Sugar is a surprisingly complicated topic. There are a ton of different types of sugar and sugar substitutes out there so it is hard to know what to choose and why. Many people turn to sugar alternatives in an effort to maintain the sweetness of foods while reducing the amount of sugar and calories they consume. So what exactly are the differences between them and what role do they play in your health?
To start, you will need to understand a little bit about what sugar is and how the body digests it. This can get complicated and lengthy so here is my very simplified "Coles Notes" version:
Table sugar (aka sucrose) is a carbohydrate that is broken down into 50% glucose and 50% fructose when digested. Carbohydrates contain 4 calories per gram. The stomach and small intestine absorb the glucose and release it into the bloodstream where it can be used immediately or stored for later. The fructose is transported to the liver to be metabolized and can only handle small amounts at a time. The glycemic index (GI) is a rating of how quickly different foods release glucose into the bloodstream. Lower GI foods send sugar to the blood slower than high GI foods. High GI foods cause blood sugar levels to spike after eating them and this is then followed by a crash. Overtime, blood sugar imbalances contribute to many health issues such as diabetes, mood disorders, heart disease and cancer.
Classification of sugars
Depending on where you look, you will find different ways of categorizing sugars/sugar substitutes. I have chosen to classify them into the following two categories:
Nutritive sweeteners: Contain carbohydrates and therefore impact blood sugar levels and caloric intake. For these reasons, all nutritive sweeteners should be used in moderation. Some nutritive sweeteners can come in their natural form (i.e. raw honey/dates/maple syrup) while others are processed (i.e. agave nectar, sugar alcohols).
Non-nutritive sweeteners: Do not contain carbohydrates so they do not add calories or impact blood sugar levels. They are either highly processed forms of natural substances or are artificially manufactured.
There are pros and cons to both Nutritive and Non-nutritive sweeteners. I have outlined some of the most common options/opinions below:
Common Nutritive Sweeteners:
Honey: Honey is a natural product made from bees. It does not need to undergo many of the processing steps that most sugars need to go through. This means that its' healthy components such as proteins, vitamins and minerals are all intact. Honey also has antimicrobial and antioxidant properties. Honey tends to have about 22 calories/tsp as opposed to sugar which has 16. Since honey is sweeter than sucrose, people tend to use less. Honey has a glycemic index of 58 as opposed to sucrose (65) which means it does not increase your blood sugar levels quite as quickly-although it still does.
Maple syrup: Maple syrup is another natural product that comes from the maple tree. Like honey, it also contains vitamins and minerals as well as antioxidants. It has 17 calories/tsp. Maple syrup has a slightly lower glycemic index of 54 so again it is slightly lower than sucrose.
Dates: Dates are completely natural, high in fibre and also come with its own package of vitamins and minerals. 1 Medjool date contains about 66 calories and has a glycemic index of 42. Watch how many you eat or the calories can quickly add up.
Coconut palm sugar (coconut sugar): Comes from the sap of a coconut tree and tastes like brown sugar. It contains 15 calories/tsp (about the same amount as sucrose). I have seen a range of values for the glycemic index of coconut sugar but both are lower that sucrose. It contains inulin which is an indigestible carbohydrate and a prebiotic.
Sugar Alcohols (xylitol, sorbitol, mannitol) are reduced calorie sweeteners derived from plant products but synthesized in labs. They have 0-3 calories/gram and tend to have low GI values. However, many people tend to have a hard time digesting them and GI distress is a common side effect.
Agave Nectar aka agave syrup: This has been a controversial one in the news lately. It comes from the succulent plant agave. To obtain the juice, it is extracted, filtered, heated and hydrolyzed into a syrup. This process destroys all of its original health properties. It is low on the glycemic index because it is primarily made up of fructose (90%). Remember from my "Coles Notes" that sucrose has 50% glucose and 50% fructose. The fructose has to be sent to the liver which is ok when it is in small amounts. The large amount of fructose in agave overload the liver so it responds by converting it to fat. Some say that this might actually be the worst sweetener out there (I place it right down on the list next to High Fructose Corn Syrup and Aspartame)
High Fructose Corn Syrup: High Fructose Corn Syrup is a by-product of cornstarch production. Like agave nectar it also contains high fructose levels and comes with the same warnings.
Stevia: Comes from the South American plant Stevia rebaudiana. It is calorie free and does not impact blood sugar levels. To obtain stevia powder, the leaves do have to be chemically processed. *If I had to pick any of the sweeteners from this category, this would be it.
Aspartame (Equal, NutraSweet, SugarTwin): Aspartame is one of the most popular sweeteners but is also the most controversial. Aspartame is found in many artificial sweeteners, diet sodas and chewing gum. Many people struggle to digest it and complain of a variety of side effects including headaches, mood changes and dizziness. It has also been linked to cancer in some animal studies. Please do not use this one!!
Saccharin (Sweet Twin, Sweet’N Low): Saccharin is 500x sweeter than sucrose, has zero calories and does not impact blood sugar levels. Animal studies have indicated that saccharin may be carcinogenic. Saccharin used to be required to come with a warning label-Do I need to say more?
Sucralose (Splenda): Although sucralose has zero calories and has a GI of 0, it has been linked to insulin response. It has also been linked to poor gut bacteria and cancer.
So what is the best option?
My top choices come from the nutritive sweetener category and are those that come in their natural forms: dates, honey and maple syrup. You can use these to sweeten tea, in baking, and even in sauces/dressings. Although they do have calories and affect blood sugar levels, if consumed in moderation you don’t need to stress over this.
Although non-nutritive sweeteners have zero calories and low GI levels, they are chemically derived and often come with side effects. Some of these sweeteners have not actually been around long enough for us to fully understand what type of impact they may have on our health. Since these sweeteners are not natural, I feel like our bodies were not designed to consume them. They are being used to trick our bodies into being able to have something that they don’t actually want. People with certain health conditions (such as diabetes), which really require them to monitor their sugar levels, may need to use a non-nutritive sweetener to avoid spikes in blood sugar. In this case, I would choose Stevia out of the bunch.
Overall, limiting sugar intake is the best direction to go. Our body's aren't designed to consume the amount of sugar that society is now consuming (88lbs/year)! By eating real foods in their natural form you can worry less about how much you are consuming and indulge in a treat every now and then.
All of the ways we are trying to come up with to cheat the system, might eventually come back to haunt us! Need help cutting back on the sugar or regulating blood sugar levels? Contact me to find out more about my programs/services.
Lucy is a Registered Holistic Nutritionist and Personal Trainer with a thirst for good food, fitness, cats, travel and adventure!