What is wrong with sugar?
As we discussed in the previous article, sugar has been associated with a variety of major health problems including obesity, cancer, and heart disease among others.[i] The food industry’s solution to these problems was to manufacture artificial sweeteners which were supposed to satisfy society’s craving for sweetness, without all the associated negative health conditions. Artificial sweeteners solved the calorie problems associated with sugar (as many have zero or very few calories when compared to sugar) but came with unintended health consequences including: cancer, mental and behavioral disorders, metabolic syndrome, inflammatory bowel disease and much more. Additionally, the public’s perception of scientifically created products has changed, with many people favoring natural or organic products over artificially made ones. This created the need for natural alternatives to sugar, that provide the taste people love without the negative side effects. The food industry has tried to fulfill this need, but are these natural alternatives any better?
Honey has been used for centuries as a natural sweetener and is produced by bees.
Besides it sweetening properties, honey provides the following health benefits:
1 Is rich in antioxidants which help decrease inflammation linked with chronic illness
2 Is an antiseptic that can be used to treat cuts or wounds (due to its antiviral, anti-fungal and anti-microbial properties.
3 Has been shown to possess the ability to shrink tumors
The downsides of honey usage include:
1 Higher costs than sugar or other natural sweeteners
2 Has more calories per serving than sugar
3 Has a moderate to high glycemic value depending on the type (which can impact diabetics and people watching their weight)[ii]
Verdict-Honey is a great natural alternative to sugar. However, be mindful of the amount you consume due to the number of calories per serving.
Agave syrup is a sweetener derived from the nectar of an agave plant. There are conflicting opinions in health circles as to whether this sweetener should be classified as natural or artificial. The reason for this is because, in order to change the nectar of the Agave plant into the product that is sold in stores, it has to undergo a series of chemical, and manufacturing processes that alter the natural composition of the nectar.[iii]
The benefits of using Agave syrup include:
1 Has a low glycemic value making it a good choice for diabetics
The downside of using Agave syrup include:
1 Agave syrup has a much higher level of fructose than its original nectar (even higher than high fructose corn syrup) which may lead to health problems, including obesity and fatty liver disease
Verdict- I personally used this product in the past, but in light of information that I recently learned, I will no longer being using Agave syrup, unless I find a product that is similar to the original Agave nectar.
Maple syrup is made from tree sap collected from maple trees, which is then filtered, and boiled, to make syrup.
The benefits of using Maple syrup include:
1 Containing fewer calories, and higher amounts of manganese and zinc than honey
2 Contains antioxidants
3 Has a low glycemic value
The downside of using maple syrup include:
1 If you buy artificially flavored maple syrup it may contain unhealthy ingredients including high fructose corn syrup, sugar etc.
Verdict- When purchasing this product, make sure you read the labels carefully, to ensure that you are buying real maple syrup not maple flavored syrup. Labels for real maple syrup should only list maple syrup as the ingredient.
Blackstrap molasses is the liquid left over from the boiling and removal of sugar crystals from sugarcane.
The benefits of using Blackstrap molasses include:
1 It is nutrient dense and has a wide array of minerals including iron, calcium, magnesium, manganese, and potassium.
2 Has a low glycemic value
3 Can be used to treat conditions such as anemia, and osteoporosis, due to its high iron and calcium content.
The downside of using Blackstrap molasses includes:
1 Having a slightly bitter taste. It is not as sweet as conventional sugar, which limits its use in certain recipes.
Verdict- Blackstrap molasses is a great substitute for sugar but due to taste has limited use in recipes.
Siraitia grosvenorii aka Monk fruit is a green melon looking fruit that comes from China.
Its benefits include:
1 Low in calories while still being 200 to 300 times sweeter than sugar
2 Being rich in antioxidants
3 Is used in Eastern medicine to treat respiratory illnesses
4 May have cancer preventing properties
Verdict -The only downside I found for Monk fruit is the cost, but based on my research Monk fruit, has a tremendous upside due to it nutrient profile.
Stevia is a sweetener obtained from the leaves of the Stevia plant.
