Excess sugar intake is associated with weight gain, type 2 diabetes, and poor health. What is worse it is that sugar is everywhere and in everything. It is disguised as different types of food like chips and bread (refined carbohydrates) and is added to many more (to enhance flavor). Avoiding sugar seems impossible.
There are a number of sugar alternatives out there that sweeten things up. But are they really better? For every sugar substitute, there seems to a claim about potential health problems. What are our options?
Why Replace Sugar?
There are a number of reasons for a person to want to lower or eliminate sugar. These can range from weight-loss to serious complications from diabetes. Furthermore, sugar is addictive and can contribute to perpetual hunger episodes that make us eat more than we want to.
Sugar alternatives are generally lower in calories and in glycemic index, which makes them an attractive choice for consumers. Also, some natural sweeteners -like honey- can hold nutritional value, not just empty calories.
Types of Sugar Substitutes
Sugar substitutes have many names can be difficult to categorize, mainly to because the confusion is good for marketing. For one thing, terms like “naturally derived” or “made from real fruit” have no real informational value to the consumer. They are just marketing tactics. A good way to reduce sugar and sugar substitute intake is simply to limit labeled food.
Sugar substitute types include natural sweeteners, artificial sweeteners, and naturally derived sweeteners (like stevia and sugar alcohol)- many sugar substitutes fall under more than one of these categories.
Natural sweeteners include sweet substances found in nature or that can be obtained with minimal processing. Examples include raw honey, maple syrup, agave nectar, and other fruit nectars. These are usually just as sweet and table sugar (sucrose) and contain actual sugar and calories.
Natural sweeteners are popular sugar alternatives because they can hold nutritional value. Honey, for example, has antioxidants like vitamins C and E and has minerals like calcium, zinc, and potassium. The vitamin and mineral contents in natural sweeteners, however, is so low that these are practically non-existent. We would have to consume a lot of honey to get a significant amount of any vitamin in it.
Artificial sugars are sugars that can be synthesized in a lab, although many naturally derived sweeteners can also be synthesized. Examples include saccharin, sucralose (Splenda), and aspartame. These sweeteners are attractive because they provide no extra calories (and have no glycemic impact), as such, these can be found in a variety of “sugar-free” and “low calorie” foods. There is much controversy over the safety of artificial sweeteners on the internet. Although these are generally recognized as safe (GRAS) by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), they are safe in limited amounts.
Naturally Derived Sweeteners-
This category is vast and vague. Many artificial sweeteners can fall under this category which is what many marketers want- after all, it has the word “natural” in it. Sweeteners under this category include purified extracts, sugar alcohols, and some synthesized sugars. Purified extracts include stevia and trehalose. These generally do not provide calories to the diet and thus have no glycemic effect.
Sugar alcohols include erythritol, maltitol, sorbitol, lactitol, and hydrolysate (there are many more). Sugar alcohols do not contain ethanol, which makes alcoholic substances. These are compounds that are naturally occurring in many fruits and vegetables. They are isolated and modified into a sugar substitute. For the most part, sugar alcohols do not digest completely and as such provide lower calories and a lower glycemic index than table sugar. When eaten in large amounts, sugar alcohols can lead to excess gas, bloating, and diarrhea.
Which Sweetener is Best?
Your reason for seeking sugar alternatives will determine which is best for you. If calories and glycemic index are your main concern, perhaps no-calorie sweeteners are the way to go. Regardless of the reason, remember to limit your intake on any of these substances.
While the FDA has determined that they are safe for consumption, too much is always bad. Also, if you are a diabetic or have a medical condition, it is always best to consult a physician or dietitian to determine which option is best and how much of it. Moderation is key.
Integrative and Functional Nutrition recognizes that individuals are genetically and biologically distinct, and that healthful eating must be personalized to YOUR genetics, lifestyle, environment and health concerns. The best way to maximize health and get results is to address diet and nutrition and all its contributing factors. Talk to our staff at Santa Cruz Core to set up a series of consultations in with our Integrative and Functional Nutritionist today.
- Harvard Health Publishing. “Do Sugar Substitutes Help You Lose Weight?” Harvard Health Blog. Harvard Health Publishing. 13 Jan. 2019 <https://www.health.harvard.edu/diet-and-weight-loss/do-sugar-substitutes-help-you-lose-weight>.