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The Skinny on Alternative Sugars

By Kim Robson:

With the FDA’s recent recommendation that no more than 10 percent of our daily calories come from added sugar, those of us with a sweet tooth are always looking for good but healthy sugar substitutes. Let’s break down the facts.

First, as we discuss alternatives to refined white sugar and high fructose corn syrup (HFCS), you’ll see references to various types of sugar, namely, fructose, glucose, lactose, dextrose, maltose and sucrose. The differences come from their molecular arrangements. For a detailed scientific breakdown of these sugars, click here.

Recommended (From Best to Worst):

Raw Unfiltered Honey – Nature’s superfood, honey is packed with antioxidants, minerals, vitamins, amino acids, enzymes, carbohydrates and phytonutrients. Skip the filtered honey, though, as it’s stripped of nutrients.

Maple Syrup – The real stuff, not pancake syrup, which is just caramel-colored HRCS. Madefrom the sap of maple trees. High in trace minerals like zinc and manganese, maple syrup can help balance cholesterol levels. However, it has a fairly high glycemic index, which can cause blood glucose to spike, so diabetics should be aware of this and use it in moderation.

Agave Nectar – A combination of fructose and glucose sugars, it’s slightly sweeter than honey. This amber-colored syrup is extracted from the sap of the blue agave, a native Mexican plant. The syrup pours easily and blends quickly in both hot and cold drinks. Agave nectar also has a low glycemic index, so it’s excellent for diabetics.

Brown Rice Syrup – Derived from cooked rice and enzymes. While far less refined than table sugar, brown rice syrup is approximately 45% maltose, a type of sugar with a high glycemic index value, which can cause spikes in blood sugar. If you have diabetes, use it in moderation or avoid it altogether.

Barley Malt Syrup – Made from malted barley grains, and contains about 65% maltose. About half as sweet as refined sugar, it has a unique molasses-like flavor and a distinctive rich, dark color. It is popular for use in cooking, baking, and brewing beer. However, barley malt syrup is 65% maltose, which is high on the glycemic index; so if you have diabetes, use in moderation.

Coconut Sugar – Contains trace amounts of minerals, and with less fructose than white sugar, your liver metabolizes it more efficiently. But coconut sugar is higher in sucrose, so it will raise your blood sugar a bit, but only about half as much as white sugar.

Evaporated Cane Juice – Less processed than refined sugar, so it retains more of the nutrients found in natural sugar cane. In moderation, evaporated cane juice is a natural source of sweetness that can be part of a healthy diet. It can be used just like sugar for sweetening foods and drinks, and you may find it in a number of processed foods. You may see it listed on nutrition labels by other names including dried cane juice, crystallized cane juice, or milled cane sugar.

Stevia Leaf – Far sweeter than sugar, and with zero calories, it even offers a few notable health benefits, thanks to stevioside (the bitter part of the leaf). Beware, though: heavily processed forms of stevia, such as Truvía brand sweetener, are far removed from the natural plant, and contain less than one percent stevia leaf extract, and are blended with other ingredients like erythritol to balance the bitter chemical aftertaste. Try combining stevia with other substitutes like agave, honey, or cane sugar to create a blend with half the calories and a more balanced flavor.

Organic Sugar – Made from sugar cane grown without the use of chemicals or pesticides. It is typically darker in color than table sugar because it is not processed to the degree that white sugar is, and it still retains some molasses.

Not Recommended:

Fight the temptation to rely on artificial chemical sweeteners, which actually increase your craving for sugar. The University of Texas Health Science Center in San Antonio conducted a study which found that obesity risk increased 41% for each daily can of diet soda consumed.

Aspartame – Found in Equal and NutraSweet brand sweeteners, it has been linked tocarcinogenic effects. In 2014, the American Journal of Industrial Medicine recommended re-evaluating the position of international regulatory agencies on aspartame. A study in Reproductive Toxicology also found that aspartame could have dangerous effects on pregnant or nursing women, specifically, metabolic syndrome disorders and obesity. Aspartame has also been accused of causing multiple sclerosis and systemic lupus, but these claims have been debunked.According to David G. Hattan, Ph.D., Acting Director, Division of Health Effects Evaluation, United States Food & Drug Administration (USFDA) Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition, “The legitimate attempts that have been made to confirm and replicate allegations of adverse reactions from aspartame ingestion have not been successful and the USFDA continues to consider this to a be among the most thoroughly tested of food additives and that this information continues to confirm the safety of aspartame.”

Sucralose – Found in Splenda brand sweetener. According to their slogan, it’s “Made from sugar, so it tastes like sugar.” A 2013 study published in the Journal of Toxicology and Environmental Health claims that it contains several hazardous compounds, including chloropropanol, a possible carcinogen. However, claims that it causes gastrointestinal problems, seizures, dizziness, migraines, blurred vision, allergic reactions, blood sugar spikes and weight gain come from questionable sources presenting inaccurate, misleading and outdated information. These terrifying claims have been debunked. Just as aspartame, sucralose has been subjected to rigorous safety testing in short-term and long-term studies in both animals and humans (more than a hundred of which were reviewed during the FDA approval process). None has demonstrated any significant risk to humans when consumed in normal amounts.

Xylitol – One of several sugar alcohols, which aren’t absorbed well by the body. Often found in chewing gum and hard candy. Derived from xylose, found in birch bark, it can’t be adequately metabolized by single-stomach animals, resulting in digestive issues. In fact, xylose is frequently used in over-the-counter laxatives. Another reason to avoid xylitol: it’s sometimes added topeanut butter, which is sometimes given to dogs as a treat. Xylitol is toxic to dogs and can threaten their lives.

Saccharin – Found in Sweet N’ Low brand sweetener. The absolute worst. Bitter, with a nasty chemical aftertaste. In the 1970s, saccharin and other sulfa-based sweeteners were thought to cause bladder cancer and carried a warning label, which unfortunately the FDA has since removed. Many studies continue to link saccharin to serious health conditions, including photosensitivity, nausea, digestive upset, tachycardia (racing heartbeat) and some types of cancer.

About Kim Robson

Kim Robson lives and works with her husband in the Cuyamaca Mountains an hour east of San Diego. She enjoys reading, writing, hiking, cooking, and animals. She has written a blog since 2006 at kimkiminy.wordpress.com. Her interests include the environment, dark skies, astronomy and physics, geology and rock collecting, living simply and cleanly, wilderness and wildlife conservation, and eating locally.

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