Sugar and sugar substitutes are a hot topic. There are so many options out there! Which raises the questions: What is the best alternative to table sugar? Is plain old white sugar really that bad for me? Is it safe to consume _____ in place of table sugar?
The truth? All sweet stuff is not created equal. As much as Americans try to limit the sugar filled foods, we’re hopelessly addicted. And that means spending lots of money on sweeteners that aren’t table sugar but are just as bad for us.
This list isn’t exhaustive, but it’s a start. Here’s a breakdown of what you need to know about the most popular sweeteners on the market:
1. Table Sugar (also known as Sucrose)
Table sugar is 50% fructose and 50% glucose, it’s made of beet sugar or sugar cane. Let’s get a little science heavy and talk about the biochemistry of glucose vs. fructose. This is really important to help you understand the metabolism of sweeteners:
Glucose can be used in three ways: as fuel for your brain and red blood cells, stored as glycogen in your liver and muscles (to be used later) or it can be converted to fatty acids that are stored in fat. When you’re in a situation where you chronically have too much sugar, muscle and fat cells become resistant to the effects of insulin and take up less glucose. This is when your pancreas stops being able to meet your need for insulin and type 2 diabetes develops.
Fructose is processed differently. The liver removes fructose after being absorbed in the gut and then it is used to produce glucose, fatty acids or lactate. In contrast to glucose, fructose doesn’t stimulate insulin secretion. This is an issue because leptin, the hormone that controls satiety and feelings of hunger, is regulated by insulin that is released after a meal. The takeaway? Consuming fructose reduces circulating levels of leptin and insulin, which plays a role in weight gain and its associated metabolic sequelae.
That being said, it’s virtually impossible to eat too much fructose from fruit. With fruit you’re getting fiber, water and nutrients which take a while to metabolize; the fructose doesn’t hit your liver all at once when it comes from a fruit source.
2. Turbinado Sugar (also known as Sugar in the Raw)
I know a lot of people look at raw turbinado sugar as the safer alternative to her sister, white table sugar. That is a false assumption. Turbinado is pure sugar cane extract which makes it 50% fructose and 50% glucose, just like table sugar. It has the same effects on blood sugar mentioned above.
3. Maple Syrup
Maple syrup is approximately 2/3 sucrose (or table sugar). This means it will raise your blood sugar slower than table sugar but still raise it, none the less. Maple Syrup has some benefits, namely it has minerals like calcium, potassium, iron, zinc and manganese.
Stevia comes from a plant and is super, super sweet. It’s 200-300 times sweeter than table sugar so you only needs a tiny bit to make whatever you’re eating/drinking sweet. Stevia bypasses normal absorption, it is metabolized in the gut and heads straight to the liver; this means it doesn’t affect blood sugar levels. There are some reports that stevia can cause an upset stomach and/or burden the kidneys because of the way it is excreted. Processed stevia can contain excipients, so look for a pure form that doesn’t contain bulking ingredients like: dextrose, FOS (fructooligosacharides), erythritol, xylitol, maltodextrine, lactose or combination of these ingredients.
Agave nectar is liquid sweetener derived from a plant, and is often touted as a low glycemic alternative to refined sugar. Agave has been known to contain between 70-90% fructose; to compare, high fructose corn syrup is only 55% fructose! High fructose consumption has been linked to lots of scary things, like fatty liver disease. Remember, fructose may prevent you from feeling “full” because it doesn’t stimulate insulin and leptin secretion or suppress ghrenlin production. These are all key hormones that play a role in hunger and food intake.
6. Sucralose (also known as Splenda)
Sucralose is 600 times sweeter than table sugar. Personally, I don’t use sucralose and would never recommend it. In fact, it’s at the top of my list of things that I won’t eat. A study published in 2008 found that 12 weeks of using Splenda resulted in a reduction in good gut bacteria, which other studies have found can be related to metabolic disorders. Cooking with sucralose at high temperatures was shown to produce toxic compounds. More importantly, artificial sweeteners like sucralose interact with receptors on the tongue, letting the body know you’ve eaten something sweet and preliminary research shows that this can cause a blood sugar-insulin roller coaster that certainly isn’t good for you.
Honey is quite possibly the most well-known alternative sweetener. It’s a mix of fructose and glucose: about 38% fructose to 31% glucose. It also has several vitamins and minerals, including B vitamins, amino acids, proteins, antioxidants, enzymes and micronutrients. Generally, the sugars in honey are sweeter that artificial sweeteners. Honey also has a mix of monosaccharides, disaccharides and trisaccharides which gives you fast and slow burning sugars.
Xylitol is a sweetener derived from corn cobs or birch trees; its claim to fame is that it has 1/3 calories of table sugar and is as sweet as sugar. Xylitol is deadly for dogs. If a dog ingests it, it can cause a sudden release of insulin and a potentially deadly drop in blood sugar. This means: vomiting, depression, loss of coordination, seizures, or coma; not to mention the possibility of fatal liver failure. To me, that’s really scary. Xylitol is used in oral care products because it prevents tooth decay. Your body naturally produces between 5-15 grams of xylitol daily, as a by product of metabolism. 80% of the xylitol you consume is metabolized in the liver, 10% in the kidneys and 10% is used as immediate energy.
9. Saccharin (also known as Sweet n’ Low)
300 times sweeter than sucrose and another huge no-no in my book. Research has shown the negative effect of saccharin in mice, specifically how it can affect the gut microbiome and create metabolic disorders. Anecdotally, we’ve seen it in humans too. Saccharin remains unchanged as passes through the body and is not metabolized but that doesn’t make it safe.
When it comes to the sweet stuff there are lots of options – choose the one that is right for you and your lifestyle. If I had to pick, it would be honey or stevia. Stevia doesn’t impact blood sugar at all and honey has less fructose/sucrose than table sugar. I also love the medicinal properties of honey. While the taste of stevia can be hard to adjust to at first, like anything, you’ll grow to appreciate it over time.
Remember that every sweetener affects your blood sugar in unique ways and moderation (or elimination) is key.
Your turn: What is your sweetener of choice? Have you ever given up sugar for any period of time? Is there a sweetener that I didn’t cover that you’d like to learn more about?