1970s have shown that stevia is safe for human consumption.
  • In Japan, over 40,000 clinical trials have been conducted on stevia, the vast majority of which demonstrate that stevia is safe for consumption.
  • In fact, it’s not just safe, stevia has been suggested as a treatment for diabetes, a way to lower blood pressure, and for its antioxidant properties.30

So if all this is true, why don’t I think stevia should be crowned the best nonnutritive sweetener?

Look closely at the labels of any major stevia product on the market today. You’ll notice the ingredients will list something like “Reb A (Stevia extract)” and in many cases, erythritol. Reb A is short for Rebaudioside A, a processed extract of the stevia plant considered its most sweet constituent with the least bitter aftertaste. Comparing Rebaudioside A to stevia extract would be like comparing processed fructose to natural honey. Honey has been shown to have many beneficial effects on human health, but those benefits depend heavily on the sourcing and processing of the honey. I’m not trying to say that Rebaudioside A is as bad for you as processed fructose would be, but saying that a product containing Rebaudioside A has the same health benefits as stevia extract proof would be flat wrong.

As for erythritol? I’ve already written about erythritol’s use as a sweetener, above. It’s a solid alternative to sugar and the addition of Reb A probably makes it a little sweeter without adding any negative side effects. But I don’t think the erythritol and Reb A combination edges out sucralose’s advantages.

saying that a product containing Rebaudioside A has the same health benefits as stevia extract proof would be flat wrong.

As for Stevia, the extract? I have a few bottles of stevia in my pantry and I do use them from time to time, usually to add sweetness to a product I’ve already sweetened with something else. The few extracts I’ve tried have all had a noticeable bitter aftertaste in any quantity.

More importantly, stevia extract is not technically approved by the FDA as generally recognized as safe (GRAS). And there’s a good reason for that. It’s perfectly acceptable to market stevia extract as a supplement, but it’d be very difficult to get a plant extract approved as a general-purpose sweetener. All the trace amounts of compounds that might have health benefits could also potentially cause harm if manufacturers don’t understand and control them properly.

Consider this line from a review of Stevia’s use and health effects: according to Japanese researchers, “a sign of an excellent Stevia product is one that is free of this liquorice essence and still not bitter.”31 A quote like that raises the question: what exactly constitutes a “high-quality” stevia extract?  Might some extracts be a true miracle sweetener while others have toxic effects?

I simply don’t think we have enough research and public awareness of how stevia extracts sold in the United States are extracted and processed to make a firm recommendation either way.

Even if they are safe, nonnutritive sweeteners may not be healthier than sugar

I’ve focused on safety, but assuming whatever nonnutritive sweetener is safe, is it still better for you than sugar?

Here are the basic arguments against the overconsumption of sugar:

  1. Sugar has a considerable amount of calories with no significant nutritional (micronutrient/vitamin) content.
  2. Sugar is digested quickly, which means it places a glycemic load on our bodies, which can lead to insulin resistance and metabolic syndrome, which is in turn linked to obesity, heart disease, and type 2 diabetes.
  3. Since it’s sweet, we tend to eat too much sugar, and that can cause us to overeat other foods, ultimately leading to weight gain.

By definition, nonnutritive sweeteners have negligible calories, so studies have focused on (1) whether nonnutritive sweeteners elicit an insulin response similar to sugar and (2) whether replacing sugar with nonnutritive sweeteners results in long-term weight loss.

The results, unfortunately, have not been promising.

Long-term epidemiologic reviews of existing populations have found that the consumption of nonnutritive sweeteners (specifically in the form of diet sodas) actually increases weight gain32, 33 and increased risk of developing metabolic syndrome and type 2 diabetes.34, 35

While these studies have been quick to point out that they merely establish association and can’t comment on causation without further research, the results are nonetheless disappointing for people who might be considering switching from sugar-sweetened beverages to diet sodas as a means of improving health.

But, in the short term, studies show a contradictory result.

