Sugar is in the spotlight – but not in a positive way. The current focus is on getting people to cut back on sugar and curb their consumption of sugar-sweetened drinks. No wonder. The average American consumes a whopping 22 teaspoons of sugar daily. That’s not hard to do when the average can of soda has 10 teaspoons of the sweet stuff.
What do you get when you devour sugar? You get a rapid source of energy with absolutely no nutritional benefit. Sugar is simply empty calories, devoid of anything you want in your body.
With growing knowledge of the negative impact sugar has on health, some folks are looking for sweetener alternatives. Most people would rather avoid artificial sweetener options like sucralose and aspartame and stick with something natural. You might think natural sweeteners are a healthier choice, but not every natural option is necessarily a healthy one. Here are five natural, low-calorie sweeteners that are less healthful than you think.
Natural Sweeteners: Fructose
Fructose is a natural sugar found in many fruits and available as a low-calorie, powdered sweetener you spoon into coffee, tea or anything other food or drink you want to sweeten. Makers of fructose sweeteners point out that fructose doesn’t stimulate the same rise in insulin that glucose does, so it must be better for you. Don’t believe them. It’s true that fructose doesn’t boost insulin release, but that doesn’t make it a healthy sweetener.
You get some natural fructose when you bite into a juicy, red apple, but the fructose in a whole piece of fruit is combined with fiber and natural phytochemicals that reduce the negative impact fructose sugar has on your health. When you use powdered fructose to sweeten your cappuccino, you’re getting a concentrated source of fructose with no fiber or other nutrients.
Another form of fructose called high-fructose corn syrup is now the sweetener of choice for refined food manufacturers because it’s cheap. When you buy fructose-sweetened products you’re getting a highly processed form of sweetener that is also, in many cases, genetically modified.
Some people argue that fructose is no worse for you from a health standpoint than glucose. Whether that’s true is still up for debate – but why would you sweeten your tea with something that’s even remotely as bad as sugar? Some studies show your body processes fructose differently. Once absorbed, it travels directly to your liver, rather than going through the “proper” channels, where it can be directly converted into fat. Some studies link high-fructose corn syrup with fatty liver, elevated triglycerides, and insulin resistance.
A study carried out at Princeton University showed that high-fructose corn syrup was linked with significantly more weight gain than sugar even when an equal number of calories of each were consumed. Doesn’t sound like a glowing endorsement for fructose, does it?
The take-home message? Get fructose naturally from fruits, and stay away from those little fructose packets that supermarkets sell as an alternative to sugar AND processed items sweetened with high-fructose corn syrup.
Natural Sweeteners: Agave Syrup
Agave syrup is marketed as a low-calorie, low-glycemic sweetener, but it suffers from the same problems as high-fructose corn syrup. In fact, some brands of agave syrup at the supermarket are 70% or more fructose by weight. Even high-fructose corn syrup is only about 55% fructose, so some brands of agave syrup are even higher in fructose than high-fructose corn syrup itself. Still, people perceive agave syrup to be healthier, possibly because it’s a sweetener used in products you find at natural food markets. Don’t be fooled by the agave syrup “health halo”; most brands are still laden with fructose and are no better for you than sugar.
Natural Sweeteners: Sugar Alcohols
Sugar alcohols are lower in calories than sugar, although the number of calories varies with the sugar alcohol you choose. Sugar alcohols have some positive aspects. Most of them cause little or no rise in blood sugar when you consume them – but there is an exception, maltitol syrup. Maltitol syrup elicits a significant rise in blood sugar in some people and isn’t a good choice for diabetics. Other sugar alcohols, including xylitol, sorbitol, and erythritol, appear to be safe and have minimal impact on blood sugar. Although research suggests sugar alcohols are harmless, they can cause bloating, gas, diarrhea, and tummy upset in some people, especially in large quantities.
Sugar alcohols, other than maltitol syrup, are a reasonable sugar substitute in modest quantities. One advantage is these sweeteners don’t cause tooth decay, unlike sugar. Xylitol, sugar alcohol, is an ingredient in some candies and breath mints because it blocks the growth of bacteria that cause dental decay, so it could save you money on dental bills. Be aware that xylitol is toxic to dogs. Keep it away from your four-legged friends. With the exception of xylitol, other sugar alcohols aren’t as sweet as sugar, so you’ll need to use more to get the same degree of sweetness.
Natural Sweeteners: Coconut Sugar
Everything coconut is trendy now and that includes coconut sugar. Coconut sugar comes from the sugary fluid inside a coconut plant. Once the fluid is extracted, the liquid is heated to remove the water and dehydrated to create a powder much like brown sugar. The positive: coconut sugar is less processed than table sugar and contains more minerals, antioxidants and B vitamins. It also has a lower glycemic index. The negative: it has roughly the same calories and carbs like table sugar. Plus, it contains a similar amount of fructose as table sugar.
All in all, coconut sugar is a slightly better choice over table sugar since it’s less processed and retains some minerals, antioxidants, and vitamins, but it’s just as high in calories as processed sugar. If you’re trying to lose weight, substituting coconut sugar for table sugar probably won’t make much of a difference. It does have slightly more nutritional value and a lower glycemic index, but not enough to make it your “go to” sweetener.
Natural Sweeteners: Honey
Honey contains trace amounts of nutrients as well as small amounts of antioxidants, but not enough to qualify it as a health food, as some people like to do. When you add honey to a food or drink, it still has a significant impact on your blood sugar. Depending on the type, honey can have a relatively high glycemic index, although it doesn’t raise blood sugar as much as an equivalent amount of table sugar. It’s about as sweet or slightly sweeter than sugar and because of its rich flavor and texture, people sometimes use slightly less. Honey is also higher in calories (22 calories per teaspoon) relative to sugar. (16 calories per teaspoon). Use it in moderation.
The Bottom Line
Ideally, eliminate added sweeteners from your diet as much as you can. If you gradually cut back on the amount of sweetener you use, you’ll learn to appreciate foods in their natural state.
Holistic Primary Care. Summer 2014. “Making Sense of Natural Non-Nutritive Sweeteners”
Princeton University. “A sweet problem: Princeton researchers find that high-fructose corn syrup prompts considerably more weight gain” (2010)
Dr. Andrew Weil. “What’s Wrong with Agave Nectar?”
Authority Nutrition. “6 Healthy Sugars That Can Kill You”
J Agric Food Chem. 2002 Oct 9;50(21):5870-7.
National Honey Board. “Carbohydrates and the Sweetness of Honey”
J Manipulative Physiol Ther. 1990 Jul-Aug;13(6):322-5.
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