Sugar is a word that triggers a mix of emotions and cravings in many of us.
The temptation of sweets and goodies, cakes and candies surround us all the time. It’s like a constant seduction. While most of us know that we need to limit our intake of sugar for obvious health reasons (to prevent diabetes and obesity for example), we may not always know the many different disguises of sugar and how sweeteners sneak into so many of our everyday foods. For example we are familiar with white “table sugar” (sucrose) and some of the artificial sweeteners available, but we may be unfamiliar with a number of other alternatives to sugar that have recently made their way onto store shelves and into prepared foods.
Here is the skinny on which alternatives are healthy and which you may want to avoid:
Concentrated fruit juice is a relatively new sweetener in the market, and one that is rapidly gaining popularity. It is highly refined, and at 68% soluble sugar, is relatively concentrated. Through reduction, filtration and evaporation, the color, acidity, and most of the flavor are removed. This leaves a finished product that has little similarity to the original juice. Concentrated fruit juice can cause erratic blood sugar fluctuations, similar to white sugar, if consumed in large doses.
Maple syrup is concentrated from the sap of maple trees. Pure maple syrup is approximately 65% sucrose and a great alternative for tasty treats and baking. In addition to its sugar content, maple syrup contains a variety of B vitamins and minerals.
Brown rice syrup is formed by culturing brown rice with enzymes to break down the existing starches. The syrup is 50% complex carbohydrates, 45% maltose, and 3% glucose. This is a slow digesting sugar alternative and will provide a more steady supply of sugar rather than the rush of refined white sugar. This is a great alternative, especially for baking.
Stevia, derived from the leaves of a Paraguayan plant, contains glycosides 100-200 times sweeter than sugar. It is a natural non-caloric sweetener alternative to potentially harmful artificial sweeteners such as aspartame. Stevia has been used as a sweetener in Paraguay for over 600 years. Stevia is approved by the FDA as a dietary supplement but not as a sweetener. The FDA is currently reviewing several pharmacological and toxicological studies showing the safety of Stevia when used as a sweetener. A note of warning: Some manufacturers of stevia actually feed their stevia plants artificial sweeteners to enhance the natural sweetness of stevia. It’s always a good idea to investigate the source of your foods!
Sugar Alcohols (like Maltitol, Mannitol, Sorbitol) are becoming an abundant ingredient in “low carbohydrate” foods. They are classified as polyols, a slowly absorbing carbohydrate. They commonly cause flatulence, diarrhea and cramping in many individuals due to a common deficiency in the enzymes required to break down the polyols. They can be used in candy and baking in very small amounts.
Xylitol, also a sugar alcohol, is a sweetener that occurs naturally in fruit and vegetables. Xylitol is made commercially from the wood fiber of birch trees. This is a slow absorbing and partially utilized carbohydrate. Commonly used in natural chewing gums and mouth sprays due to its antibacterial properties, xylitol has also been shown to significantly decrease the development of dental caries. It can also be used in baking and cooking as a sugar alternative. Thus far, studies have deemed Xylitol to be a safe sugar alternative.
Agave sweetener looks and tastes a lot like honey but it actually has a lower glycemic index. This means that it turns into sugar slower in your body because it enters the bloodstream slower. Agave has been used by hundreds of years by native Americans and new research is now supporting its use for people with diabetes and others who can’t tolerate sugar or artificial sweeteners. And yes, this sweetener comes from the same plant that brings us our beloved tequila.
Honey is definitely a natural sweetener and health food enthusiasts have been touting its virtues for decades. Honey is indeed a sweet treat and it does have a lower glycemic index than table sugar (70 compared to 100, respectively), but it is a sweetener that should be limited, like any sweetener. The good news is that honey does contain some antioxidants and it can also be fun to use topically on the skin because it actually can draw moisture to the skin.
The following sugar alternatives are not recommended to be consumed on a regular basis:
Sucralose or Splenda, chlorinated white sugar, is a chemically derived sugar substitute. The chlorination process creates a stable molecule that is not metabolized as sugar in the body. Other classes of chlorinated molecules include pesticides and sodium chloride. The World Health Organization (WHO) and the FDA deem it safe for human consumption and state that the toxic effects found in rat studies would not occur in humans at the recommended doses. Common side-effects from consuming sucralose include diarrhea, shrunken thymus glands (important to immune function), and liver and kidney dysfunction. At this stage and with this knowledge, we can not recommend Sucralose or Splenda as a decent sugar substitute. They do not add in any way to your health and long-term studies on regular consumption of sucralose are inadequate.
Aspartame or Nutrasweet, a chemically derived non-nutritive sweetener, has a growing body of evidence showing possible toxicity in its metabolism. From a biochemical standpoint, Aspartame has been shown to readily convert to formaldehyde once it has entered the body. Formaldehyde has been shown to cause gradual and eventually severe damage to the neurological system, immune system, and causes permanent genetic damage at extremely low doses. After consumption of Nutrasweet, formaldehyde can be measured in the liver, kidneys, brain, and other tissues. The FDA, WHO and Canada Health have stated that aspartame is apparently safe for human consumption. Our concern is that this chemical is not of natural origin and has breakdown products shown to promote illness. We do not recommend any consumption of this chemical.
High Fructose Corn Syrup (HFCS) is a sweetener to avoid. It is a highly refined sugar that the body doesn’t metabolize very well. It has been linked to increased rates of obesity. Note, that it is often added to foods you wouldn’t suspect, so please read labels!