Study after study shows that, compared to sucrose, nonnutritive sweeteners have less effect on glucose levels, insulin response, and other hormones related to insulin resistance.36

Some human studies have shown that replacing low-nutritional-value sweetened beverages with artificially-sweetened beverages can support weight control37, 38,but the American Diabetes Association and American Heart Association together concluded as of 2012 that there hadn’t been enough trials conducted to make a conclusive recommendation one way or another.39

Now, I could go through each of the nonnutritive sweeteners I’ve written about and try to piece together each compound’s specific metabolic impact and long-term effects, but much of the evidence in this field of research looks more at questions of how we perceive food and the other foods we choose to eat when we drink sweetened beverages. The specific chemical behavior of particular sweeteners may not be the most important factor here.

So, should I be using a sugar substitute?

Yeah, I think so.

Here’s why: I have a big bag of Splenda sitting in my pantry right now (as well as a whole lot of other sweeteners—had to be thorough in my testing) and I plan to keep it there. But using splenda is not my strategy for preventing diabetes and managing my weight. To do that, I limit my overall intake of simple carbohydrates, eat vegetables with high nutritional value, and exercise, among other things.

I keep sucralose around because sometimes I like to make lemonade in the summer and it tastes pretty good with a spoonful of splenda in it. I don’t like the way I personally feel after drinking sugar-sweetened beverages, so if I am craving a sweetened beverage, I’ll pick a small dose of splenda over an equivalent amount of sugar.

If you can completely avoid sweetened foods and beverages, then by all means skip buying any sweetener, be it caloric or nonnutritive. But if you’re looking for a well-priced, easy-to-use option, for now, sucralose looks like your best bet, just don’t rely on a sugar substitute as your best means of staying healthy.

Have you ever tried a sugar substitute? Tell me about it in the comments!

Liked this article? Make sure to check out my piece on “natural” sugar alternatives.

Notes:

