These two simple syllables create endless angst for many of us. Google “is sugar really that bad for you?” and in the list of related searches, you’ll see:
- “is sugar really evil”
- “Sugar is poison”
- “Diseases caused by sugar”
My parents told me it would rot my teeth. Headlines scream that consuming too much sugar can lead to obesity, heart disease and diabetes. We question whether sugar feeds cancer. We wonder if different types of sugar are healthier. And a couple of years ago, I wrote about limiting Halloween candy consumption.
One day, our Friday blog meeting diverged, as it tends to do, into rants about the information overload around sugar. Is sugar really so bad, we asked? We started throwing out questions:
- What about high-fructose corn syrup?
- What makes an apple healthier than apple juice? Or even ice cream?
- Are we better off using artificial sweeteners and zero-calorie sugar substitutes?
- Aren’t those artificial sweeteners also bad for you?
- What about diet soda?
- Does sugar feed cancer?
- Does it make kids hyper?
- What other words do we have for sugar that may be hidden in lengthy ingredient lists?
- Should we give up added sugars altogether, like the clickbait headlines suggest?
None of us knew all the answers — the real answers. So we decided to explore these questions in this blog series.
Taste-Testing Different Types of Sugar
Of course, we decided we couldn’t write about sugar without eating some. We wondered if some of the less refined sugars, like maple syrup and coconut sugar, were better — or would taste better — than plain white table sugar. And was Splenda, a zero-calorie sugar substitute, as good for baking as its packaging claimed? What about the Stevia Baking Blend, a zero-calorie product made from a sweet-tasting plant extract?
So we took a classic chocolate chip cookie recipe and made seven batches. With each batch, we used a different kind of sugar than the ¾ cup of white sugar the recipe required. We tried:
- Coconut sugar
- Maple syrup
- Sugar in the Raw
- Stevia Baking Blend
We then conducted a blind taste test with our colleagues in the Health System’s Health Information & Technology Department.
The Sugar Taste Test
Our testers rated the cookies on a scale from 1 to 10. The results? It really came down to individual taste. Even though the recipe was otherwise the same, the cookies had very different textures and appearances.
But the Splenda cookies fared the worst, and none of the cookies scored higher than 6.4/10.
Cookie #1: Coconut Sugar
I made coconut sugar cookies. Before baking, the texture was so crumbly that I thought they’d never hold together. But I was surprised — they did. And I might be biased, but I thought they were surprisingly good, with a chewy texture.
What Our Reviewers Said About Coconut Sugar Cookies
“Too much salt.”
“Not very sweet.”
“Love chocolate chips. Sweet.”
“This must be the one with the real sugar.”
Average rating: 6.4/10
Cookie #2: Splenda
I also made Splenda cookies. The batter — yes, I had to sample the batter — had a bit of a weird, flat aftertaste. It wasn’t so different from diet soda, even though diet soda uses a different artificial sweetener.
But once they were done, I thought they were surprisingly good. The cookies were less sweet than some, with a bready texture and buttery taste. I liked this, but not everyone did.
What Our Reviewers Said About Splenda Cookies
“Too much salt.”
“Not very sweet, a little too bready.”
“Semi sweet. Not sweet enough.”
“Little dryer, sandy texture.”
“Not as sweet, which was good.”
“The best of the bunch.” (This wasn’t mine!)
Average rating: 4.8/10
Cookie #3: Maple Syrup
Eric Puffenbarger made these, and he and his wife really liked them. In fact, they used maple syrup again in oatmeal chocolate chip cookies with similarly good results.
But he noted that the cookies didn’t get as firm as the standard recipe would.
What Our Reviewers Said About Maple Syrup Cookies
“Good level of sweetness.”
“Pretty good, conventional.”
“Is this a low-fat cookie? Did not taste as buttery as a cookie should.”
Average rating: 6.4/10
Cookie #4: Sugar In the Raw
Amy Sarah Marshall made these and described them as “crispy-salty” and her favorite.
“I think they were more crinkly, because this type of sugar is less granulated and smooth,” she says. “I think if I’m in the mood for super-crunchy cookies, I’ll use Sugar in the Raw and make them thinner. Yum.”
What Our Reviewers Said About Sugar In the Raw Cookies
“Unpleasant texture. Weird unidentifiable flavor.”
“Somewhat crystallized crunch. OK taste.”
“An aftertaste of something unfamiliar.”
“A bit grainy but flavor is good. Kind of a strange aftertaste.”
Average rating: 6.2
Cookie #5: Agave
Baker Luis Soler Rivera used dark agave and noted that the cookies were darker than normal. He also tweaked the recipe’s other wet ingredients to make up for the added moisture and extended the baking time.
