When asked about alternative sweeteners, do you know what’s what in the sweetener world? Nutritionist Dr. Marilyn Glenville reveals the best and WORST of 13 sweet alternatives. She is the author of Natural Alternatives To Sugar: How Sugar Can Devastate Your Health and What Natural Sweeteners You Can Use Instead
It is an inescapable fact of life, despite our desperation for it to be outed as the biggest dietary myth known to man – sugar is bad for us. Yet sitting on the grocery store shelf, right next to your best in the world honey, are jars and jars of this stuff. What are they and are they any good? And yes, your honey is one of them.
Honey is a simple sugar, primarily made up of glucose and fructose, and so is absorbed into your blood stream quickly, hence it’s not ideal if you’re trying to control your blood sugar or lose weight. The fructose content can be up to 40 per cent in some honeys. If you do use honey then avoid types which are ‘blended’ or the ‘produce of more than one country’ because they are often heated to temperatures as high as 71°C, which destroys their natural goodness.
Fructose is naturally found in fruit, but can also be bought as a white powder. That refined for is problematic, because all the goodness and fiber of the fruit is lost. The problem with fructose is it goes straight to the liver and can cause weight gain, increase your appetite and cause fat around a person’s middle. However, it has other negative effects on your health. Fructose goes straight to your liver, which has to metabolize it, in the same way as alcohol does. So it can make you gain weight, increase your appetite and also give you fat around the middle.
Fructose interferes with your production of hormones like leptin, which should send you a signal telling you that you have eaten enough, and fructose can raise levels of a hunger hormone called ghrelin, increasing your appetite. Fructose does not supply any energy at all to either your brain or your muscles; it is only stored as fat.
What is it? It comes from the agave plant in Mexico, where traditionally the sap would have been boiled for hours to obtain the sweet syrup. Unfortunately, to cut the costs, to produce agave on a commercial scale, the agave is made from the starch of the root bulb and the final product is just refined fructose. There may be some companies who produce the agave syrup in the traditional way but it is not easy to tell given the marketing hype around the products.
They would be definitely be more expensive because of time making the product and availability.
What is it? Molasses is the by-product of the process used to extract sugar from sugar cane or beet. The sugar cane juice is boiled and sugar crystallized from it. The syrup that is left over is molasses. Normally, the sugar cane is boiled three times to remove as much sugar as possible and the molasses left over at the end of this third stage is called black strap molasses and is dark in color, very syrupy and has the lowest amount of sugar but the highest quantities of vitamins and minerals. It is a good source of vitamin B6 and potassium and a very good source of magnesium and manganese. About half of the sugar content is made up of fructose and glucose in equal amounts and the other half sucrose.
What is it? It is sold as a white powder and is considered natural because it occurs naturally in plants. It is low in calories and does not need insulin to be metabolized in the body so it is very useful for diabetics. It also has benefits for dental health as it reduces caries. Xylitol is found in the fibers of many plants, including sugar cane, corn cobs and birch. However, it requires a lot of refining to take it from the raw product to a white powder. Basically, xylitol is made from the hydrogenation of a sugar called xylose, rings warning bells as we have been moving away from hydrogenated fats over the years, after we found out about the health risks associated with them. There may be concerns about hydrogenated sugar in years to come.
What is it? Like xylitol, sorbitol is a sugar alcohol and is often used in foods designed for diabetics because it requires little or no insulin. It is usually made from corn syrup.
Sorbitol is found naturally in stone fruits such as prunes, plums and dates.
Maple syrup contains 34 beneficial compounds, which have antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties. It is also the natural sweetener usually recommended for IBS sufferers as it causes the least problems with digestion. Maple syrup contains significant amounts of zinc and manganese and 15 times more calcium than honey. It is made up of primarily sucrose and very small amounts of fructose and glucose. Beware maple syrup labeled as ‘maple-flavored syrup’ rather than just ‘maple syrup’ as this won’t be pure – in fact, it may not contain any maple syrup at all!
BARLEY MALT SYRUP
What is it? This is an unrefined natural sweetener produced from sprouted barley malt, which is dried and then cooked, sometimes called Barley Malt Extract. The liquid is then filtered and reduced down to the required consistency.
BROWN RICE SYRUP
What is it? This syrup is a natural sweetener, available in most health food shops, also called rice malt syrup. Brown rice syrup contains three sugars – maltotriose, maltose and glucose.
Cheaper versions are made from cooked brown rice cultured with enzymes to turn the starches in the rice into sugar. Others use sprouted grains that release the enzymes that breakdown the grain into maltose and other sugars. Also brown rice syrup doesn’t contain any fructose, which is a good thing.
What is it? Stevia is derived from the leaves of a South American plant of the same name. It has been used for centuries as a sweetener in South America.
In 2011 it was approved for use in the EU. Stevia is 2-300 times sweeter than table sugar (sucrose). Unfortunately, there are a couple of problems with stevia. Read labels very carefully as some products can contain dextrose and flavorings. You need a product that is 100 per cent stevia. As stevia is not absorbed through the digestive tract, it is considered to have no calories, so it appears a good choice for weight loss. However, although pure stevia is more natural than artificial sweeteners, it still primes your body to expect a corresponding amount of calories for the sweetness. When that calorie hit doesn’t happen, your body will send you off to get the calories from somewhere else, increasing your appetite and causing weight gain. It has a slightly bitter aftertaste for most people, which is why it is often mixed with other sweeteners, especially in soft drinks and processed foods.
What is it? Palm sugar can also be known as jaggery but, instead of being made from sugar cane, it is made from the palm tree and, in particular, the palmyra palm tree. The palm flowers are tapped to release the juice, which is then boiled down to produce the syrup, which is then be allowed to crystallize. Furthermore the iconic trees are also responsible for coconut sugar, which is rich in nutrients such as B vitamins, magnesium and calcium. It is a traditional Ayurvedic ingredient and contains good amounts of B vitamins (including a plant source of B12). It has a low glycemic index – great for weight loss.
What is it? This sweetener is also known as coconut palm sugar and is produced from the sap of the flower buds of the coconut tree. It is found in liquid form as a syrup, (also known as coconut nectar and blossom syrup) as well as crystals. To obtain the sap, the tree is tapped, as in the palm sugar, and minimally heated in order to allow moisture to evaporate to from the syrup.
When the syrup cools down it crystalizes. Like palm sugar, coconut sugar is rich in nutrients such as the B vitamins, magnesium, calcium, potassium, zinc, 17 amino acids, short chain fatty acids, polyphenols and antioxidants; plus it has a nearly neutral pH. It also contains inulin, which is a prebiotic and helps to feed beneficial bacteria.
What is it? This is a sweetener made from the sweet root of the yacon, which is a member of the sunflower family, also known as the Peruvian ground apple. It tastes like a cross between an apple and a pear. Yacon contains good amounts of a prebiotic, which helps to feed the beneficial bacteria in the digestive system. Yacon also contains good amounts of vitamins and minerals. It is low GI, can help to lower glucose levels and is said to be fine for diabetics to use.
It is traditionally made without chemicals using evaporation, like maple syrup.