  1. Noda K, Nakayama K, Oku T (1994). Serum glucose and insulin levels and erythritol balance after oral administration of erythritol in healthy subjects.European journal of clinical nutrition 48(4), 286-292
  2. Bornet, F. R. J, et al. (1996). Gastrointestinal response and plasma and urine determinations in human subjects given erythritol Regulatory Toxicology and Pharmacology 24(2), 296-302.
  3. Arrigoni, E, Fbrouns, F, Amado, R (2005). Human gut microbiota does not ferment erythritol British Journal of Nutrition 94(5), 643-646
  4. Tetzloff W, et al. (1996). Tolerance to subchronic, high-dose ingestion of erythritol in human volunteers Regulatory toxicology and pharmacology 24(2), 286-295
  5. Tetzloff W, et al. (1996). Tolerance to subchronic, high-dose ingestion of erythritol in human volunteers Regulatory toxicology and pharmacology 24(2), 286-295
  6. Oku, Tsuneyuki, Mitsuko Okazaki (1996). Laxative threshold of sugar alcohol erythritol in human subjects Nutrition Research 16(4), 577-589
  7. Lina, B. A. R, et al. (1996). Chronic toxicity and carcinogenicity study of erythritol in rats Regulatory toxicology and pharmacology 24(2), 264-279
  8. Munro, I. C, et al. (1998). Erythritol: an interpretive summary of biochemical, metabolic, toxicological and clinical data Food and Chemical Toxicology 36(12), 1139-1174
  9. Hino, Haruko, et al. (2000). A case of allergic urticaria caused by erythritol The Journal of dermatology 27(3), 163-165
  10. Shirao, Kenichiro, et al. (2013). Bitter Sweet”: A Child Case of Erythritol-Induced Anaphylaxis Allergology international: official journal of the Japanese Society of Allergology 62(2), 269-271
  11. Abou-Donia, M. B., et al. (2008). Splenda alters gut microflora and increases intestinal p-glycoprotein and cytochrome p-450 in male rats. Journal of Toxicology and Environmental Health 71(21), 1415-1429
  12. Magnuson, B. A, et al. (2007). Aspartame: a safety evaluation based on current use levels, regulations, and toxicological and epidemiological studies CRC Critical Reviews in Toxicology 37(8), 629-727
  13. Mercola.com (2010). Aspartame’s Dangers, Side Effects and FDA Approval Explained Mercola.com.
  14. Humphries, P, E. Pretorius, H. Naude (2008). Direct and indirect cellular effects of aspartame on the brain European journal of clinical nutrition 62(4), 451-462
  15. Soffritti, Morando, et al. (2014). The carcinogenic effects of aspartame: The urgent need for regulatory re‐evaluation American journal of industrial medicine.
  16. Munro, I. C, et al. (1975). A carcinogenicity study of commercial saccharin in the rat Toxicology and applied pharmacology 32(3), 513-526
  17. Price, J. M, et al. (1970). Bladder tumors in rats fed cyclohexylamine or high doses of a mixture of cyclamate and saccharin Science 167(3921), 1131-1132
  18. Cohen, Samuel M, et al. (1979). Promoting effect of saccharin and DL-tryptophan in urinary bladder carcinogenesis Cancer research 39(4), 1207-1217
  19. Integrated Laboratory Systems (1999). NTP Report on Carcinogens Background Document for Saccharin.
  20. Singh, Zorawar (2013). Toxicological Aspects of Saccharin Food Biology 2(1), pg 4.
  21. Patel, Rajendrakumar M, Rakesh Sarma, Edwin Grimsley (2006). Popular sweetner sucralose as a migraine trigger Headache: The Journal of Head and Face Pain 46(8), 1303-1304.
  22. Rodero, A. B.; Rodero, L. S.; Azoubel, R. (2009). “Toxicity of sucralose in humans: a review. Int J Morph. 21(1), 239-244.
  23. Grotz, V. Lee, Ian C. Munro (2009). An overview of the safety of sucralose Regulatory toxicology and pharmacology 55(1), 1-5.
  24.  Grice HC; Goldsmith LA (2000). “Sucralose–an overview of the toxicity data”. Food Chem Toxicol 38 (Suppl 2): S1–6.
  25. Shankar, Padmini, Suman Ahuja, Krishnan Sriram (2013). Non-nutritive sweeteners: Review and update Nutrition 29(11), 1293-1299.
  26. Abou-Donia, M. B., et al. (2008). Splenda alters gut microflora and increases intestinal p-glycoprotein and cytochrome p-450 in male rats. Journal of Toxicology and Environmental Health 71(21), 1415-1429.
  27. Brusick, David, et al. (2009). Expert panel report on a study of Splenda in male rats Regulatory Toxicology and Pharmacology 55(1), 6.
  28. Daniells, S. (2008). Splenda study: Industry and acadmemia respond FoodNavigator.com.
  29. Karstadt, Myra (2010). Inadequate toxicity tests of food additive acesulfame International journal of occupational and environmental health 16(1), 89-96.
  30. All these conclusions are drawn from the excellent review paper Goyal, S. K, R. K. Goyal (2010). Stevia (Stevia rebaudiana) a bio-sweetener: a review. It cites dozens of other references, some of which I couldn’t find in databases I have access to, so I’ve just cited the review here.
  31. Goyal, S. K, R. K. Goyal (2010). Stevia (Stevia rebaudiana) a bio-sweetener: a review.
  32. Fowler, Sharon P, et al. (2008). Fueling the Obesity Epidemic? Artificially Sweetened Beverage Use and Long‐term Weight Gain Obesity 16(8), 1894-1900.
  33. Stellman, Steven D, Lawrence Garfinkel (1986). Artificial sweetener use and one-year weight change among women Preventive medicine 15(2), 195-202.
  34. Nettleton, Jennifer A, et al. (2009). Diet soda intake and risk of incident metabolic syndrome and type 2 diabetes in the Multi-Ethnic Study of Atherosclerosis (MESA). Diabetes 32(4), 688-694.
  35. Fagherazzi, Guy, et al. (2013). Consumption of artificially and sugar-sweetened beverages and incident type 2 diabetes in the Etude Epidémiologique auprès des femmes de la Mutuelle Générale de l’Education Nationale–European Prospective Investigation into Cancer and Nutrition cohort The American journal of clinical nutrition 97(3), 517-523.
  36. As summarized in Shankar, Padmini, Suman Ahuja, Krishnan Sriram (2013). Non-nutritive sweeteners: Review and update Nutrition 29(11), 1293-1299.
  37. de Ruyter, Janne C., et al. (2012). A trial of sugar-free or sugar-sweetened beverages and body weight in children New England Journal of Medicine 367(15), 1397-1406.
  38. Sørensen, Lone B., et al. (2014). Sucrose compared with artificial sweeteners: a clinical intervention study of effects on energy intake, appetite, and energy expenditure after 10 wk of supplementation in overweight subjects The American journal of clinical nutrition.
  39. Gardner, C, et al. (2012). Nonnutritive Sweeteners: Current Use and Health Perspectives Diabetes Care 35(8), 1798-1808.