The benefits of Stevia include:
1 It contains virtually no calories(Less than 4 calories per serving) and is much sweeter than sugar.
The downsides of Stevia Include:
1 Some of the commercial varieties of Stevia use a chemical extraction process to obtain Stevia, which according to some food purists, adulterates the naturalness of the Stevia extract.
2 Stevia has been known to have a bitter aftertaste, which some individuals might find offensive.
Verdict- Stevia is a great substitute for sugar if you buy the organic or the minimally processed type.
Xylitol is obtained from sugars found in wood, and from certain fruits and vegetables. Among health professionals, there is a debate on whether or not Xylitol should still be considered natural since the xylitol used in many products is commercially created, and processed from plant extracts.
The benefits of Xylitol include:
1 Have fewer calories than traditional sugar and a lower glycemic value
2 Preventing or eliminating cavities
3 Can be used for treating ear infections in children
The downsides of Xylitol:
1 When consumed in large amounts, it can trigger stomach pain or even diarrhea in some individuals.
2 Many brands of xylitol are commercially processed (which could possibly lead to other harmful additives being used in this product)
Verdict- Should you use Xylitol? The answer is as I am still currently investigating the Xylitol manufacturing process so I cannot give a definitive answer. I personally have used products with added Xylitol, such as gum and mouthwash, without any negative effects (and in fact, my mouth felt cleaner than normal.) As I learn more information about this product I will share it with you, but for now, I recommend using xylitol products that are minimally processed.
Always Remember- Foods are like friends. Choose them wisely.
[i] White sugar and brown sugar have both been implicated in the previously mentioned conditions, and are sources of empty calories, despite the wide held belief that brown sugar is much healthier than white sugar. Brown sugar does contain molasses, which contains some minerals, but in such negligible amounts, that it does not justify its preferential consumption in lieu of white sugar.
[ii] Glycemic value measures the rate at which the body converts carbohydrates contained in foods into sugar in the bloodstream which impact insulin (hormone that regulates blood sugar levels) production.
[iii] In 2000 The FDA shut down one of the leading manufacturers of Agave Syrup because they were mixing Agave syrup with High fructose corn syrup to increase their profits and to decrease their manufacturing costs; this while labeling their product certified organic. Some health professionals believe that this fraudulent activity could be still occurring among some Agave manufacturing companies today (due to the lack of regulation and oversight by the FDA in recent times)
Sources of information for article are below
1”What’s the Harm?” Consumer Reports on Health, vol. 11, no. 5, May 1999, p. 1
2 Nagel, Rami. “Agave Nectar.” Townsend Letter, no. 310, May 2009, pp. 69-73
3 Blatner, Dawn Jackson. “Ask a Nutritionist.” Vegetarian Times, no. 414, Sept. 2014, p. 46
4 NEACŞU, N. A. and A. MADAR. “Artificial Sweeteners Versus Natural Sweeteners.” Bulletin of the Transilvania University of Brasov. Series V: Economic Sciences, vol. 7, no. 1, Jan. 2014, pp. 59-64.
5 Angels, Gayle and Josef Brinckmann. “Luo Han Guo (Monk Fruit).” Herbalgram, no. 103, Aug/Oct2014, p. 1.
6 Sego, Sherril. “Monk Fruit.” Clinical Advisor, vol. 17, no. 4, Apr. 2014, pp. 104-105
7 Arfmann, Barbara. “Sweet Relief for Beverages.” Beverage Industry, Mar. 2016, p. 68
8 Wepman, Warren. “How Sweet It Is! Part 2.” Macrobiotics Today, vol. 51, no. 3, May/Jun2011, pp. 11-15.
9 Martin, Robert C. “Xylitol: Sweet Revenge against Tooth Decay, Obesity and Insulin Spikes.” Nutritional Perspectives: Journal of the Council on Nutrition, vol. 37, no. 2, Apr. 2014, pp. 15-16.
10 Janakiram, Chandrashekar, et al. “Xylitol in Preventing Dental Caries: A Systematic Review and Meta-Analyses.” Journal of Natural Science, Biology & Medicine, vol. 8, no. 1, Jan-Jun 2017, pp. 16-21