Sugar and Sweeteners: What is Best?
In my prior post I discussed that drinking sweet stuff is not good for you. But how about eating it?
From an Ayurvedic perspective, the sweet taste is one of the six fundamental tastes and provides nourishment to your body, mind, and spirit (the other tastes are sour, salty, pungent, bitter, astringent). We get sweetness in a variety of forms—beyond foods we typically think of as sweets like pastries and ice cream, the sweet taste is found in fruit, starchy vegetables, grains, nuts, seeds, and animal and fish sources. Because these foods are so nourishing, people tend to crave the sweet taste.
Food manufacturers know this and produce foods that appeal to our sweet cravings, leading us to consume more added sugar than ever before. Americans consume about twenty teaspoons of added sugar (in the form of various sweeteners) every day!
Since it is well known that eating too much sugar can bring you out of balance and lead to major health issues, including diabetes, heart disease, and liver disease, many health conscious folks wonder which alternative sweetener would be best to satisfy our tastes. To answer this question, you first need to look at how your body metabolizes three major forms of sugar: glucose, fructose, and sucrose.
Glucose (also known as dextrose) is the most basic sugar molecule and is the body’s preferred fuel. Most carbohydrates that you eat are broken down into glucose, which your body uses for immediate energy or stores for later use in your muscle or liver. Your body needs blood sugar levels to stay in a certain range, and the hormone insulin helps regulate these levels. When the body has problems managing insulin and can no longer regulate blood sugar levels, diabetes develops.
Fructose is another simple sugar that is naturally found in fruits. It is sweeter than glucose and sucrose and is a marker of the ripeness and nutritional density of fruit. Processed sweeteners such as agave nectar and high-fructose corn syrup contain varying amounts of fructose, but due to the processing, these provide the sweet taste and calories stripped of beneficial nutrients and fiber found in whole fruits.
While eating whole fruits can be beneficial, excessive consumption of processed fructose can have some negative effects. Fructose is lipogenic, which means that it is quickly turned into fat. Almost all of the fructose you ingest is metabolized in the liver, and much of it is stored as fat and glycogen. This can contribute to elevated triglycerides (a type of fat in your blood that can raise the risk of heart disease) and nonalcoholic fatty liver disease (an accumulation of fat in the liver that can cause inflammation and scarring).
Another drawback to fructose is that, unlike glucose, it doesn’t activate the feedback mechanism that curbs your appetite when you eat, potentially leading to overeating. It’s best to eat fructose in the form of whole fruits and honey where the wholeness of the food prevents overeating and to avoid consumption of concentrated sweeteners such as agave nectar and high-fructose corn syrup, especially in sweetened beverages.
Sucrose is a combination of glucose and fructose and is commonly found in table sugar made from sugarcane or sugar beets. It’s also found in corn and other plants. When you eat sucrose, your body breaks it down into individual molecules of fructose and glucose.
The lowdown on some of the most common types of sweeteners
These are basically sugar:
- White Sugar: Mainly extracted from sugarcane or sugar beets sucrose is broken down by the body into an even ratio of glucose (50 percent) and fructose (50 percent). Note: If the label on a sugar package doesn’t say the product comes from sugarcane, then most likely it comes from sugar beets, which are a heavily genetically modified food. I advise everyone to avoid GMO foods, so if buying sugar choose USDA Certified Organic or non-GMO product verified.
- Evaporated Cane Juice: Made from fresh sugarcane juice that is evaporated and then crystallized, this has no added benefit over table sugar other than a slight flavor difference and some trace minerals.
- Molasses: This thick syrup is the by-product when sugarcane is processed to make refined sugar. Blackstrap molasses has a bittersweet taste and contains minerals and nutrients such as iron, calcium, manganese, copper, and potassium. One tablespoon provides 12.2 grams of sugar (just slightly less than table sugar) and converts to glucose more slowly than table sugar.
- Coconut Sugar/Coconut Palm Sugar: Made from the sap of the coconut palm, it has the same calories and carbohydrates as table sugar. It is dark like brown sugar, which is a partially refined sugar that contains some amount of molasses, and has a similar taste. Coconut sugar has been touted in the press recently for containing 70 to 79 percent sucrose, and only 3 to 9 percent fructose and glucose. However, since sucrose breaks down in the body in a 1 to 1 ratio of fructose to glucose, coconut sugar actually contains between 38 percent to 50 percent fructose, and thus may not be much better than table sugar. Some brands may mix coconut sugar with cane sugar and other ingredients.
- Palm Sugar/Date Palm Sugar/Palm Sugar: Made by pulverizing dates into a powder, this is less processed and contains all of the nutrients found in dates, including potassium, magnesium, and calcium. Palm sugar clumps and doesn’t melt, so it’s not a great substitute for white sugar, but may be a good substitute in some recipes calling for brown sugar. It is often used in Southeast Asian and Indian cooking.