The Best Coconut Water (Based on Nutrition and Taste)

coconut

Don’t you hate it when something you like on its own merits becomes trendy? I fell in love with coconut water on a 2010 trip to Thailand. The most refreshing and delicious drink I’d ever tasted, the water inside immature coconuts was sold on the streets for the equivalent of about 50 cents. But coconut water has become big business here in the United States, and not all brands do the delicious juice justice.

Too busy to read the whole article? [2800 words, an 11-minute read] Here are the takeaways:

  • Coconut water has grown exponentialy in the United States recently and is poised to continue growing, due to marketing pressure and growers catching up to demand.
  • Coconut water’s health powers include decreasing blood pressure, preventing heart attack, and smoothing skin, among others—but all these benefits rely on tiny amounts of compounds found in fresh juice that may not survive industrial processing.
  • Multiple sources show that coconut water is better (though marginally) than both traditional sports drinks and plain water for rehydration during and after exercise.
  • Fresh coconut water tastes way better than any packaged variety we tried, but a few brands were worth buying; only one was a complete throwaway.

When I got home I found packaged juices in the “natural” section of my grocery store and at Whole Foods. I started drinking them for an energy boost when I worked out. Before long, it seemed like coconut juice was everywhere—the cheerful little packages even became a staple at gas stations. Celebrities showed up, making coconut water sexy. Exuberant health claims were made. All the buzz almost annoyed me enough to stop drinking it. Almost. I like coconut water too much to give it up, and aside from bourbon, it’s generally the only thing I drink besides water.

I wanted to get behind the hype and find out the true story behind coconut water. So I grilled some experts, read some papers, and did a taste test. Here’s what I learned.

Why the sudden boom in coconut water sales? In a word, marketing.

Coconut juice is big business. “It’s grown exponentially” in recent years, says David Hollister, sales manager for Amy & Brian—one of the first brands to sell coconut juice here in the United States. David sent me to the Wall Street Journal for industry numbers where I found it “has roughly doubled its revenue each year since 2005,” with U.S. sales in 2011 hitting $400 million.1 That’s a lot of cash courtesy of a humble street fare beverage.

Why so big, so fast? After all, “I suspect people have been using coconuts for a hundred thousand years going back to our primate ancestors,” food anthropologist Richard Wilk told me. And it’s only now catching on here?

“Sometimes we have to understand the marketers create a need,” sports nutritionist Doug Kalman says. David agrees. “Nobody buys anything in America without someone telling them to do it,” he says. And what have the big companies* been saying? “They’re overdoing it with the hype,” nutritionist Larisa Alonso told me. “And the coconut water companies are taking advantage of the American lust for healthy beverages.”

This isn’t the first time tropical products have come to us with such a marketing blitz. “A few tropical items … started as fads but stabilized and stayed,” Richard says. “Citrus—orange juice for breakfast. That was entirely a product of nutritionists and government and orange growers working together. They convinced everyone in America that drinking a glass of OJ in the morning was good for you. Bananas—the same thing. You have very strong companies, a government telling everyone that bananas were a perfect health food…those go back to the great age of colonialism when governments were looking for markets for tropical produce.”

