Since sugar has been getting such a bad rap – and quite rightly so – new sugar alternatives are popping up all the time. So are they any good?
The best known of these is probably aspartame (NutraSweet). 200 times sweeter than sugar, with only 4 kcal/gram, it is very widely used in processed foods and low-calorie fizzy drinks or as a sweetener tablet for hot drinks. Opinions of it range from “It’s safe. All scare stories are exaggerated” (NHS) to “the most dangerous substance of the planet” (Mercola). So, who’s right? A search in Google Scholar brought up 44,000 scientific articles on the subject. I didn’t have time to read them all, sadly, but if you look at the dates, the discussion and research is still ongoing. Just clicking into a few of them showed that the results that are still coming in are not favourable. If you ask me, I’d rather be safe than sorry and give aspartame – along with other artificial sweeteners – a wide berth. It doesn’t taste all that good anyway.
So, on to the natural sweeteners. You are, of course, aware that “natural” does not automatically mean “safe”. Hemlock is natural, too, and yet deadly. Admittedly, this is an extreme example and no sweetener on the shelf of your local health food shop is comparable to hemlock. Still, it’s worth considering what it is you are buying and not just assume that it’s healthy just because it is in your health food shop.
One of the most popular natural sweeteners is agave syrup, derived from the agave plant. It consists mainly of fructose, rather than glucose or sucrose (table sugar), which unlike those does not raise blood sugar levels and hence does not trigger the release of insulin. That seemed like good news at first and explains its popularity. And yet … agave syrup contains more fructose than even the highly controversial, artificial high-fructose corn syrup, which is omnipresent in sweet products in the US, but not (yet?) in Europe. Yes, fructose is a natural sugar, however, we are not designed to tolerate very large amounts of it. Fructose occurs naturally in fruit, vegetables, sugar cane and honey, and is one half of the sucrose molecule. It doesn’t cause much trouble if it is consumed as part of a whole fruit or veg, but large, isolated amounts contribute to non-alcoholic fatty liver disease, gout and increased appetite.
A natural sweetener from the Middle East, date syrup, sounds much better. It is a very thick, dark brown syrup, which is sweeter than honey. The sugars it contains are fructose and glucose, and it will raise blood sugar levels (very fast!), so it should be used sparingly and diabetics should avoid it. Its advantage over table sugar is that it is not just empty calories, but does contain considerable amounts of vitamins (A and B-complex) and minerals – particularly potassium and iron. If you are going to use sugar, date syrup is not the worst choice.
In many ways similar to date syrup is blackstrap molasses, it too is very thick, very dark (black, in fact) and contains vitamin B6 and minerals, including iron, potassium, magnesium and potassium. Blackstrap molasses is a by-product of sugar extraction from raw sugar cane. It is often used in baking and sometimes to colour brown bread brown. It still contains a small amount of sugar.
Coconut sugar is getting a lot of press lately, as is in fact “everything coconut”. Like date syrup and molasses, it contains some nutrients that sugar does not. However, you’d have to eat an awful lot of coconut sugar to get decent amounts of those. It’ll be easier to get those vitamins and minerals from fruit and vegetables. It appears that coconut sugar has a lower glycaemic load than table sugar, probably because it contains inulin, a fibre that slows down glucose absorption, but there is not a lot of research. Like date syrup and molasses, coconut sugar is still sugar.
Another popular natural sweetener is stevia, a sweetener derived from the leaves of the stevia or sweetleaf plant, which is grown in Eastern Asia and South America. It is 300 times sweeter than sugar and has been used in the US for quite a while. The EU, however, didn’t approve it until 2011. Even now, “crude stevia” – unprocessed stevia – is still banned as it is suspected to interfere with blood sugar control, the reproductive, cardiovascular and renal systems. The products on our supermarket shelves – Truvia and PureVia are rebaudioside A, a compound derived from the stevia plant and supposedly safe. Stevia is indigestible to us, which is why it does not raise blood sugar levels. Instead, it is digested by gut bacteria, which turn it into steviol, a toxic compound with the power to alter DNA, which is absorbed from the digestive system into the blood stream. If you would like to find out more, here’s a video on stevia.
On a practical note: Stevia has a funny aftertaste that some people simply don’t like.
Xylitol is a natural sweetener, which occurs in many fruits and vegetables. The xylitol you can buy in the shops, however, is usually derived from birch wood. It looks and tastes exactly like sugar, but is metabolised in a different way, which means that it does not raise your blood sugar levels as effectively as sugar. It has 40% fewer calories than sugar and contains no artificial chemicals. Xylitol also does not have the unpleasant aftertaste of artificial sweeteners.
What’s more: It’s good for your teeth! When sugar comes in contact with saliva in the mouth, it turns into acid which destroys tooth enamel. Xylitol does not have that effect, but instead has anti-bacterial properties and attacks tooth-decaying bacteria. For this reason, xylitol is sometimes used to sweeten toothpaste.
As with most sweeteners there are downsides, too: If you suffer from irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), or are prone to diarrhoea or bloating, you may not be able to tolerate it very well. Chemically speaking, xylitol is a sugar alcohol, which have a mildly laxative effect and can cause problems for sensitive people. Mind as well that xylitol can be toxic to dogs, so please do not share your sugar-free treats with your dog.
The bottom line is, however, that no sweetener is perfect and using sweeteners means that you won’t be able to cure your “sweet tooth”. By reducing or even eliminating sweetened foods you may find that eventually those products taste way to sweet to you. Worth a try?