March 19, 2019 0

A Guide to Sweeteners

Posted by:Dr. Brian Mowll onMarch 19, 2019

There has been and continues to be a very large debate in our country about the amount of sugar we should be eating each day, and which is the healthiest.  While we know the dangers of regular table sugar, namely obesity, tooth decay, diabetes and heart disease, we don’t necessarily recognize all of the dangers of artificial sweeteners.

We don’t even really agree on what constitutes a natural sugar from an artificial one. For instance, for years now the corn growers in this country have been pushing to have high fructose corn syrup (HFCS) included on the list of natural sweeteners. But how can HFCS, most of which has been produced from genetically modified corn, be considered ‘natural?’

This guide will attempt to break down the main differences between natural and alternative sweeteners for you so you can make the most informed health decisions for you and your family.

Let’s start by taking a look at some of the most common natural sweeteners that, in moderation, can be absolutely fine for you to use.

Raw Honey

For certain people (like those without diabetes), raw honey is an excellent natural sweetener because it is packed with enzymes, antioxidants, iron, zinc, potassium, calcium, phosphorous, vitamin B6, riboflavin and niacin. Let’s see HFCS match that! All of these nutrients help our overall health, so you are getting a health boost when you sweeten your tea or baked goods.

Now I’m talking about RAW honey, not that stuff you buy in little squeezable bears in your local supermarket. Raw honey is solid and kind of light gold in color, unlike processed honey that is pourable. It’s important to use raw honey because once processed, honey loses all of those beneficial nutrients I told you about.

Some grocers sell raw honey, but you can usually get some at farmers markets in your local area.

Coconut Sugar

Not many people have heard about coconut sugar and that’s too bad, because it is another natural sweetener that boasts an impressive mineral content while offering a low glycemic load.  Again, NOT recommended for those with diabetes, but if you have normal glucose tolerance, this can be a good option. 

The sap is extracted from the blooms of the coconut tree and then heated. The result is a healthily-delicious natural sweetener packed with polyphenols, iron, zinc, calcium, potassium, antioxidants, phosphorous and other phytonutrients.

Coconut sugar looks and acts just like regular sugar, but it’s better for you. You can use it as you would in baking or in coffee and tea.

Maple Syrup

Having spent some time in Vermont, I know the difference between real maple syrup and that stuff marketed as maple syrup. Boy is there a WORLD of difference, not only in taste and texture, but also in nutrient content.

Same warning as above for diabetics, but if you can handle it, maple syrup is an excellent source of manganese, and contains calcium, potassium, and zinc, as well as being rich in antioxidants. Maple syrup comes in grades A and B. Grade B is darker and contains more beneficial antioxidants than the lighter syrups.

One of the coolest things about maple syrup is it is heat stable, so you can use it in pretty much any cooking application you can think of.

Stevia

Stevia is a plant native to South America and used there for hundreds of years as a sweetener that supports healthy blood sugar levels. Stevia has no carbs, no calories and none of the nasty side effects that come along with artificial sweeteners. Stevia is also heat stable so can be used in myriad applications.

No warnings here as Stevia is safe for diabetics.  Just beware, stevia is 200 times sweeter than regular sugar, so you would have to adjust the ratios of your recipes.

Monk Fruit Extract

The monk fruit is kind of a mini-melon, that gets it’s name from it’s popularity among buddhist monks starting in the 13th century.  The extract is made from the dried fruit and contains zero calories and carbohydrates.

Monk fruit is not only a great option as a sweetener, it contains the bioflavonoid mogrosides, which has been studied as a powerful antioxidant.

Because it has no calories or carbs, Monk fruit extract is a great option for those with diabetes.  Like stevia, it’s very sweet – 150-200 times as sweet as sugar, so use caution with adding it to recipes.

Allulose

Allulose is considered a “rare sugar” as it exists in natural foods in small amounts, but is not common.  It’s chemically similar to fructose, but does NOT get metabolized by the body in the same way.  Allulose largely passes through the body into the urine unchanged, so it is virtually calorie-free and has no impact on blood sugar or insulin levels.

