HEAL’s Guide to Sugars & Sweeteners

Cane sugar, maple syrup, monk fruit, OH MY! The world of sweeteners can get confusing. Is cane sugar the devil? Is monk fruit better for you? What about raw honey? In today’s post, we’re sharing our guide to sugars and sweeteners.

First up, let’s dive into some details on sugar.

What Is Sugar?

Sugars are naturally occurring carbohydrates. Examples include brown sugar, cane sugar, fruit, honey and molasses. These sugars contain calories and when they’re ingested, they’re broken down in your digestive system and released into your bloodstream as glucose (this is called blood sugar).

Sugar is the most widely used sweetener available. The biggest problem with sugar is that the kind we see in most products is granulated white sugar or table sugar and it’s the most refined and chemically processed. The refining process destroys almost all of the beneficial properties of the raw cane sugar. Raw cane sugar is the less refined form of sugar cane but from a metabolic standpoint regular consumption will still have an impact on your blood sugar levels and therefore impact your energy, mood, cravings, and so on.

High sugar consumption has been linked to gastrointestinal disorders, inflammation, diabetes, heart disease and more. Thankfully there are so many better alternatives if you’d like to achieve that sweet taste, so we are sharing some of them below. Sugar is dominant in food nowadays so for the purpose of this review, we are going to focus on a couple of the key sugars, sugar alternatives and artificial sweeteners that you are most likely to find.

Natural Sugars

Coconut Sugar

Coconut nectar is the sap derived from the flower blossom of a coconut palm tree that has been boiled down to a syrup consistency. Coconut palm sugar is made by crystallization of the nectar and has the taste and texture similar to brown sugar but a little less sweet. Coconut sugar has a much lower glycemic index (35) than white sugar (60-65) so it won’t spike your blood sugar levels quite as high. It’s also very sustainably produced and higher in many minerals, though if you’re eating small amounts the nutritional content is minimal. I prefer to buy chocolate, granolas or packaged snacks that use coconut sugar as a sweetener and use a 1:1 ratio to replace it with sugar in recipes.

Honey

Honey is high in carbohydrates and calories but should actually be considered more of a food because, in small amounts, can have some health benefits. It’s a great option if you need a little sweetener for baking or hot drinks. Honey has long been used as a natural sweetener with a host of other benefits including anti-bacterial, anti-inflammatory and antioxidant properties. It’s especially helpful for relieving sore, itchy throats and colds.

If you’re looking to benefit from the medicinal qualities of honey, raw and organic and/or wild is best since the pasteurization process destroys many of the beneficial compounds. Be warned that some large brands have also been known to dilute honey with cheaper sweeteners like high fructose corn syrup. We love Beekeeper’s Naturals honey products or buying from a local vendor.

Real Maple Syrup

Pure maple syrup is another one of our go-to natural sweeteners’ that is best used in baking and some dressings. We like it because it goes through minimal processing - it’s extracted from the sap of the maple tree and is full of minerals like potassium, zinc, magnesium and calcium.

A couple of notes on honey and maple syrup: If you are looking to remove more sugar from your diet and simply replace everything you were eating with honey and maple syrup, from a metabolic standpoint you’re not much farther ahead. While honey and maple syrup have some health benefits, metabolically speaking, they are still metabolized as sugar.

Dates

Dates are really a fruit but we’ve listed them because they’re common in many health food products and recipes. Dates are quite high in sugar, but with that being said, they’re also very high in fiber and minerals and because they’re so sweet you really don’t need many to achieve the right sweetness in a recipe. We love them for baking and desserts or even stuffed with a little almond butter for a sweet treat. Dates are also great for athletes needing to fuel up on simple sugars during an endurance event.

Sugar Alternatives

Stevia

Stevia is at the top of our list of preferred sugar substitutes, as it is a natural sugar substitute made from the leaves of the stevia plant. It contains no calories or sugar and does not raise blood sugar levels so it is safe for diabetics and those on a Candida Diet. In fact, stevia has actually been found to help regulate blood sugar levels. An added bonus is that stevia is one of the most eco-friendly sweeteners as it uses up less land, water and energy to produce the same level of sweetness. The main thing to know about stevia is that it is 250-300 times sweeter than sucrose (table sugar) and has a somewhat bitter aftertaste, so not everyone is a fan.

