We know sugar is bad… but what are the replacement options. Some seem to be worse than sugar and with others the jury is still out or the trials not yet complete. As it stands we have two options; ‘artificial sweeteners’ or ‘natural sweeteners’. So what’s the difference in health terms.
Artificial sweeteners: in some quarters they are a health revolution and in others considered to be excitotoxins and disruptive to the nervous and endocrine systems. Personally I am not a fan. More research needs to be carried out on dosage, duration of use etc. The two most utilized are aspartame and saccharin.
Aspartame is much lauded as having zero calories to its sweet taste( some brands up to 200 times that of sucrose/sugar) but the compound breaks down in the human system into Phenylalanine which inhibits the activity of a gut enzyme called alkaline phosphatase (IAP) which is known to slow the progression of metabolic syndrome, obesity and diabetes.
Saccharin aka Sodium saccharin (benzoic sulfimide) is a manufactured sweetener, approximately 300–400 times as sweet as sucrose/sugar (some brands up to 700 times). It can however have a bitter or metallic aftertaste. It will raise glucose levels but not as strikingly as sugar. It belongs to a class of compounds known as sulfonamides, which can cause allergic reactions in some.
‘Natural’ sweeteners: there are increasing numbers of natural choices on health store and supermarket shelves. Here are some of the more popular ones.
Agave syrup (extracted from Agave tequilana) is sweeter than honey and table sugar but with a low glycemic index and oft promoted as a healthy alternative for diabetics. It is predominantly made up of fructans and fructose rather than glucose and so absorbs more steadily and slowly into the bloodstream. Caveat – fructose is calorie high and while theoretically less damaging than table sugar it is no ‘health compound’ and can contribute to raised triglycerides and fat accumulation. The syrup however does contain quantities of Iron, Magnesium, Calcium and Potassium
Erythritol is a derivative of a plant based sugar alcohol (occurring naturally in some fruit and fermented foods) that is processed into a low-calorie sweetener. It is roughly 60 – 80% as sweet as sucrose (table sugar) but it does not spike blood glucose or insulin levels and has no impact upon cholesterol or triglycerides either. Over use can cause some digestive upset.
Honey is so sweet because it consists almost completely of pure glucose and levulose (a fructose) and it will spike blood glucose and insulin – this is often overlooked as it has so many other health benefits; mainly due to its mineral-rich and organic acid profile that supports liver function and intestinal health. Darker-coloured honey is higher in mineral and acid content.
Maple syrup (extract of the sap of Acer saccharum) is sweet by virtue of being approximately 2/3rds sucrose and with that all the links to obesity, type 2 diabetes and heart disease. It is seen as a healthier option in that as a replacement option, gram for gram, it technically cuts sugar consumption by 1/3 and also because it is slower to trigger a spike. Maple Syrup is a good source of Manganese and Zinc and can potential yield around 20-30 different antioxidants, the darker ones more so.
Stevia (an extract from the leaves of Stevia rebaudiana) comprised of two particularly sweet compounds – Stevioside and Rebaudioside A – each being around 100 times sweeter than sugar, gram for gram. It has zero calories and a zero rating on the Glycemic load index. It has been shown to improve insulin sensitivity and to reduce oxidized LDL cholesterol. Before its use as a sweetener, the herb had a medicinal value in reducing arterial plaque buildup.
Xylitol is a plant based sugar alcohol. Traditionally found in birch trees but also in other sources that contain the plant fiber xylan. Its sweetness is on a par to sugar but with 2/3rds of the caloric value. Xylitol does not spike blood sugar or insulin levels some scientific studies have shown that it can improve bone density and so lower the risk of osteoporosis and it is fast becoming a replacement in dental care products as supports remineralization of teeth.
Yacon syrup – New ‘healthy syrups’ come on the market all the time but Yacon Syrup looks promising as a natural sweetener; beyond its potential to regulate blood sugar and cholesterol levels, it is quite high in fructooligosaccharides –a set of soluble fibers which feed and nurture bifidobacteria and lactobacilli (the good bacteria) in the intestines. It can however exert laxative properties in doses above sweetening a tea.