We need sugars from whole, unrefined foods like whole grains, legumes, fruits and vegetables because they are actually essential as brain food. Unfortunately, much of the food found in stores and restaurants today contain added sugars from other sources. Let’s focus on understanding the sweeteners added to convenience foods. This is where you can make a positive change.
There are five categories: Modified Sugars, High-intensity Sweeteners, Sugar Alcohols, Natural Caloric Sweeteners, and Natural Zero Caloric Sweeteners. Within each we’ll look at appropriate uses and any cautions with overuse.
Uses: Found naturally in whole foods (whole grains, legumes, fruits, and vegetables).
Benefits: Glucose is the body’s main source of energy. Glucose is vital! The digestion of carbohydrates produces glucose, which our bodies use to produce a form of energy called ATP (adenosine triphosphate). ATP is like the gas in our cars, it feeds our brains and runs nearly all of our bodily functions; without it we would be stuck motionless.
Warnings: Glucose is necessary for everyone, however some people do not properly metabolize glucose and must carefully track the foods they consume to avoid over-consumption of glucose. When carbohydrates are broken down in the digestive tract, glucose is absorbed into the bloodstream. We don’t want too much or too little sugar in our bloodstream, so to stabilize our blood sugar level we produce insulin. Insulin allows our cells to use the consumed glucose immediately if needed, to store the consumed glucose when we have too much sugar in our blood, or to use our stored glucose when our blood sugar levels are too low. People with impaired glucose metabolism may produce too much insulin, not enough, or may not respond to the insulin produced.
Uses: Found naturally in fruit and as an additive in processed and prepackaged foods.
Benefits: Low glycemic index – does not lead to a huge spike in one’s blood sugar level, which is beneficial for someone with impaired glucose metabolism like a diabetic.
Warnings: Fructose is metabolized in the liver and is stored as fat if not needed immediately for energy. According to Harvard Medical School, fructose puts strain on the liver when consumed in excess, increases the concentration of triglycerides (the fat in our blood), makes tissues insulin-resistant, increases blood pressure, and elevates the production of free radicals. Excess intake of fructose, as suggested by the National Center for Biotechnology Information, has also been linked to obesity, heart disease, and higher levels of uric acid (which can cause gout).
Also known as sugar, white sugar, table sugar, granulated sugar, Sugar in the Raw, Turbinado, evaporated cane juice
Uses: Baked and cooked foods, processed foods, beverages
Benefits: Provides quick joust of energy. Raw sucrose contains minimal nutrients, but most of the sugar consumed today is highly refined, effectively removing all nutritive value.
Warnings: Sucrose consists of from 50% glucose and 50% fructose. All of the concerns with fructose apply to sucrose as well. Excessive intake of refined sugar has been linked to many health problems like high blood sugar, obesity, type II diabetes, gallstones, osteoporosis, heart disease, tooth decay, and feelings of lethargy or fatigue, nausea, anxiety, and depression. Some scientists have even declared sucrose a drug, similar to that of cocaine (more on that here).
Sugar alcohols are a carbohydrate typically derived from berries or other fruits, corn, or seaweed that are changed in a chemical process.
Uses: Found in diet and “light” beverages, sugar-free chewing gum, diabetic candies, dried fruit, and toothpaste.
Benefits: Does not cause as great an insulin rush as sucrose; Commonly used in sugar free products marketed to people with impaired glucose metabolism or Diabetes. Does not cause tooth decay
Warnings: Sorbitol is known to have laxative effects, cause bloating, diarrhea, gas, and, sometimes, abdominal pain when consumed in large amounts. Not recommended for anyone with sensitive digestion and/or Irritable Bowel Syndrome. Consume in moderation.
Also known as Miracle Sweet, Nature’s Provisions, XyloSweet, XyloPure
Uses: Found in most of the same products as sorbitol – sorbitol is more commonly used as it is cheaper. Xylitol is also used in some medicines.
Benefits: Low in calories; Does not cause tooth decay; Occurs naturally in very small amounts in birch wood, vegetables, and fruit.
Warnings: The same as those for sorbitol – should not be consumed in large quantities due to a laxative effect; consume in moderation.
