Sugar is a word that triggers a mix of emotions and cravings in many of us. The temptation of sweets and goodies, cakes and candies surround us all the time. It's like a constant seduction. While most of us know that we need to limit our intake of sugar for obvious health reasons (to prevent diabetes, obesity, metabolic syndrome, macular degeneration, heart disease, dementia, and tooth decay for example), we may not always know the many different disguises of sugar and how sweeteners sneak into so many of our everyday foods.
Perhaps you are familiar with cane sugar, aka white "table sugar" (sucrose) and some of the artificial sweeteners available, but there are a number of other alternatives to sugar that have recently made their way onto store shelves and into prepared foods. Here is the skinny on which alternatives are healthy and which you may want to avoid:
Concentrated fruit juice is a popular sweetener found in products crowding grocery store shelves across the country, and one that is rapidly gaining popularity. It has a high fructose concentration. Through reduction, filtration and evaporation, the color, acidity, and most of the (juice) flavor is removed to isolate the sugar. This leaves a finished product that has little similarity to the original juice.
Pros: Slightly more natural than artificial sweeteners. May contain trace nutrients.
Cons: Can cause erratic blood sugar fluctuations, increased risk of diabetes, obesity
Maple syrup is concentrated from the sap of maple trees.
Pros: Slow digesting sugar alternative and will provide a more steady supply of sugar rather than refined white sugar (lower glycemic index). Contains B vitamins, antioxidants, and trace minerals.
Cons: Price – can be much more expensive than other sweetners.
Stevia, derived from the leaves of a Paraguayan plant, contains glycosides 100-200 times sweeter than sugar. It is a natural non-caloric sweetener Stevia has been used as a sweetener in Paraguay for over 600 years. Stevia is approved by the FDA as a dietary supplement but not as a sweetener. It's always a good idea to investigate the source of your foods! Processed forms of pure Stevia can be twice as sweet up to 400 times sweeter than sugar.
Pros: Don't need much stevia to add sweetness. May have a positive impact on blood sugar and blood pressure.
Cons: Some manufacturers of stevia actually feed their stevia plants artificial sweeteners to enhance its natural sweetness
Xylitol is a sugar alcohol that occurs naturally in fruit and vegetables. Xylitol is made commercially from the wood fiber of birch trees. This is a slow absorbing and partially utilized carbohydrate. Commonly used in natural chewing gums and mouth sprays due to its antibacterial properties. It can also be used in baking and cooking.
Pros: May strengthen tooth enamel. Low calorie. Has antimicrobial properties.
Cons: Toxic to pets, especially dogs, may cause digestive disturbance.
Sucralose or Splenda, chlorinated white sugar, is a chemically derived sugar substitute. The chlorination process creates a stable molecule that is not metabolized as sugar in the body. The World Health Organization (WHO) and the FDA deem it safe for human consumption and state that the toxic effects found in rat studies would not occur in humans at the recommended doses.
Pros: Can't think of any - we do not recommend consuming Sucralose
Cons: Possible side-effects from consuming sucralose include diarrhea, shrunken thymus glands (important to immune function), liver and kidney dysfunction.
Aspartame is a chemically derived non-nutritive, artificial sweetener. From a biochemical standpoint, Aspartame has been shown to readily convert to formaldehyde once it has entered the body. Formaldehyde has been shown to cause gradual and eventually severe damage to the neurological system, immune system, and causes permanent genetic damage at extremely low doses. After consumption of aspartame, formaldehyde can be measured in the liver, kidneys, brain, and other tissues. The FDA, WHO and Canada Health have stated that aspartame is apparently safe for human consumption. Our concern is that this chemical is not of natural origin and has breakdown products shown to promote illness. We do not recommend any consumption of this chemical.
Pros: Doesn't appear to promote tooth decay, low calorie – but we still do not recommend it
Cons: People who consume artificially sweetened drinks and foods are at increased risk of obesity and metabolic syndrome. Aspartame consumption has been linked to headaches, seizures, nervous system damage, depression, acne and cancer in laboratory animals.
Agave Nectar (Agave Syrup), sweeter than honey and a bit less viscous. Juice is extracted from the agave plant and then filtered and boiled down to create the nectar. There is also a way to process the juice raw, which is quite popular with raw food enthusiasts. Agave nectar consists primarily of fructose and glucose.
Pros: Low glycemic index, organic, raw, agave may have lower fructose and naturally occuring enzymes
Cons: High fructose content may increase risk for insulin resistance and metabolic syndrome, 16 calories per teaspoon agave, a highly concentrated sweetener, some agave products may contain high fructose corn syrup
Honey – honey is a natural sweetener produced by honey bees (by transforming nectar from flowers into honey). Honey gets its sweetness from the monosaccharides glucose and fructose.
Pros: May be soothing for sore throats, contains wound healing and antiseptic qualities. Can be used as a facial mask.
Cons: Sticky, somewhat messy to work with. Not recommended for children under age 2 due to the natural presence of botulinum endospores in honey.
Saccharin is an artificial sweetener that is much sweeter than sucrose (sugar).
Pros: We really cannot ethically list any "pros" of consuming saccharin.
Cons: Animal studies reveal possible increased risk of cancer with intake of saccharin.
Raw Sugar - Raw sugar is minimally processed sugar from sugar cane. It is the result of the first stage of the cane sugar refining process. It has a rich flavor with a hint of molasses and can be used in recipes just like you would use regular cane sugar (white sugar).
Pros: Contains trace minerals (but not enough to get too excited about) and nutrients. Has not been processed with chemicals. Has slightly fewer calories than processed white sugar.