Monk Fruit

I love monk fruit as a sweetener too - in fact, taste wise I like it more than stevia. Monk fruit sweetener is derived from the fruit’s extract. It actually gets its sweetness from its antioxidant content and contains no calories, no sugar and does not impact blood sugar levels. The main downside of monk fruit is that it is often combined with dextrose which is a simple sugar made from corn. Though it does not raise blood sugar levels, it may stimulate insulin secretion which is not suitable for someone with diabetes or pancreatic disorders. It also hasn’t been around for that long so the research is still fairly new. Because it is 150 to 200 times sweeter than sugar it’s rarely found in large amounts and may be a helpful alternative for someone on a low calorie or low carb diet.

Sugar Alcohols

These are reduced calorie sugar alcohols that are often found in sugar-free candy and gum. Sugar alcohols have half the calories of sugars and can raise your blood sugar levels, although not as much as other carbohydrates. Some people find sugar alcohols to be really tough on their digestion, so careful if you notice that a protein bar or treat sweetened with sugar alcohols are causing you to feel bloated and gassy.

Xylitol

Don’t be fooled by the name - though xylitol sounds like something manufactured in a lab it is found and many plants and in North America is actually extracted from birch wood. You might find xylitol in gum, toothpaste, sugar-free candy and even in some yogurts, jams and nut butters. It is used because it has a sweetness very comparable to sugar (but with a bit of an aftertaste) and has some surprising health benefits. Xylitol has a low glycemic index, meaning it won’t spike your blood sugar levels and is often recommended to diabetics. Unlike other sugars, xylitol does not ferment, so bacteria in your mouth cannot convert it into harmful acid that can cause tooth decay. It has also been shown to reduce bacteria that are responsible for tooth decay and gingivitis. This is why it’s often found in toothpaste. On the flip side, like other sugar alcohols it has been known to cause digestive issues like bloating and even diarrhea. It is generally safe in very small amounts but many people can’t tolerate even minimal amounts. Also, please note that xylitol can be lethal to dogs.

Erythritol

Erythritol is made from fermented corn or corn starch and occurs naturally in some fruits and fungi like melon, grapes and mushrooms. It’s about 70% the sweetness of sugar. It has zero calories and no carbs so is generally considered a keto & diabetes-friendly alternative. It may also have even more benefits for oral health. The problem with erythritol is that it too is only partially digested and absorbed in the digestive tract so it can cause digestive issues for some people, but less than many other sugar alcohols. Like other sugar alcohols we recommend it in low to moderate amounts.

Artificial sweeteners

Artificial sweeteners are sweeteners designed in a lab, have no calories and do not raise blood sugar levels. Examples of the most common artificial sweeteners include:

  • Saccharin (Sweet'N Low®, SugarTwin®)
  • Acesulfame K (Sunett®, Sweet One®)
  • Sucralose (Splenda®)
  • Aspartame (NutraSweet®, Equal®)

Over the years there has been some debate in the health community and some popular headlines as to whether these sweeteners are harmful. We now know that they do not raise blood sugar levels but still come with a list of potentially harmful effects.

One study on mice found that 6 month sucralose consumption at equivalent to the daily acceptable intake in humans may increase the risk of developing tissue inflammation by impacting the development of the gut bacteria, a problem that is linked to a host of diseases including diabetes, heart disease and mood disorders. Other studies have found that because artificial sweeteners are so sweet, they may change the way you perceive and taste sweet flavours, making you crave a stronger sweetness for satisfaction. They also have not been shown to have a positive effect on weight loss and this may be due to the fact that on a psychological level, if you’ve skipped calories in your drinks your may be more inclined to indulge in other areas.

Our recommendation is to avoid artificial sweeteners altogether. What we know so far is that the risks of their consumption far outweigh any of the benefits and with so many natural, healthier alternatives they can easily be avoided. If you have a craving for pop or a carbonated drink you’re much better off drinking something like Kombucha or even sparkling water with a little bit of juice.

Additional Sources:

https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5522834/

https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4890837/

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