Uses: Found in chocolate most commonly.
Benefits: Lower in calories than sucrose, by almost half (2.1 calories per gram versus 4 calories per gram); Does not cause tooth decay.
Warnings: The same as for sorbitol and xylitol; it has been shown to cause abdominal pain, flatulence, and diarrhea when eaten in large amounts. Consume in moderation.
Also known as Zerose, ZSweet
Uses: Can be used for baking
Benefits: Low in calories; Low glycemic index; Does not cause tooth decay
Warnings: If consumed in large quantities, could have similar side effects as the other sugar alcohols. However, erythritol appears to be the safest of them all as it is not metabolized in the stomach but rather partially absorbed in the intestines after fermentation, leading to the lowest possibility of discomfort. Consume in moderation.
Uses: Found in chocolate, ice creams, pastries, chewing gum, and candies.
Benefits: Low in calories; Does not cause tooth decay.
Warnings: Lactitol can cause digestive discomfort like the other sugar alcohols, which include abdominal pain, flatulence, and diarrhea. Consume in moderation.
Defined as a sugar that is produced from the modification of starch by the use of enzymes.
High Fructose Corn Syrup (HFCS)
Also referred to as corn syrup or fructose on food labels
Uses: Produced from field corn through a chemical process and found in many processed and prepackaged foods and beverages.
Warnings: HFCS is made from modified corn starch and during its manufacturing it may be contaminated with mercury. HFCS has high levels of fructose. All of the concerns with fructose are of most concern in relation to HFCS since HFCS 55, found in soft drinks, contains 55% fructose and 45% glucose. Fruit contains a ratio of 50/50 of fructose and glucose and the balance, with fruits’ fiber and nutrients, eliminates any concerns of excess fructose when consumed from whole fruit. This cannot be said for HFCS.
Uses: Found in processed and prepackaged foods and beverages, including ice cream, desserts, salad dressings, and condiments. Used as a sweetener or for color or for both.
Warnings: Caramel is made by heating table sugar to 170 degrees Celsius, therefore it holds the same warnings as sucrose.
Uses: Found in desserts.
Warnings: It is a byproduct of refined sugar and therefore has the same cautions as sucrose.
Defined as an FDA-approved sugar substitute with a high level of sweetness but, typically, a low glycemic index. To imitate the sweetness of sucrose, high-intensity sweeteners are often used in very small amounts and sometimes mixed with dextrose or maltodextrin.
Also known as NutraSweet, Equal, Sugar Twin
Uses: Found in soda, sugar-free chewing gum, mints, cereals, shake mixes, juices, tea, coffee, and many more. Sold under the names of NutraSweet® and Equal®.
Bonuses: Zero calories; Zero glycemic index
Warnings: Although studies have not been strictly “conclusive”, many studies were on the verge of proving a link between aspartame and brain and bladder cancer, birth defects, seizures and epilepsy, diabetes, and emotional disorders but studies were stopped due to issues with the data or severe reactions to the sweetener.
More on aspartame can be found here and there is a video on it here.
Also known as Sweet N’ Low, Sweet Twin, Necta Sweet
Uses: Found in drinks, candies, cookies, medicines, and toothpaste.
Bonuses: Zero calories; Zero glycemic index; does not promote tooth decay.
Warnings: According to ScienceNews.org on a scientific report published by Jotham Suez et al in 2014, saccharine impairs “glucose metabolism, a warning sign for type 2 diabetes”. Glucose metabolism is also important just for our everyday energy supply, so this could be problematic. Saccharine has been found to cause cancer in lab rats. Under the Delaney Clause (provision in the Food Additives Amendment, 1958) which states that any chemical used in food that is found to cause cancer in humans or lab animals should not be approved by the FDA, saccharine should be declared as unsafe, however it is still in use today.
Also known as Splenda
Benefits: Low glycemic index and caloric value
Warnings: One study by the Journal of Toxicology and Environmental Health found that sucralose reduces the amount of good bacteria in our intestines by 50% and increases the pH level in our intestines, both of which could lead to an overgrowth of harmful bacteria, poor digestion, and a weak immune system. In 2013, the Center for Science in the Public Interest degraded sucralose from “Safe” to “Caution” once they reviewed an unpublished study that provided evidence against the safety of sucralose. The data showed a link between sucralose and leukemia in mice.
