Giving up sugar is a huge feat. Overcoming sugar cravings is very difficult for many people and requires a lot of self-discipline and strategic habit changes. It’s a significant step toward cutting junk out of your diet and improving the nutrient density of your meals so that you can find the way to better health.
You might have swapped out sugar for more wholesome “real food” sweeteners such as maple syrup or honey. Then there are the new sweeteners on the scene, such as stevia and agave syrup, which can be seen all over the shelves at the health-food store. Have you ever wondered which of these alternative sweeteners is the best for your health, or whether any are good at all?
The fact is, not all natural sweeteners are created equal. Although they are an improvement over white sugar, and certainly win over artificial sweeteners, some are more health-promoting than others.
If you’re aiming for ideal health, just giving up white and processed sugar may not be enough. Let’s examine the details so that we can keep enjoying sweet foods without guilt, while staying healthy at the same time.
Maple syrup is made from the sap of maple trees, via a simple process of tapping the sap and then boiling it down until it becomes thick.
Because the process is so simple and involves no refinement or chemical altering, maple syrup still contains many beneficial compounds from the tree itself. This includes small amounts of calcium, potassium and iron, and significant amounts of zinc, riboflavin and manganese.
The darker grade B syrup is harvested later in the season and contains more of the beneficial constituents. Maple syrup also contains over 20 different types of antioxidants, which protect against aging and cell damage.
Considering how sweet it tastes, it is impressive that maple syrup is only about 67 percent sugar. Therefore it is considerably healthier than refined or purified forms of sugar, but should still be enjoyed in moderation.
The process for making coconut sugar is similar to maple syrup. Sap is collected from coconut palm trees and is boiled down to make a syrup. The resulting sugar content is mostly sucrose (about 75 percent).
Calorically speaking, coconut sugar is identical to white sugar. Both contain 16 calories per teaspoon. However coconut sugar offers up some trace amounts of additional nutrients beyond white cane sugar, including some potassium, zinc and calcium. It also contains antioxidants and a prebiotic fiber called inulin, which helps feed healthy gut bacteria and balance blood sugar. Coconut sugar rates 35 on the glycemic index, as compared to 65 for white sugar.
Therefore, coconut sugar is certainly a better choice than white sugar. The presence of inulin fiber also means coconut sugar has a lower glycemic index rating than maple syrup.
Many “healthy” recipes use dates as a sweetener. But is this really a wise choice?
Sugar addiction expert Sarah Wilson points out that dates are composed of 30 percent fructose. And since they are dried with most of the water removed, the sugars are concentrated so it is much easier to consume lots of sugar without realizing it. There are a few minerals and some fiber in dates, but not enough to make up for the highly concentrated sugar (and fructose) content.
It’s worth noting here that fructose is a problematic substance for the human body, since our gut doesn’t do very well digesting it, and the liver must do all of the processing. This is why high fructose corn syrup is such a big health issue.
Overall, dates should remain as a mindfully consumed occasional treat, but not a constantly and freely used sweetener.
Monk fruit is a small, sweet melon grown in China. Although the fruit itself is probably harmless, the chemically extracted monk fruit sweeteners sold in North America are not.
You may have heard of a sweetening product made from monk fruit called Nectresse. Food manufacturers are eager to advertise when their product comes from natural sources, and unfortunately this labeling is enough to convince many consumers that it is a healthy product.
However, Nectresse is actually a highly processed and chemicalized version of the original fruit.
Honey is one of our favorite topics at The Alternative Daily, since we believe that it is one of nature’s most powerful superfoods. Unpasteurized honey contains a number of enzymes, antioxidants and minerals. It has antiviral, antibacterial and antifungal abilities, which means it is healing for the body both inside and out.
While we believe that raw honey is a wonderful addition to any whole-food diet, its natural sugar content means that it should be limited to a few tablespoons per day at most. Those trying to lose weight should limit honey as well.
Stevia is a naturally derived sweetener made from the dried leaves of a plant. While stevia has been used as a sweetener by South Americans for centuries, it’s important to note that historically they have only consumed the whole plant.
In contrast, stevia-based sweeteners, which have recently entered North American markets, are largely processed versions of the original. These products are associated with possible health concerns.
We recommend seeking out simple, unprocessed, dried stevia, if this is a sweetener that you enjoy. While stevia sweeteners do create a sweet taste on the tongue, it is not a whole food and does not convey nutritional value. Therefore we recommend other sweeteners over stevia.
Agave nectar or syrup
Agave syrup is made from the boiled-down sap of the agave plant grown mostly in Mexico. While the pure nectar has been used for centuries and has some beneficial properties, the commercially sold syrup is a little bit different.
The agave syrup that you can buy at the health-food store has been exposed to high levels of heat and enzymes, which transform the originally healthy fructans into fructose. As mentioned earlier, fructose is highly toxic for the liver. Experts say that agave syrup is actually even worse than high fructose corn syrup. Therefore, we do not recommend using agave syrup on a regular basis.
Banana purée and applesauce
Fruit purées are often used in health-conscious recipes to sweeten the mixture. We think this is generally a healthy practice, since fruits are whole foods complete with all of their fiber and nutrients.
However, these healthy treats should be limited to a couple of times a week, rather than becoming a daily habit. Whole fruit still contains lots of sugar and should never constitute a significant part of your diet if you are seeking ideal health.