*U.S.- No. 2 coconut water brand Zico is mostly owned by Coke, while O.N.E. And Naked are backed by PepsiCo.

The economics of coconut water

Part of the reason major companies are willing to invest in coconut water lies in profits. Depending on the brand, a single container of the elixir can cost several dollars at retail, well above the price of other juices or sports drinks.

How is it that something so cheap on the streets of Asian and Caribbean countries can run as much as a cocktail? “I don’t think the average person in America understands how their food arrives on their plate,” David says. “It takes an awful lot. There’s roughly two coconuts per can. … there’s multiple layers of distribution … it goes from the farmer to the consolidator to the factory to be produced, it goes into a can, into a case, into a pallet, into a container, shipped to the U.S. to a warehouse and sold to the distributor and then on to retailer and everybody is taking a markup along the way. When you see it on the shelf at $2.99 there’s not a lot of fluff in there because so much is built in.”

The boom has actually caused a shortage in some areas. Right now, “everybody is fighting for raw materials,” David says. And that means that producers will continue to have an incentive to promote coconut juice, regardless of what science might reveal about its nutritional value. “It takes five years for [growers] to try to respond [to demand] …people will plant lots and lots,” says Richard. “Then there will be a glut, prices will collapse. Smaller people will go bankrupt and only the bigger people will survive. We’ve seen it with almost every tree crop.”

Is coconut water actually healthy for you?

“For me as a nutritionist it’s all about relativity,” Larisa says. “How is it compared to other beverages Americans like to drink? In a lot of ways it can be better than soda or juice but does that mean it’s nectar from the gods? Absolutely not.”

Luckily, most giddy health claims have died down following a barrage of lawsuits. “Every company in the industry got hit or threatened with lawsuits because of claims on the packaging,” David says. But the juice is still a media darling, touted as bursting with potassium and electrolytes, beloved for its phenomenal rehydration abilities.

Doug took the question to the lab with a study for the Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition:“Comparison of coconut water and a carbohydrate-electrolyte sport drink on measures of hydration and physical performance in exercise-trained men.”2

What did he learn? First, he says, “the science is pretty deep. You can go back to medical literature, to pre-World War 2 in the United States where it was used in IV hydration. … In India coconut water is used to rehydrate babies that suffer from diarrhea-induced dehydration.” But for this study, he wanted to look at coconut juice’s effect in the gym on rehydration and performance.

“We evaluated coconut water [in comparison] to different sports drinks … after the person exercised in an environmentally controlled room that’s like running in Florida outdoors until they’re dehydrated—until they lost 2-3% of body weight,” he explained. He and his fellow researchers measured how fast participants could rehydrate by looking at markers in blood and urine.

The findings? “We found no difference in sports drinks and coconut water on impacting sports performance,” Doug says. “Coconut water is just as effective as your typical sports drinks at supporting rehydration and performance. What’s surprising is coconut water is able to do this with less calories and less sodium than sports drinks.” Besides its rehydration potential, Doug likes coconut water for its potassium. “So many people don’t get enough potassium in their diet,” he says. “DASH diet studies show that when you increase potassium through adding fruit and vegetables—including coconut water—you have lower blood pressure, [better] quality of life, and reduced medical issues.”3

“Include noncaloric water for (the first) 75 minutes.” If you’re working out longer, “having coconut water with its potassium helps with metabolic reactions in body.”

That sounded like a cautious thumbs up. And yes, “including it can be a good strategy,” Doug says. However, he adds a caveat: “Because we have such a problem in this country where 60-70% of Americans are overweight or obese, if we’re making recommendations about hydration we need to know that lower calorie beverages will rehydrate just as well as high calorie beverages.” His lab-tested advice? “Include noncaloric water for (the first) 75 minutes.” If you’re working out longer, “having coconut water with its potassium helps with metabolic reactions in body.”

How about outside the lab? CrossFit trainer Allison Bojarski says “Lots of athletes show up to a workout at least a little dehydrated, so drinking anything that is hydrating is a good thing pre-workout, during workout, and post-workout. If coconut water’s tastiness will make athletes more likely to drink something, that’s a good thing.”

