Sugar alternatives - are they good for health? Part 2

Libby Limon BSc NT mBANT / Apr 18, 2016

With the understanding that sugar is seriously bad for our health, a whole industry of sugar alternatives has quickly emerged and it is big business! Libby Limon, VITL’s Head of Nutrition examines whether sugar replacements can help or hinder your health, and looks at the different types of sweeteners from artificial to natural, fruit to alcohol, calorie free to carbohydrate free;

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In part 1, we looked at why sugar is so bad for us. Now let's take a look at what we can have instead...


Artificial sweeteners 

There are 3 main types, aspartame, sucralose, and saccharin. They are all chemically produced with a much higher concentration of sweetness and much lower calorific value. Unfortunately, they generally have a chemical taste as well as more concerningly links to cancer, migraines and weight gain NOT loss. A 2004 study in the International Journal of Obesity suggests that when we offer our bodies sweet diet drinks but give them no calories, they crave real sugar even more. "Substitutes may not signal the same satiety hormones as sugar, making it easier to overeat," says Lona Sandon, R.D., assistant professor at the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center.

Stevia 

A calorie-free sweetener produced from a natural leaf. It hasn’t been in the market for very long so little is known about the long-term effects. There are some health concerns surrounding the stevia plant. Stevia may cause low blood pressure, which would be of concern to some taking blood pressure medications. The concerns over artificial sweeteners and obesity still apply to stevia. So, in conclusion, it should be used in moderation, avoided in beverages but it can be useful in moderation in baking.

Unrefined natural fruit and vegetable sugars 

These include date sugar, coconut sugar, pureed cooked apples, bananas, dates or pumpkin. We know the damage from sugar comes from spiking our blood sugar stimulating a release of insulin. As these sugars contain their natural fibre content, this will reduce the glycemic index or the time it takes to release the sugar into the bloodstream, thus reducing blood sugar spike and offsetting the fructose content. They also contain vitamins, minerals and antioxidants thus making them a healthier alternative when used in moderation.

Natural fructose based sweeteners

These are often liquid. Agave syrup and high-fructose corn syrup are the worst for your health as they are highly refined and processed removing the beneficial plant phenols and concentrated in fructose rather than glucose which is damaging to the liver.  Maple syrup, honey, coconut nectar, molasses and date syrup all contain natural plant phenols, are high in minerals and antioxidants, so have some increased nutritional benefits. They contain a balance between fructose and glucose so a slightly better than having just fructose. However, they do affect blood sugar so are not recommended for diabetics.  Brown rice syrup similarly has minerals and antioxidants however it is almost 100% glucose, so will affect your blood sugar but won’t directly damage your liver.

Alcohol sugars 

Sugar alcohols (or “polyols”) are types of sweet carbohydrates, they include xylitol, mannitol, erythritol, maltitol and sorbitol. As the name implies, they are like hybrids of sugar molecules and alcohol molecules. Most are produced industrially, where they are processed from other sugars, such as the glucose in cornstarch. They are generally not well processed via the body either passing through unchanged via the digestive or urinary system. This means that they can cause digestive discomfort in some people. Maltitol is one that is absorbed but as a result, it has a similar effect as glucose on blood sugar and insulin levels.

No-Carbohydrate based sweeteners

These are my favourites, because they are a clever way to sweeten your food, and don't have any negative effect on your blood sugar or your liver health. On the flip side, they have positive health benefits that do everything from helping you feel fuller for longer, to giving you a natural vitamin based energy boost and reducing actually reducing insulin levels and supporting liver function. They include sweet spices such as cinnamon and vanilla, fat based sweet foods such as almonds and coconut and superfoods such as maca powder.

Next up, Part 3  - Easy steps to help you reduce the amount of sugar in your diet