These may have some health benefits but have higher fructose levels:
- Honey: Consists of glucose and up to 40 to 50 percent fructose (ranges vary), and it has antioxidants and trace amounts of vitamins and minerals. While raw or unrefined honey has a glycemic index of about 30, processed honey can be much higher, meaning it is converted more rapidly to glucose and can spike blood sugars. Processed honey is also stripped of the nutrients contained in raw or unrefined honey. In Ayurveda, honey is viewed as the best sweetener and is used medicinally as well as in food. According to Ayurveda, honey should never be cooked. Do not give honey to children under one year of age to reduce risk of infant botulism.
- Maple Syrup: Extracted from the sap of a maple tree, different grades of maple syrup relate to the darkness of the syrup, and the darker ones have a stronger maple flavor. It contains some minerals, including manganese, zinc, iron, calcium, and potassium, as well as antioxidants (darker syrups have higher antioxidant levels). Maple syrup consists of about 65 percent sucrose and has less fructose than honey. I enjoy using small amounts of grade-B maple syrup as a sweetener in my cooking. Grade B contains more minerals and has a more robust maple flavor than grade A.
A possible decent alternative if you choose correctly:
- Stevia: Extracted from a plant called Stevia rebaudiana, this sweetener comes as a less processed green leaf form or a more processed white, powdery substance or liquid. There are differences between these forms with the less processed being about 30 times sweeter and the more processed about 200 times sweeter than table sugar. While stevia has zero calories and doesn’t affect glucose or insulin levels, be mindful of the amount that you use. Just one teaspoon of liquid stevia is equivalent in sweetness to a whole cup of sugar. I have not yet come across any brain studies of stevia, but I suspect that the super sweetness without the caloric messaging to your brain to signal fullness might cause you to crave more sweet foods. Stevia can be used in baking. Some of the stevia products found in many grocery stores contain other ingredients such as erythritol and dextrose (which is actually a form of glucose), so read your labels and make sure you’re buying the best source if using this sweetener—look for green leaf stevia. I had a stevia plant once and the leaves were indeed sweet!
These are worse than sugar or can produce side effects:
- Agave Nectar and Syrup: Higher in fructose than high-fructose corn syrup, agave nectar is on my list of health-food imposters. In the agave plant, most of the sweetness comes from a type of fructose called inulin, a fiber that has some health benefits. However, the inulin is processed into a syrup that has a fructose content estimated to be as high as 90 percent without the benefit of the fiber. As a comparison, the much-maligned high-fructose corn syrup has about 55 percent fructose.
- Brown Rice Syrup: Processed from brown rice, this syrup is no health food either and may even contain gluten as well as arsenic. It is often added to foods such as cereal, protein bars, and baby formulas.
- Sugar Alcohols: These naturally occur in foods and are sometimes used as sugar substitutes in many “sugar-free” products such as candies, gum, and many processed foods. Examples include xylitol, sorbitol, and erythritol. Sugar alcohols contain 1/2 to 1/3 fewer calories than table sugar and are not as sweet as sugar. Some forms may not spike blood sugar and insulin levels because they are not digested easily. However, this also leads to potential side effects such as gas, bloating, and diarrhea.
- Artificial Sweeteners: Sucralose, aspartame, and saccharin get their sweetness from chemicals other than the three sugars of glucose, fructose, and sucrose. While they may be low- or no calorie, they have no nutritional benefits and should be avoided.
So, which sweetener is best? In reality, there isn’t much difference between white table sugar and other natural sweeteners, including coconut sugar, honey, maple syrup, and molasses. To the body they are all sugar to be converted to glucose for metabolic fuel.
What’s the important take-home point? Too much sweet, in any form, brings the body-mind connection out of balance. Eating more food—of any kind—than you need will push your body into storage mode and create a variety of health issues. Therefore, all forms of sweets are best in moderation.
Tips to Help Break a Sweet Habit:
- Beware of added sugars in processed foods, even in so-called healthy foods such as protein bars and yogurt.
- Avoid artificial sweeteners.
- Reduce the amount of sugary-sweet foods you consume. Desserts should be an occasional treat and not a daily event. When you do indulge, choose a treat with high quality ingredients and savor the experience. As you reduce the amount of added sugars you consume, you will need less to appreciate the sweet taste.
- Eat less packaged and processed foods which often contain added sugar.
- Read labels: If an ingredient ends in –ose, (as in sucrose or dextrose), it is a form of sugar. Other ingredients to be aware of that essentially mean sugar: any type of nectar, sugar, juice, or syrup, agave, barley malt, dextrin, dextran, diatase, diatastic malt, honey, maltodextrin, and turbinado.
- If you have a sugar addiction, you may need to eliminate sugar for a period of time to stop the cycle.
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