Behind the Sweetness of Alternative Sugars

 
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Did you know that sugar is found in 74% of packaged goods found at the grocery store?  

 

Thankfully we live in a time where there are many alternatives for the standard processed sugars like cane sugar and corn syrup because growing scientific evidence suggests that fructose is like alcohol - it’s toxic to your liver.  

 

My favorite sugar alternatives are fruits and dates, honey, coconut palm sugar and stevia. It can be a bit confusing to sort out what is the best option as some of them are just as processed as traditionally used sugars. Staying away from processed foods in general and eating more whole foods eliminates much of the problem.  Taking a break from all added sugar for a week or so can also be very revealing way to learn how your body reacts to it in general. When I take these breaks from sugar and give my body a week to adjust, I feel more energy, have better concentration and sleep sounder.

 

The following is the low down on some of the more popular conventional sugar alternatives adapted from my own personal research and experience.  

 

AGAVE

 

Agave nectar (syrup) is one of the most popular sweeteners in the natural health community and often used in drinks and cocktails. Agave is made from the agave plant, a succulent native to Latin America.  This sweetener is touted as a healthy alternative to sugar because it has a low glycemic index. In reality, it’s actually highly processed and has a significant amount of fructose (often up to 70 to 90 percent).  The harmful effects of sugar have very little to do with the glycemic index and everything to do with the large amount of fructose.

Fructose doesn't raise blood sugar or insulin in the short term, but when consumed in high amounts it leads to insulin resistance... a long-term effect that will chronically elevate blood sugar and insulin levels. Having blood sugars go up for a short time isn't that bad, but having them chronically elevated (high all the time) results in major mood and energy swings.

For this reason, the fructose content of sugar is a much bigger problem than its glycemic index. Regular sugar is about 50% fructose, while Agave is about 70-90% fructose. Gram for gram, agave nectar is actually much, much worse than regular sugar.

AGAVE

Agave nectar (syrup) is one of the most popular sweeteners in the natural health community and often used in drinks and cocktails. Agave is made from the agave plant, a succulent native to Latin America.  This sweetener is touted as a healthy alternative to sugar because it has a low glycemic index. In reality, it’s actually highly processed and has a significant amount of fructose (often up to 70 to 90 percent).  The harmful effects of sugar have very little to do with the glycemic index and everything to do with the large amount of fructose.

Fructose doesn't raise blood sugar or insulin in the short term, but when consumed in high amounts it leads to insulin resistance... a long-term effect that will chronically elevate blood sugar and insulin levels. Having blood sugars go up for a short time isn't that bad, but having them chronically elevated (high all the time) results in major mood and energy swings.

For this reason, the fructose content of sugar is a much bigger problem than its glycemic index. Regular sugar is about 50% fructose, while Agave is about 70-90% fructose. Gram for gram, agave nectar is actually much, much worse than regular sugar.

BROWN RICE SYRUP

Brown rice syrup is a thick, gooey sweetener made from fermented cooked brown rice. While it’s typically made from natural ingredients, it is highly processed. On the plus side, brown rice syrup doesn’t contain fructose. Because of its unique stickiness, it can be texturally desirable for specific recipes like nut and seed bars.

COCONUT SUGAR

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Coconut nectar comes from the sap of the coconut palm tree flower, and coconut sugar is coconut nectar that has been dried down to its crystalline form. They are minimally processed (coconut nectar more so than coconut sugar) and have a relatively low GI score (35) compared to table sugar (68). Both coconut nectar and sugar do contain fructose (around 38-48 percent), but much less than agave.

HONEY

Honey has a lower GI value than sugar, meaning that it does not raise blood sugar levels as quickly. Honey is sweeter than sugar, so you may use less of it, but it does have slightly more calories per teaspoon so it's wise to keep a close eye on your portion sizes. Doctor Oz says, “Raw honey has less fructose than most agave and is the only natural sweetener with other health benefits, which include anti-microbial, heart-healthy and anti-inflammatory effects.”

MONK FRUIT

Monk fruit sweetener comes from the Siraitia grosvenorii plant (native to Asia), which has naturally occurring sweet plant chemicals that don’t raise blood sugar and does not contain glucose or fructose. Like stevia, monk fruit sweetener is several hundred times sweeter than table sugar, which seems like a great thing but as explained before, really isn’t. Both monk fruit sweetener and stevia can be enormously helpful for individuals with diabetes. If you’re sold, be sure to read the package label, since some products on the market contain maltodextrin and other unnecessary and processed stabilizers.

STEVIA

Stevia comes from the South American plant, Stevia rebaudiana, that has leaves with naturally occurring sweet-tasting compounds. Stevia is many hundred times sweeter than table sugar but is virtually sugar-free with no effect on blood sugar. Stevia has no calories and is considered to be a natural, safe alternative to things like aspartame or saccharin. That said, not all stevia is created equal—the product can vary from whole leaf powders (best option) to fairly processed products like Truvia. Additionally, because stevia is several hundred times sweeter than table sugar, it can overstimulate your taste buds and increase your sweetness threshold. Meaning that while you may cut down on sugar in the short term, you may also end up craving intensely sweet foods throughout the day.

XYLITOL AND ERYTHRITOL

These are naturally occurring carbohydrates called sugar alcohols. Sugar alcohols aren’t fully digested in the gastrointestinal tract, so they offer significantly fewer calories and don’t have much impact on blood sugar. Because they aren’t fully digested, these sources are often touted as great sources of prebiotics. On the flip side, sugar alcohols are often associated with gastrointestinal distress, bloating and gas.

 
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Bridgette Roberts