“They were good,” he notes. “A little sweeter than what I usually like, puffier than usual and still a bit chewy at the end. I liked them.”
What Our Reviewers Said About Sugar In the Raw Cookies
“Super sweet! Best one.”
“Tastes like a Nilla wafer.”
“A little dry. Good level of sweet.”
“A little tough.”
“Little aftertaste of sweetener.”
Average rating: 6.0
Cookies #6-7: Stevia Baking Blend/Honey
Leigh Critzer made these cookies and unfortunately was unable to share them with our testing group due to illness. But she had plenty of opinions.
Stevia Baking Blend Cookies
Leigh also made the standard chocolate chip cookie recipe, with white sugar, for comparison. And still, the Stevia cookies “were the fluffiest cookies of all three batches,” she says. “These were highly rated in family and turned out very similar to the sugar ones.”
Critzer doesn’t recommend them. In fact, she says they were a “total disaster” because of their gooey texture, even after they cooled.
She adds, “They were tolerable when they were warm, but once they were cool and still had the warm cookie consistency, they were gross.”
Conclusion: The Alternative Sweetener Experiment
Critzer probably summed it up best: “’Tolerable’ is a terrible review for a cookie. You’re talking about empty calories. They better be delicious. A tolerable cookie is a cookie in the trash.”
We had no stand-out, hands-down winner. People judged the cookies terrible, tolerable or tasty in fairly equal amounts. None of the cookies managed to completely fool anyone.
So that was the taste test. The question left unanswered: Is there any reason to use a sugar substitute in the first place?
The Health Test: Sugar Substitutes by the Numbers
No, our Health System dietitians wouldn’t recommend abundant amounts of any of these cookies. They still contained chocolate chips, brown sugar, butter and all-purpose flour.
Trying to eat less sugar & more veggies?
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And none of the alternative, less processed sugars — honey, maple syrup, Sugar in the Raw, coconut sugar and agave — have fewer calories per serving than plain white sugar.
“I tell patients that if they enjoy the taste of Sugar in the Raw or the maple syrup or the agave, then by all means, use them,” says Katherine Basbaum, a registered dietitian with the Heart & Vascular Center. “But please don’t be under the impression that it’s better for you if you’re trying to lose weight or if you have diabetes or have heart disease. They are not better for you.”
After all that — the next time I made cookies, for my mom’s birthday, I used the white sugar.
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Interesting article! Look forward to the rest of the series. A good rule of thumb i’ve heard when making sweet treats is to simply use 1/3 less sugar than called for in the recipe and no one will notice. But you’ll be serving a lot less empty calories.
I have Type II Diabetes. I am a big coffee drinker. I use Splenda in my coffee and any other items that require the taste of sugar such as cereals, oatmeal, etc. I am hearing that not even Splenda is as safe as we once thought. My question is: What options would be better for me than Splenda? Especially in my coffee?
Gertrude, thanks for your question. We shared this with Katherine Basbaum, the dietitian who we interviewed for this post. We always recommend that you bring these questions to your doctor, who will consider your specific medical history when recommending diet changes. But here’s what Katherine would generally tell someone asking her directly:
I get questions all the time about the safety of artificial sweeteners like Splenda. When folks say that they “heard it somewhere”, I generally like to know where or from whom did they hear it? From their doctor or dietitian? If not, then be careful, there is a lot of incorrect nutritional information out there that is not from evidence-based science.
As far as Splenda is concerned, the FDA (Food and Drug Association) established the Expert Committee on Food Additives (JEFCA) which has looked at the safety of non-nutritive sweeteners and determined that Splenda is safe.
The ADI (acceptable daily limit) for sucralose (Splenda) is 5 mg for every kg of body weight. To put this in some perspective, for a person that weighs 150 lbs, it is safe for them to consume up to 340 mg of Splenda per day, which translates to 28 packets per day.
From their site:
“Sucralose is approved for use in food as a non-nutritive sweetener. Sucralose is sold under the brand name Splenda®. Sucralose is about 600 times sweeter than sugar.
FDA approved sucralose for use in 15 food categories in 1998 and for use as a general purpose sweetener for foods in 1999, under certain conditions of use. Sucralose is a general purpose sweetener that can be found in a variety of foods including baked goods, beverages, chewing gum, gelatins, and frozen dairy desserts. It is heat stable, meaning that it stays sweet even when used at high temperatures during baking, making it suitable as a sugar substitute in baked goods.
Sucralose has been extensively studied and more than 110 safety studies were reviewed by FDA in approving the use of sucralose as a general purpose sweetener for food.”
I will make the honey,coconut sugar, and mapel cookies for my sience fair project i am 11 by the way