Many recipes for green tea-based beverages, including soft cocktails, smoothies, and green tea lattes, include some type of sweetener. We often hear questions from our health-conscious readers – what’s the safest choice? Is stevia safe? Should I avoid artificial sweeteners? Recently there has been a lot of scientific research into the safety and health impacts of various low and no-calorie options. Each person’s situation is different, but here is a summary of what I’ve found and my own approach to healthy choices.
Are there safer choices?
It’s true that added sugar is associated with many health risks, including heart disease, obesity, diabetes and tooth decay. While less-processed options like brown sugar, maple syrup, coconut sugar, or agave syrup may contain some antioxidants or trace minerals, their health impact is nearly as bad as plain white table sugar. In fact, agave syrup has a very high level of fructose, which has a strong impact on blood sugar, so for many people, it’s even worse than white sugar!
Avoid unsafe artificial sweeteners.
Many artificial sweeteners are FDA approved, but not considered safe by everyone. The Center for Science in the Public Interest, a nonprofit research and food safety advocacy organization, recommends that we avoid nearly all of the sweeteners that you find in pastel colored packets.* Aspartame (NutraSweet) and saccharin (Sweet’N Low) have been shown to cause cancer in lab tests. CSPI also puts Acesulfame potassium (ace-K on some labels), in the Avoid list because it has not been sufficiently studied, and at least one study identified an increased risk of cancer. Sucralose (Splenda) was recently downgraded to their Avoid list, because a new study showed it caused leukemia in mice. In addition, there is some evidence that artificial sweeteners can have a negative effect on gut flora and contribute to obesity.**
Everything in moderation.
Health experts and philosophers agree – everything in moderation, including moderation! I try to eat a healthy diet every day, which for me includes keeping an eye on carbs. I usually skip buns or bread, choose whole-grain crackers, and eat small, ½ cup servings of rice or pasta. Moderation for me includes an occasional sweet treat sweetened with sugar…and since it’s part of a healthy diet overall, I banish any feelings of guilt, and enjoy it!
Personalize to your health priorities.
If you are an exercise junkie with healthy blood sugar, your body may be primed to burn a teaspoon or two of added sugar in a daily green tea latte. However, if blood sugar regulation is a concern for you, stevia or monk fruit extract may be a good alternative to sugar. Both of these sweeteners are derived from natural sources and have been shown to have little to no impact on insulin and blood sugar. (Definitely avoid agave syrup and high fructose corn syrup if this is true for you.)***
Reset your tastes.
Have you ever tried an elimination diet or fasted for a few days, and been overwhelmed by how amazingly sweet an apple tastes after a few days? Our taste buds can be ‘reset’ by reducing or completely eliminating sugar and sweets for a period of time. This is a time to reflect on your personal nature and what works for you. Some people find it easier to eliminate sugar altogether for a couple of weeks, then add it back in moderation, while others reduce a little at a time over a period of weeks. Both approaches work – but be advised that headaches and other discomforts can arise when going ‘cold turkey’!
Choose high quality ingredients.
In college, I always added lots of cream and sugar to the bitter, watery coffee we could get on campus. Later in life, I was amazed to find out that good quality coffee, brewed properly, tastes wonderful with just a tiny splash of cream. You may think you need sugar to enjoy green tea, but you may actually be drinking the wrong tea – or the wrong tea for you! Many varieties of green tea are not at all bitter. Brewing correctly is important, too – a delicate, grassy Sencha becomes bitter and sharp-tasting if steeped too long. My current favorite for iced tea is Sweet Green Tea. The herbal, flowery, naturally sweet and refreshing flavor doesn’t need a bit of sugar, and still satisfies my afternoon sweet tooth. Experiment with different varieties of tea — try vegetal and fresh sencha or toasty, nutty hojicha. You may find that your favorite doesn’t need any extra sweetness at all!
Resources: * & ***Center for Science in the Public Interest “It’s Sweet… But is it Safe?” **Nature International Journal of Science “Health: the weighty costs of non-caloric sweeteners” by Taylor Feehley and Cathryn R. Nagler
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