Natural Sweeteners

Giving up on refined sugar can be quite a struggle.  But given how incredibly harmful and addictive sugar is, it is definitely worth the effort. Luckily, there are many types of sweeteners, some of which are artificial but there are some sweeteners which are natural sweeteners that are actually not too bad for your health.  Some might even consider them healthy.  They are low in calories, low in fructose and taste quite sweet.

Stevia - is a probably the most popular low-calorie sweetener.  It is extracted from the leaves of a plant called Stevia rebaudiana.  This plant has been grown in South America for sweetness and medicinal purposes for centuries.  There are several sweet compounds found in Stevia leaves, the main ones are Stevioside and Rebaudioside A. Both are hundreds times sweeter than sugar, gram for gram. Stevia is very sweet, but has virtually no calories.  There are some studies in humans showing Stevia to have health benefits:

  • When blood pressure is high, Stevia can lower it by 6-14%. However, it has no effect on blood pressure that is normal or only mildly elevated.

  • Stevia has been shown to lower blood sugar levels in individuals who suffer from diabetics.

 

There are also studies on rats showing that Stevia can improve insulin sensitivity, reduce oxidised LDL cholesterol and reduce plaque build-up in the arteries.

 

If you need to sweeten something, Stevia may be the healthiest choice but many people don’t like its taste. It does depend on the brand though, you may need to experiment to find one that you like most or dislike least.

Erythritol - is another low-calorie natural sweetener. It is a sugar alcohol that is naturally found in certain fruits, but if it’s in powdered form, then it will most likely be made in an industrial process.  It contains 0.24 calories per gram, or about 6% of the calories as sugar, with 70% of the sweetness.  Erythritol doesn’t spike blood sugar or insulin levels and has no effect on biomarkers like cholesterol or triglycerides.  It is absorbed into the body through the intestine, but eventually excreted from the kidneys unaffected.  Studies show that erythritol is quite safe. However, same as with other sugar alcohols, it can cause digestive problems when digested in large quantities.

 

Erythritol tastes very similar to sugar, although it can have a mild aftertaste.  I wouldn’t say that erythritol is “healthy” – but it certainly doesn’t appear to be harmful in any way and seems to be tolerated better than most other sugar alcohols.

 

Xylitol - is a sugar alcohol with a sweetness similar to sugar.  It contains 2.4 calories per gram, or about 2/3rds of the caloric value of sugar.  Xylitol appears to have some benefits for dental health, reducing the risk of cavities and dental decay.  It may also improve bone density, helping to prevent osteoporosis. Xylitol doesn’t raise blood sugar or insulin levels.  However, similarly to other sugar alcohols, it can cause digestive side effects at high doses.  If you have a dog in your home, then you might want to keep xylitol out of the house because it is highly toxic to dogs.

 

Yacon syrup - It is harvested from the Yacon plant, which is native to the Andes in South America.  This sweetener has recently become popular as a weight loss supplement, because one study found that it caused significant weight loss in overweight women.  It is very high in fructooligosaccharides, which function as soluble fibres that feed the good bacteria in the intestine.  Yacon syrup can help with constipation and it has various benefits due to the high amount of soluble fibre .  Don’t eat too much at a time though, as it can cause digestive problems.

 

Other natural sweeteners - There are several other popular sweeteners that are consumed as sugar replacement.  This includes coconut sugar, molasses, honey and maple syrup.

 

Personally I think that they really aren’t much different from sugar.  They might contain slightly smaller amounts of fructose and some tiny amount of nutrients, but the liver is unlikely to tell the difference.  However, to clarify: The harmful effects of sugar depend completely on the context. Most of the studies are done on people who are already eating a high-carb, Western junk food diet.  For these individuals, especially those who are overweight and/or insulin resistant, large amounts of sugar are categorically toxic.

 

There are a few people who might want to avoid sugar-based sweeteners completely. This includes food addicts, binge eaters and people who are on a very low-carb or ketogenic diet.  Other people can eat sugar in small amounts without any damage. It is still empty calories and will still be bad for your teeth, but it won’t impair the metabolism, cause a fatty liver or end up destroying your health.

 

If you’re one of those people who eat healthy but like to bake stuff with healthy ingredients, then I don’t see a problem with using natural sugar-based sweeteners such honey as long as the majority of your diet is based on real food.  In the context of a healthy, real food based diet, small amounts of these natural sugars shouldn’t cause harm. 

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