By Melissa Monday, Ph.D.
It’s become apparent in recent years that Americans consume far too much sugar on a daily basis. Sugar (also known as sucrose) has been targeted as having major detrimental health effects such as obesity and diabetes, increase cancer risk, as well as simple tooth decay. These factors have been catalysts for the surge of artificial and natural sweeteners hitting the market, creating a whirlwind of information and confusion for consumers to sort through.
So you’ve probably noticed that the sweetener aisle at your grocery store has grown into an extravagant world of “all natural” and “low calorie” solutions for your sweet tooth? If you are just entering this mystical world of sugar substitutes and natural alternatives to sugar, it can be a bit overwhelming. But there’s no need to run away screaming. We are here to give a helping hand and guide you through the aisle.
In the United States, six sugar substitutes (both natural and artificial) have been approved for use by the FDA. They are saccharin, aspartame, sucralose, neotame, acesulfame potassium, and stevia. Artificial sweeteners are synthetic or natural chemicals or compounds that offer the sweetness of sugar without as many calories. Aspartame (NutraSweet) is the most widely used artificial sweetener these days, while sucralose (Splenda) is also growing in popularity.
Beware! Most of these artificial sweeteners are not appreciated by your body. Research is showing that aspartame and sucralose (among many others) are linked to intestinal damage, weight gain, liver damage, damage to the brain and nervous system, lowering of immune system function, and other serious side effects.
There is ongoing controversy over the health risks of artificial sweeteners, as the food industry continues to argue for its safety (much like the tobacco companies). Remember though, artificial sweeteners cost the food industry only a fraction of the cost of natural sweeteners which leaves extremely high profit margins for manufacturers. So in the end you can only guess who may win this battle between profit and health. It’s almost always about the profit.
Here are some artificial sweeteners to avoid:
1. Aspartame (Equal, NutraSweet)
2. Sucralose (Splenda)
3. Saccharin (Sweet ‘N Low, Sugar Twin)
4. Acesulfame-K (Sunette or Sweet One)
Sugar alcohols are approved by the FDA for use as sugar substitutes. Mostly found in foods and beverages, they are not as sweet as sucrose and contain fewer calories. Their flavor is like sucrose, and they can be used to mask the unpleasant aftertastes of some high intensity sweeteners.
Sugar alcohols are usually incompletely absorbed into the blood stream from the small intestines which generally results in a smaller change in blood glucose than “regular” sugar (sucrose). This makes them popular sweeteners among diabetics and people on low-carbohydrate diets.
Some common sugar alcohols include: Sorbitol, Mannitol, Erythritol, Lactitol, Maltitol, and Xylitol.
While natural sweeteners aren’t miracle health foods by any means, they are generally considered to produce less of a shock to the body’s blood sugar level because they contain necessary minerals that help with sugar metabolism. Unlike artificial sweeteners, they have not been stripped of fiber, vitamins, or minerals.
Natural sweeteners are showing to be a huge help for diabetics as well. It’s helpful to understand how sugars are classified using the glycemic index. The glycemic index ranks foods on how they affect our blood glucose levels. This index measures how much your blood glucose increases in the two or three hours after eating. While not all natural sweeteners have a glycemic index of zero, they are largely lower than table sugar (sucrose), which has a glycemic index of approximately 68.
So, which natural sweetener should end up in your cart? Well, let’s take a look at some of most common natural sweeteners:
Honey – has been eaten for thousands of years and is believed to have a number of health benefits, particularly antioxidants and wound healing qualities. However, take note that honey contains approximately 30 percent more calories than sugar (1 teaspoon = 64 calories). Raw honey is approximately 30 on the glycemic index, while pasteurized honey is high at 75.
Stevia – is derived from a small shrub found primarily in China and South America and is 200-300 times sweeter than sugar. There are elements extracted from the leaf creating the safest, natural, calorie-free sweetener on the market today. This sweetener has also been used in Japan for over 30 years. Stevia is zero on the glycemic index, which is critical for diabetics.
Maple Syrup – is probably thought of as a breakfast accessory, but it’s also a natural sweetener that is a good source of magnesium and zinc. Maple syrup is about 60 percent as sweet as sugar and has a glycemic index averaging 54 (low).
Agave Nectar – is extracted from the agave cactus plant and tastes like honey. One major advantage: Because it is so much sweeter than sugar, you don’t need as much of it to sweeten your food or beverage. This means a lot less calories and benefits for diabetics as well with a glycemic index of about 15.
Blackstrap Molasses – is an excellent source of manganese and copper, and also contains iron, magnesium, calcium, potassium, and Vitamin B6. Blackstrap Molasses is also approximately 65 percent as sweet as sugar and can be used in both cooking and baking. Ranked moderately on the glycemic index at 40-59.
Brown Rice Syrup – is a liquid sweetener with the consistency of honey. It has a unique caramel-like flavor that can be used to enhance a recipe. Brown rice syrup metabolizes slowly but does have calories and carbohydrates. It is produced commercially by cooking brown rice flour or brown rice starch with enzymes. Brown rice syrup has a glycemic index of 25.
Lo Han Guo – also known as Lo Han Fruit, comes from a plant native to southern China and northern Thailand. It is most prized for its sweet fruits, which are used for medicinal purposes, and as a sweetener. The fruits are generally sold in dried form, and traditionally used in herbal tea or soup. They are used for respiratory ailments, sore throats and reputed to aid longevity. Though it is not a zero on the glycemic index, it is very low (55 or less).
Zero – is produced from organic sugar cane juice, which is naturally fermented and crystallized to create organic erythritol. Erythritol is a naturally occurring sugar alcohol that is found in our bodies, as well as in many fruits, vegetables and even certain fermented foods. Zero is 70% as sweet as table sugar. But with zero calories and zero on the glycemic index.
PureVia – is a pure extract from the sweet stevia plant. Reb A (stevia extract) from the stevia plant starts with stevia leaves, which are first milled and then steeped in water using a brewing method that is similar to brewing tea. The resulting stevia extract is then further purified to separate the Reb A using ethanol, made naturally from sugar cane. Reb A is more than 200 times sweeter than sugar. PureVia is also zero on the glycemic index.
Truvia – is a natural, zero calorie sweetener which is made with rebiana. Rebiana is derived from the stevia leaf. Truvia contains zero calories, zero carbohydrates, and is zero on the glycemic index. Truvia ingredients include erythritol, rebiana, and natural flavors. So there you have it! A basic guide and some healthy alternatives to “a spoonful of sugar.” Now you are fully equipped to tackle that aisle in your grocery or health food store and walk out with the healthiest choice in your bag. If you need to, print out this article and take it with you to the store. Be sure to read the ingredients on every label. And feel great about your new knowledge and empowered self! Your body will thank you later.
1. “Splenda: Zero calorie doesn’t mean zero risk!” Nutrition & Healing. August 2009.
3. “Aspartame: The shocking story of the world’s bestselling sweetener” The Ecologist. September 2005.