And that’s what the research found too. When we dug deeper we found one more study that showed that coconut water hydrates better than other options, while another study found it hydrated about as well, but was more palatable and so resulted in less nausea and stomach upset than plain water.4,5 Regardless of the reasoning, both studies recommended coconut water for hydration.

Beyond rehydration: do cytokinins, peptides, or vitamins matter?

So, we’ve established that coconut water can make an effective hydration aid. What about all those other health claims? The scientific literature has explored everything from using coconut water to control hypertension (high blood pressure)6 to its use in preventing myocardial infarction (heart attacks).7

The research on the health benefits of coconut water falls into two categories: (1) studies of the effects of fresh coconut juice from whole young coconuts and (2) studies of the effects of specific compounds extracted from coconuts. Both these types of studies have reported positive effects. However, we were unable to find any research on the effects of processed coconut water.

Here’s why this matters: the most important health benefits of coconut water appear to be derived from cytokinins (a type of hormone found in plants) and peptides (the building blocks of proteins).8,9 Although coconut water does contain a complex of B vitamins and Vitamin C (ascorbic acid, an important dietary antioxidant), both these vitamins are often found in other foods, so are not what makes coconut water uniquely healthy.

Without testing each brand of commercial coconut water individually, we have no way of knowing which cytokinins and peptides made the transition from fruit to can. First off, the chemical composition of coconuts can vary widely based on variety, age, and origin. Quality is most typically judged on taste, not health benefits. Second, processing can drastically change the composition of juice, regardless of source. Commercial juices are often filtered, heated, centrifuged, or pressed. Both cytokinins and peptides occur in very small concentrations as compared to carbohydrates and minerals found in coconut water; they could easily be stripped from the juice or altered in such a way that they no longer do anything for health.

Taking all that into account, I did my best to choose the best option available.

Testing brands of coconut water by taste and nutrition

WINNER

Real Coconut

Price: varies

If you’re going to join the coconut fan club, the options can be overwhelming—-and it’s not all good. “There was a point where people thought they could put coconut anything in a can and sell it,” David told me. “A lot of them frankly were putting something horrible in a can.” And the product can come from any number of sources. Amy & Brian source from Thailand but have looked elsewhere. “I’ve been to Sri Lanka and Cambodia, looking to see if we can source product and we have not found the right quality,” David says. “Sourcing is a big deal right now. Vita Coco is sourcing from four countries.” Some companies, David told me, use the byproduct of more mature coconuts harvested for milk—later filtering and pasteurizing the water that runs out of the nut onto the factory floor. It’s products like that, he thinks, that make some people think they don’t like coconut juice.

So how do you know which to buy? As a food writer I’m used to judging the merits of one food over another at competitions like the Jack Daniels World Barbecue Championship. So I staged my own blind taste test. All together I sampled seven options, including some of the biggest and most easily available brands, making sure to represent coconuts from most of the major producing countries. I also included an actual coconut (from Thailand) and sipped everything at room temperature (the better to detect the taste). I scored each on a scale of 1 to 10 for how coconutty it tasted, sweetness, and Mmmmm factor.

Runner Up:

Amy & Brian All Natural Coconut Juice

coconut water

$29 for a 12-pack on Amazon

Not surprisingly, the real coconut won by a long shot. Coming in second with the closest taste to the real thing and lots of sweetness was Amy & Brian. Dead last (and the only one I threw away after tasting) was made-from concentrate and revolting Zico.

On nutrition: Nutritionist Larisa told me fresh is best—not just for taste, but also because of the antioxidant properties and cytokinins that may be lost in pasteurization and other processing. Her advice marries up to the research conducted by our independent research team.