We recommend sticking to seasonal eating practices so that fruit can be consumed when it is freshly picked from local sources, and not during other times of the year.
Another interesting category of sweeteners are those that are not based on whole foods, yet are considered to be neutral or beneficial for health. These are called “sugar alcohols.” Although most people wouldn’t consider these to be natural sweeteners, they are somewhere in the middle ground.
Sugar alcohols are also known by their scientific name, polyols. They have a chemical structure somewhere in between sugar and alcohol, hence the name. The structure is similar enough to sucrose (regular table sugar) to activate the taste receptors that say “sweet” to the brain.
Most of the different types have names ending in “ol,” like erythritol, maltitol, sorbitol, xylitol, lactitol and mannitol. However, isomalt and hydrogenated starch hydrolysates also belong to this class of sweeteners.
It’s worth noting that sugar alcohols do not contain any ethanol and are not considered a risk for consumption by alcoholics.
Polyols occur in small amounts in whole foods, such as xylitol in berries and oats, and sorbitol in prunes (this is the source of their renowned laxative effect). However, to produce the amounts needed for industrial food manufacture, they are made by various chemical processes.
Sorbitol and mannitol, for example, are made by reacting sugars with nickel catalysts to force the addition of two hydrogen molecules. Xylitol and lactitol are made in a similar fashion.
Others, such as erythritol, are made through fermentation of natural sugars (i.e., glucose and sucrose) with yeast and bacteria to render them indigestible. Erythritol is made by fermenting the sugar from corn starch.
Sugar alcohols are not only used to sweeten food products, but also to improve texture, prevent crystallization, retain moisture, and prevent browning when heated.
Do sugar alcohols contain calories or raise blood sugar?
Polyols are carbohydrates, but not the usual type you would think of, like sugar or starch. These compounds are not entirely digestible by the human digestive system, or even by our fermenting gut bacteria. This is why they provide a sweet taste without providing as many calories as sugar.
They are not entirely calorie-free, though. Sugar alcohols can still provide up to 50 percent of the calories compared to white sugar.
Most sugar alcohols have a flavor similar to regular sugar, but are usually not as sweet. They are therefore used in food products to mask the unpleasant aftertaste of other more intense chemical sweeteners which provide most of the sweet properties.
- Maltitol is 90 percent as sweet as sugar with half the calories (glycemic index of 36).
- Xylitol is 1.6 times as sweet as sugar and provides about half the calories (glycemic index of 13).
- Sorbitol is 50 percent as sweet as sugar and has about 70 percent of the calories (glycemic index of 9).
- Erythritol is 60 percent as sweet as sugar and provides 5 percent of the calories (glycemic index of 0).
- Lactitol has only 30–40 percent of the sweetness of sugar but it dissolves well, so it is often used in ice cream, chocolate, baked goods and candies.
- Isomalt is about half as sweet as sugar and absorbs little water, so it is generally added to hard goods such as candies, toffee and cough drops.
- Hydrogenated starch hydrolysates (HSH) provide about 65 percent of the sweetness of sugar and are made via the partial hydrolysis of corn.
Are there any health benefits of sugar alcohols?
Xylitol is becoming increasingly popular thanks to its apparent ability to prevent dental cavities. This is because the bacteria that damage teeth like to feed on xylitol but cannot metabolize it, so their growth is inhibited. Erythritol may have similar dental benefits, but more research is needed.
You will see xylitol often in sugar-free chewing gums and natural dental care products. It has about half the calories of sugar and tastes 1.6 times as sweet, but doesn’t cause much change to blood sugar and does not harm insulin levels.
Several studies have reported that xylitol shows promise as a treatment for osteoporosis. Although experiments have only been performed on animals thus far, xylitol may be helpful for increasing bone density and remineralization.
Another possible benefit of xylitol is the ability to increase collagen production. This is the substance that provides support to our skin and joints.
Are there dangers associated with sugar alcohols?
The most common complaint associated with the consumption of sugar alcohols is digestive distress such as gas, bloating and abdominal pain. This is particularly true with the less-sweet sugar alcohols such as sorbitol, because they have to be added to foods in greater quantities to get the desired sweet taste.
Some bacteria in the large intestine can ferment sugar alcohols to some extent, so people may experience diarrhea and/or worsening of symptoms to do with conditions such as irritable bowel syndrome and FODMAP sensitivity. People with these conditions should probably avoid sugar alcohols entirely.
Most people can consume sugar alcohols in small amounts, starting with half a teaspoon daily and increasing to a maximum of two teaspoons daily.
However, some experts say that the sweet taste but lack of calories may contribute to metabolic derangement by confusing the brain. When sweetness is detected, the brain and digestive system expect calories to enter the system. When they do not (or not in the quantity expected), the result may be increased food cravings or perceived “false” hunger.
It’s worth noting again that most sugar alcohols still do cause some change in blood sugar and/or insulin levels — maltitol in particular. Maltitol has the highest glycemic index rating of all the sugar alcohols. If you have diabetes, or if you’re eating a strictly low-carb diet, keep this effect in mind.
Finally, xylitol is highly toxic to dogs, so if you choose to keep it in your house, do so with caution.
Whichever natural sweetener you choose, remember to enjoy it in moderation, especially if you are working on losing weight. Try taking the time to really savor sweet treats, rather than scarfing them down and reaching for more. Check out these healthy dessert recipes, which are made with quality ingredients rather than empty calories, so they are sure to satisfy!
—The Alternative Daily