Unlike erythritol, allulose is considered a natural sugar and is not a sugar alcohol.  It also resists fermentation in the gut, so is unlikely to cause gas and bloating like some sugar alcohols do.  It’s also shown to provide benefits for fat loss, inflammation, and blood sugar control.

Allulose is still relatively new, but seems to provide another promising alternative to sugar and artificial sweeteners.

Erythritol

Erythritol belongs to a class of compounds known as sugar alcohols.  Alcohol is a chemical description, and there is no “alcohol” present in these compounds.  Most sugar alcohols, such as sorbitol, Maltitol, mannitol, and even xylitol are associated with gas, bloating, and intestinal distress.  Erythritol, on the other hand, does NOT seem to cause these side effects.

This is a unique sugar alcohol because not only is it resistant to fermentation in the gut, it passes through the body virtually unchanged, and is essentially calorie and carbohydrate free.

Erythritol is not as sweet as sugar, which most people like, and it seems to be very safe for those with diabetes and blood sugar problems.

Stay Away from These Artificial Sweeteners

Artificial sweeteners are also sometimes referred to as non-nutritive sweeteners. This is because they have no calories, but I like to say it’s because they offer no beneficial nutrients like our good natural sweeteners do. They first came onto the scene back in the 1950s and research since that time has shown they are dangerous to health. 1

Of course at the time, the men in white coats who created these artificial sweeteners most likely thought they were helping people. After all, their creations allowed people to indulge their sweet tooth but without all of the calories. Little did they know that extended use would cause some major health issues. 2

The biggest problem with artificial sweeteners seems to be their effect on the gut microbiome.  They have been shown to cause major disruption of the gut bacteria, leading to dysbiosis, obesity, and food cravings.

There are some studies showing increase cancer and Alzheimer’s risk with certain artificial sweeteners, and they have been linked to increase appetite, which can lead to over-eating.

Some of the most common, popular, and dangerous artificial sweeteners on the market today are:

  • Aspartame
  • Acesulfame potassium
  • Alitame
  • Cyclamate
  • Dulcin
  • Equal
  • Glucin
  • Kaltame
  • Mogrosides
  • Neotame
  • NutraSweet
  • Nutrinova
  • Phenlalanine
  • Saccharin
  • Splenda
  • Sorbitol
  • Sucralose
  • Twinsweet
  • Sweet ‘N Low
  • Xylitol

You may be surprised to find out where some of these artificial sweeteners lurk:

  1. Toothpaste and mouthwash
  2. Children’s chewable vitamins
  3. Cough syrup and liquid medicines
  4. Chewing gum
  5. No-calorie waters and drinks
  6. Alcoholic beverages
  7. Salad dressings
  8. Frozen yogurt and other frozen deserts
  9. Candies
  10. Baked goods
  11. Yogurt
  12. Breakfast cereals
  13. Processed snack foods
  14. “Lite” or diet fruit juices and beverages
  15. Prepared meats
  16. Nicotine gum

Keep in mind, this isn’t even an exhaustive list. But it sure does illustrate why it’s so important to READ THOSE LABELS.

Final Thoughts

I feel that there is far too much scientific proof of the dangers of artificial sweeteners to ignore the warnings. While it may seem benign enough to use these sweeteners to reduce your daily caloric intake, you would be far better off using honey or maple syrup and walking an extra 10 minutes to burn off those added calories.

Resources:

[1] Erbaş O, Erdoğan MA, Khalilnezhad A, Solmaz V, Gürkan FT, Yiğittürk G, Eroglu HA, Taskiran D. Evaluation of long-term effects of artificial sweeteners on rat brain: a biochemical, behavioral, and histological study. J Biochem Mol Toxicol. 2018 Jun;32(6):e22053.

[2] Swithers SE. Artificial sweeteners produce the counterintuitive effect of inducing metabolic derangements. Trends Endocrinol Metab. 2013 Sep;24(9):431-41. 

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