If rehydration is the only goal, any coconut water with an adequate blend of potassium and sodium should do, as these appear to be the minerals most responsible for rehydration. Fresh young coconut contains between 200 mg and 300 mg of potassium/100g of liquid and around 100 mg sodium/100 g liquid.9

Cheaper and also good

Realistically though, how many of us are going to chop coconuts every day? Since I couldn’t effectively judge based on nutrition, I continued my judging on taste alone. My runner up was Amy & Brian, which runs about $2.99 for 17.5 ounces. Full disclosure: I did interview an Amy & Brian representative for this article. While I took care to be sure my tasting was conducted blind, I just want to make note of any potential conflicts.

For those of us on a budget, cost needs to factor with taste. The most palatable option, then, for everyday drinking was Whole Foods 365 ($3.59 a liter) followed closely by Trader Joe’s ($2.99 a liter). Vita Coco was the least bad of the remaining options, and if you like your groceries to come to you then you can subscribe to a 12-pack (11.1 ounces each) delivery for $18.83 a month on Amazon.

So: Should you start drinking coconut water?

Fads come and go, and “experts change their minds every few years,” Richard says. It’s tempting to let the coconut frenzy turn you off, to let the product fall victim to its own hype. But for me, at least, I have to think coconut juice is the real deal—a tasty, good for you drink. So I might take all the hyped up health claims with a grain of salt, but I’ll remember what Richard left me with:

“Poor people have always appreciated coconuts. The water is always safe to drink, always pure. When someone was sick you would give them coconut water. Indigenous people all over the world have this incredible base of knowledge that’s come to them from a million and half years of trial and error.”

That’s a pretty strong endorsement, if you ask me.

Your next action: ditch the sports drink, grab some coconut water

  • Scientific studies agree that coconut water aids in rehydration during and after exercise, albeit for varying reasons.
  • The best coconut water comes straight from a fresh young coconut, but decent processed brands are available and should work for rehydration.
  • Prices are a bit steep at the moment, but will likely decrease as growers catch up to demand in the next five years.

References

  1. Esterl, Mike. The Beverage Wars Move to Coconuts. Wall Street Journal, February 11, 2012.
  2. Kalman, D.S., et al. Comparison of coconut water and a carbohydrate-electrolyte sport drink on measures of hydration and physical performance in exercise-trained men. JISSN 9:1, 2012.
  3. “DASH” refers to “Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension,” a series of studies sponsored by the National, Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute (NHLBI) at the National Institutes of Health (NIH).
  4. Saat, M., et al. Rehydration after exercise with fresh young coconut water, carbohydrate-electrolyte beverage and plain water. J Physiol Anthropol Appl Hum Sci, 2002, 21, 93-104
  5. Ismail, I., Singh, R., and Sirisinghe, R. G. Rehydration with sodium-enriched coconut water after exercise-induced dehydration. Southeast Asian Journal of Tropical Medicine and Public Health, 2007, 38(4), 769-85.
  6. Alleyne, T., et al. The control of hypertension by use of coconut water and mauby: two tropical food drinks. West Indian med. j, 2005, 54(1).
  7. Anurag, P. and Rajamohan, T. Cardioprotective effect of tender coconut water in experimental myocardial infarction. Plant Foods for Human Nutrition, 2003, 58(3), 1-12.
  8. Prades, A., et al. Coconut water uses, composition and properties: a review. Fruits, Mar 2012, 67(2), 87-107.
  9. Yong, J., et al. The Chemical Composition and Biological Properties of Coconut (Cocos nucifera L.) Water. Molecules, 2009, 14(12), 5144-5164.
  10. Larisa Alonso, interview. M.S., L.N., R.D.N., nutritionist at Canyon Ranch. Holds a bachelor’s degree in biochemistry from Cornell University and a master’s degree in nutrition and immunology from the University of Texas School of Public Health
  11. Allison Bojarksi, interview.  Level-1 certified CrossFit trainer with a strong interest in nutrition’s impact on training, performance, and health
  12. David Hollister, interview. National sales manager for Amy & Brian
  13. Douglas Kalman, interview. PhD, R.D., Sports nutritionist and professor at Florida International University and a co-editor of the Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition. A registered dietician, he also holds a doctorate in exercise and nutritional biochemistry.
  14. Richard Wilk: Provost Professor, interview. Anthropology Department, Indiana University