With all the “buzz” about sugar alternatives and healthy “natural” sweeteners on the market today, it can be overwhelming to decide which choice is best for you. There are many misconceptions regarding “healthy” sugar substitutes that are marketed as natural.
Did you know that most artificial sweeteners are derived from natural products? Even most fruits and vegetables contain them! With so many misunderstandings about the benefits of sugars, it is essential to learn the facts. We’ve outlined some of the most common artificial sweeteners and what current research is saying about all of them!
Remember that the most crucial aspect of healthy eating is to do everything in moderation. It’s okay to eat something sweet, but also essential to understand the cost. When analyzing blue zones, the healthiest places on the planet, researchers have discovered that sugar is one of the strongest omissions they stand by.
Natural Sweeteners With Nutritional Boosts
Yacon syrup is extracted from the yucan root, a tuber indigenous to the Andes mountains, and, in syrup form, has a glycemic index of 1! This sweetener contains 40–50% fructooligosaccharides, a sugar that the body cannot digest. These sugars also feed the good bacteria in the gut, which may aid weight loss.
Other potential benefits include:
- Lowered LDL levels
- Reduced blood glucose
- Reduced insulin resistance
- Regulate bowel movements
- ⅓ the number of calories as table sugar
Healthline.com discusses why one should be cautious when using this study to justify using yacon syrup in their weight loss plan, as one study does not necessarily prove that a substance will help with weight loss. The diet discussed in the study also consisted of calorie restriction and decreased fat consumption, likely contributing to weight loss.
Overall, Yacon syrup shows promise, but more studies need to be performed to determine the benefits of using this syrup as a sugar substitute.
Molasses is closer to a healthy sweetener, although it is an acquired taste. It contains the least sugar and is considered a superfood. Blackstrap molasses contains antioxidants, potassium, iron, calcium, magnesium, vitamin B6, and selenium.
The Not-So-Healthy Natural Sweeteners
Natural sweeteners have become quite popular as sugar alternatives. Though these sweeteners are not as processed as many artificial sweeteners and provide trace amounts of vitamins or minerals, they are not considered a healthy regular addition to your diet. Unfortunately, the few added health benefits of using natural sweeteners do not outweigh the high caloric load.
A common misconception about naturally-sourced sugar is increased health benefits. While this is partially true, most health benefits are found in the original plant and lost when heated and processed. Some of these sources include:
- Maple syrup
- Fruit juice or nectar
- Agave syrup
- Coconut sugar
Agave is an example of a good thing gone bad. When turned into syrup, agave loses all benefits and is even higher in calories than table sugar. Although low on the GI Index, marking it as diabetes friendly, it is incredibly high in fructose, making agave very dangerous in the long run.
Maple, honey, and coconut sugar retain nutrients and minerals after processing. The minimal benefits make them a better alternative to sugar, but by no means healthy.
Artificial and Non-Nutritive Sweeteners
Artificial sweeteners are often used to provide a sweet taste without the added calories. These substitutes are highly processed from natural sources like fruits and sucrose. There is much controversy over artificial sweeteners and their safety.
Though the FDA regards artificial sweeteners as GRAS (generally considered safe), research is still confounding about the link between cancer, heart disease, and other potentially harmful side effects. For those with diabetes, some artificial sweeteners have been deemed helpful for managing blood glucose levels.
Many of us consume artificial sweeteners without knowing it daily. They are hidden in products marketed as “low-fat,” “reduced-sugar,” or even “sugar-free” products. The only healthy way to reduce the adverse effects of sugar intake is to omit it altogether.
Where to find hidden artificial sweeteners/added sugars in processed foods and products:
- Low-fat yogurt
- Low-fat salad dressings
- Sugar-free gum, mints, and candy
- Baked goods
Sucralose, commonly marketed as Splenda©, is a low-calorie sugar alternative used in many foods and beverages due to its stability when exposed to extreme heat. Sucralose is derived from sucrose and packs a sweet punch rated 600 times sweeter than table sugar.
The FDA approved sucralose as safe for consumption in various food products in 1998. The current recommendation for sucralose consumption is 5 mg/ kg body weight per day.
Sucralose has recently been scrutinized for its potential link to cancer. A study performed in 2016 found that sucralose in the diet of mice increased the presence of malignant tumors. Similar results were found in a 2020 study, which stated significant increases in the presence of colorectal cancer in mice given sucralose in their water. However, both studies say more research is needed to determine if a relationship between cancer and sucralose exists.
Sugar alcohols, like Xylitol and Erythritol, naturally occur in many fruits and vegetables like corn, pineapple, asparagus, and sweet potatoes. Sugar alcohols may also be synthesized and are commonly used in chewing gum, chocolate, candy, and even toothpaste, especially those that are “sugar-free.”
Sugar alcohols have the added benefits of fewer calories, preventing excessive weight gain when used in moderation, and having a limited effect on blood glucose levels, which is beneficial for individuals with diabetes.
Research has not shown any link between sugar alcohol and cancer or any other disease. Sugar alcohols are not broken down by bacteria in the mouth and therefore do not increase the risk of tooth decay.
In recent years, monk fruit has become a popular sweetener. The small green fruit is a gourd from Southeast Asia and has been used in a dried form for centuries in herbal medicines.
Monk fruit has many benefits, including no calories, carbs, or sugars. Some studies suggest that there may be additional antioxidant benefits. Monk fruit extract contains mogrosides that are suggested to help control blood sugar levels and may benefit individuals with diabetes.
Monk fruit does have a slightly different taste than sugar which some find unpleasant. Don’t let this deter you; you may enjoy the difference. When considering the use of monk fruit, be sure to look at the ingredients in the product. Some companies add sweeteners (such as maltodextrin and dextrose) to add flavor.
Stevia is an oil extracted from stevia rubaudiana commonly used in food products because of its health benefits. It was first discovered in 1887 in Paraguay but was only used as an everyday sweetener once it became commercially available in Japan in the late 1900s. It has gained much attention due to its benefits of providing the sweetness we love without the caloric cost! The only actual downside is the flavor. Some individuals don’t care for the aftertaste, although some brands taste better than others. Don’t give up if you don’t like it the first time!
Which Sugar Substitute Is Best?
When considering which substitutes are “best,” natural sources always come first. Artificial sweeteners have been linked to potentially harmful effects such as weight gain, the development of diabetes, and cardiovascular disease. More research must be completed to understand the implications of artificial sweeteners on health fully.
If looking for alternatives to help manage diabetes, sugar alcohols, monk fruit, and stevia may be beneficial. The benefits of stevia and monk fruit on insulin release can help manage diabetes by preventing large fluctuations in blood glucose levels. In addition, decreased calories may be associated with the prevention of weight gain. Weight loss has been shown to help patients diagnosed with diabetes.
Like most things in the diet, moderation is essential. Maintaining a proper balance of nutrient-dense foods and healthy eating habits while indulging every once in a while can positively impact one’s health, including your brain.
Choosing a healthy plant-based and vegan diet is most beneficial when it comes to:
Higher levels of energy;
Aids in energy and overall happiness;
Provides a sense of comfort and relief;
Could prevent major diseases such as obesity and diabetes;
Accomplish weight-loss and management; and
Improves mental and cognitive functioning.
What is your biggest struggle with sugar? Are you looking for ways to cut sugar from your diet while keeping the sweetness in your life? Let us know what you think of the article. Have any follow-up questions? Please send us a message in the comments section below. We love hearing your feedback!