More and more studies are showing that artificial sweeteners can actually be detrimental to your health. The most recent study is about Splenda, where studies showing that mice fed sucralose daily throughout their lives developed leukemia and other blood cancers. (Read the article here.)
This made us wonder, what can you eat if both sugars and artificial sweeteners have been shown to be unhealthy? We think this is an important question to ask, especially if you have a sweet tooth (and who doesn’t?).
Comparison of Natural Sugars, Natural Sweeteners, and Artificial Sweeteners
A good place to start might be to consider the pros and cons of sugars and artificial sweeteners. We know that all sugars contain carbohydrates and affect blood sugar. However, artificial sweeteners do not contain calories and do not raise blood sugar. In addition, the main ways in which sugars and sweeteners differ is (1) in their glycemic response (GI), (2) how they are processed in the body, (3) how they are manufactured and (4) their calorie and carb content.
Sweeteners with a high GI (glycemic index) result in blood sugar spikes that can lead to inflammation. As a result, lower GI products are generally considered healthier. However, there are other health effects to consider for each alternative. For instance, zero calorie sweeteners, both artificial and natural have a GI of zero, but some have other problems such as the artificial ones affecting gut bacteria.
So, with this info in mind, let’s break down these sugar substitutes and get some answers.
- Pros: Stevia is a zero calorie sweetener that many consider to be healthier and less processed than many others and is generally considered as safe.
- Cons: There is some research that suggests stevia may interact negatively with certain medications.
2. Monk Fruit.
- Pros: Of all the other sweeteners Monk Fruit or Luo Han Guo is one zero calorie sweetener that has not received the bad press that other sweeteners have. In fact, it has been used in China for centuries for its healing properties. In addition, monk fruit has zero calories and a GI of zero.
- Cons: Monk fruit has some aftertaste and some monk fruit products are manufactured with chemicals. Plus, because it is so sweet (more than 200 times sweeter than sugar) it is often “diluted” with binders and other products such as erythritol, sugar, molasses and maltodextrin.
3. Sugar alcohols.
- Pros: Sugar alcohols such as erythritol, sorbitol, mannitol, glycerol, xylitol, etc. have low GI and they have fewer calories than most sugars.
- Cons: Sugar alcohols have been known to cause abdominal cramping.
4. Coconut sugar.
- Pros: Coconut sugar is made from the coconut palm flower sap and it has a low glycemic index of 35 (vs. refined sugar in the 80-90 range). It has also has a good flavor and retains a number of nutrients from the palm.
- Cons: The downsides to coconut sugar are that it takes longer to dissolve in cold liquids, and it is expensive at $5-10/ lb.
5. Organic cane sugar and Sucanat.
- Pros: These sweeteners are considered to be healthier than white sugar. Organic cane sugar has a GI of 47 (vs refined sugar GI of 80-90). Organic cane sugar is processed using heat and steam and not chemicals such as phosphates, sulfites, carbon and alcohol, which are used to make white sugar. Sucanat (GI 55), another product made from sugar cane with no chemical process, actually has less calories, less carbs and more nutrients like potassium, Vitamin A, calcium, magnesium than refined white sugar.
- Cons: These sweeteners are more expensive than white sugar. Also, although less refined, they are still sugar with all of its inherent problems.
6. Honey, maple syrup, and Blackstrap molasses.
- Pros: Raw honey has a GI of 30, processed honey a GI of 75, and maple syrup 54. Blackstrap molasses is extracted from the cane in sugar production and has a GI of 55.
- Cons: These sweeteners are often as high in calories as sugar. They are also commonly more processed than other sweeteners (with the exception of raw honey).
7. Agave nectar.
- Pros: Agave nectar also has a low GI (15-30).
- Cons: The problem with this “natural alternative sugar” is that it is not completely natural, coming from a plant but then highly processed. Even more important is that it is about 90% fructose, making it very sweet. It has also been shown to have negative health effects. For instance, fructose is metabolized in the liver and can contribute to abdominal weight gain, fatty liver, high blood pressure and glucose intolerance. It also suppresses a hormone, leptin, a hormone that tells your brain you are satisfied and not hungry after eating.