Sugar isn’t so sweet for your health. Still, it’s everywhere and in everything! Even if you never add a single packet of sugar to your coffee or tea, you’re probably consuming more sugar than you think. Pick up any packaged food and check out the grams of added sugar. You’ll quickly see that foods that don’t taste particularly sweet still have plenty of added sugar. These include yogurt, many seemingly healthy beverages, cereals, condiments, and more.
What’s so bad about sugar? Studies link sugar and refined carbs and the obesity they cause with a greater risk of metabolic syndrome and type 2 diabetes. Plus, some experts believe a diet high in sugar increases the risk of cardiovascular disease too. Not only does it cause insulin spikes, University of Warwick researchers believe it can alter the properties of the lipoproteins that carry cholesterol. The way it may do this is by binding to the lipoprotein carriers and increasing their density. This makes them stickier. When lipoprotein particles are stickier, they can more easily attach to the inner walls of arteries. This may partially explain why diabetics have a higher risk of cardiovascular disease.
But what if you still need a little added sweetness in your coffee or tea? Are there healthier alternatives to sugar?
Alternatives To Sugar That Aren’t as Healthy as People Claim
Many people have the idea that natural is healthier. Hoping to add a little sweetness to their coffee, they turn to natural sweeteners like honey, turbinado sugar, coconut sugar, or agave syrup. Unfortunately, these sweeteners cause a similar blood sugar response as sugar. You might point out that honey contains nutrients and that’s true. Honey is a source of vitamin C, some B vitamins, as well as minerals like iron, magnesium, calcium, copper, phosphorus, potassium, and zinc. However, the quantities of these components in honey is small. You’d have to consume a lot of it to add a significant quantity of vitamins and minerals to your bottom line. The blood sugar spike isn’t worth it. Instead, you can get vitamins and minerals by eating a whole, nutrient-rich diet. Plus, honey has slightly more carbs and calories per serving than cane sugar does.
Turbinado and coconut sugar don’t fare much better. The glycemic index of a sweetener or food is a measure of the impact it has on blood sugar. According to the University of Sydney, white sugar has a glycemic index of 80. Turbinado sugar is slightly lower with a glycemic index of 65 but it’s still in the high glycemic category. So, it’s not a blood sugar friendly sweetener.
Coconut sugar from the coconut palm tree is a little easier on the blood sugar with a glycemic index of 54. So, it would be a better choice than turbinado sugar but still not ideal. On the plus side, coconut sugar contains small amounts of calcium, zinc, and iron as well as trace amounts of antioxidants, but it’s not enough to justify calling it a health food, as some sources do.
Agave syrup is a class by itself. It has a low glycemic index of around 11. Sounds like a winner, right? Don’t let the glycemic index fool you. The reason it’s so low is that agave syrup contains primarily fructose. In fact, most commercial brands of agave syrup contain as much or more fructose as high-fructose syrup, a sweetener linked with non-alcoholic fatty liver disease. Although the fructose in agave syrup won’t spike blood sugar, it is metabolized by the liver in a way that increases the production of triglycerides. These triglycerides enter the bloodstream and some get stored in the liver. Hence, its link with non-alcoholic fatty liver disease, a growing epidemic in western countries.
Are There Healthy Sweetener Alternatives?
The problem with most of the natural sweeteners on the market is that they still impact your blood sugar and metabolic health. This is true of other popular options as well, such as barley malt, maple syrup, and molasses. But there are a few natural sweeteners options that have no impact on blood sugar. For example, Stevia, extracted from Stevia rebaudiana leaves, has a glycemic index of less than one. In fact, some studies suggest that Stevia actually improves insulin sensitivity and may be beneficial for diabetics. In addition, research shows that it may modestly lower blood pressure. Let’s look at Stevia more closely.
You can buy Stevia in its natural, unaltered form, but it tends to have a slightly bitter aftertaste. That’s why manufacturers process it a bit and sometimes add erythritol, a sugar alcohol to improve the taste. With these changes, Stevia has a sweetness much like sugar, although more potent. In fact, it’s at least 100 times sweeter, so you need less to sweeten your food or drink. Erythritol has no impact on blood sugar either. Therefore, using Stevia alone or in a Stevia/erythritol formulation should not cause a blood sugar spike. Studies also support the safety of erythritol, although some people develop mild bloating or other digestive issues when consuming large amounts.
Monk Fruit: Another Natural, No-Calorie Sweetener
If Stevia doesn’t strike your fancy, there’s another sweetener that won’t raise your blood sugar. It’s monk fruit sweetener. The active ingredients in this fruit-derived sweetener are called mogrosides. Although mogrosides have not been the focus of much research, it preliminarily looks like mogrosides could have health benefits. Animal studies show that these natural chemicals have antioxidant activity and may lower blood sugar, much like Stevia. The Food and Drug Administration classifies them as “generally recognized as safe.”
As with Stevia, you often see monk fruit combined with erythritol, a sugar alcohol. Read labels carefully as some monk fruit is combined with dextrose, another name for sugar. Monk fruit sweeteners, like Stevia, are at least 100 times sweeter than sugar. One disadvantage of monk fruit sweeteners is that they’re more expensive and sometimes harder to find at supermarkets.
The Bottom Line
Stevia and monk fruit are two natural sweetener options that won’t raise your blood sugar and may have other beneficial health effects. At the very least, they appear to be safe. Plus, you don’t need much due to their extreme sweetness. So, consider this the next time you’re looking for a natural, sugar-free sweetener. Even better, wean yourself off of all sweeteners and enjoy food in its natural unsweetened state!
· Science Daily. “Super-sticky ‘ultra-bad’ cholesterol revealed in people at high risk of heart disease”
· Mayo Clinic. “Diabetes foods: Is honey a good substitute for sugar?”
· University of Sydney. “Glycemic Index”
· Medical News Today. “Coconut Sugar: Is It Good for You?”
· Medical News Today. “Is agave syrup the best sweetener for diabetes?”
· Metabolism. 2004 Jan;53(1):73-6.
· Phytochemistry. 2003 Nov;64(5):913-21.
· Food and Chemical Toxicology. Volume 46, Issue 7, Supplement, July 2008, Pages S40-S46.
· Medical News Today. “What are monk fruit and stevia?”