NATURAL CALORIC SWEETENERS
Natural caloric sweeteners are natural sweeteners that contain nutritional value.
Uses: Baked goods, tea, coffee, as a spread, etc.
Benefits: Does not contain any chemicals since it is produced by bees! Honey may have medicinal and antibacterial properties, soothes sore throats, and possibly promotes faster recovery from the flu. Local honey specifically is thought to relieve allergy symptoms.
Warnings: Honey can contain up to 50% fructose. If eaten in large amounts, the concerns are the same as those for table sugar. Consume in moderation.
NOTE: When buying honey, look for labels that read “natural honey” and check the ingredients. There is artificial honey made from heated refined sugar and some can have additional sweeteners.
Uses: Baked goods, ice cream, on top of pancakes or waffles, etc.
Benefits: Maple syrup is extracted from the sap of maple trees. Maple syrup contains zinc, magnesium, calcium, iron, potassium, and antioxidants. It also causes a slower rise in blood sugar than sucrose. Does not contain any chemicals.
Warnings: Although maple syrup has some nutritional value, it has a very high sugar content. Therefore, consume in moderation to prevent the adverse effects linked to high intakes of sugar.
NOTE: When buying maple syrup, look for labels that read “Pure Maple Syrup” rather than “Maple-Flavored Syrup”. These are not the same. Maple-flavored syrup does not come from the sap of trees, but rather from other sweeteners, and does not contain the same nutritive value.
If you’re curious on how to make maple syrup, this is a neat video.
Also known as Agave Nectar
Uses: Similar to any syrup – used in beverages and in cooked and baked goods.
Benefits: Agave is made from the same plant as tequila. The nectar in its natural state has fructans, which the British Journal of Nutrition declared as having “promising effects on glucose metabolism, body weight, and fat mass development”.
Warnings: Agave nectar is turned into agave syrup through a refining process, during which the fructans break down into fructose. This increases the sugar content of the syrup. Agave syrup is 85% fructose, which makes it the most fructose rich of all the sweeteners. Therefore, the same caution taken with sucrose must be taken with agave syrup
Uses: Uses are similar to those of maple syrup.
Benefits: Sorghum syrup is made from the sap of sweet sorghum, originally from Africa. It contains calcium, protein, iron, magnesium, phosphorus, potassium, zinc, and riboflavin.
Warnings: High in sugar and has a high glycemic index. The same concerns apply as those for table sugar.
Coconut Palm Sugar
Also referred to as just coconut sugar
Uses: Baked goods, beverages, chocolate, etc.
Benefits: Coconut Palm Sugar is made from the sap of coconut palm trees and contains some levels of magnesium, potassium, iron, calcium, polyphenols, and antioxidants. It also has a low glycemic index and does not contain any chemicals.
Warnings: Coconut palm sugar is 70-79% sucrose and since sucrose is half fructose, this means it is very high in fructose, which poses potential health issues like those of table sugar.
Uses: Used most often in southeast Asian recipes, but it is appearing in North America as a replacement for sucrose in cooking and baking.
Benefits: Palm sugar is made from the sap of a sugar palm tree. There have been some claims made on its medicinal effects, but nothing conclusive. Low glycemic index. Does not contain any chemicals.
Warnings: Palm sugar is not much different than the typical table sugar we use. The same concerns apply.
NATURAL ZERO CALORIC SWEETENERS
Natural zero caloric sweeteners are not carbohydrates and do not contain any calories.
Also known as SweetLeaf, Truvia, PureVia, Rebiana
Uses: Beverages, baked and cooked foods.
Benefits: Stevia is a plant grown in South America. It has a zero glycemic index.
Warnings: The sweetener itself is highly refined, which could cause concern for some. Some varieties of stevia have shown to have adverse effects in animals, but the varieties sold in the U.S. do not appear to be of any concern.
True name: Luo Han Guo
Uses: Beverages and cooked foods.
Benefits: Luo Han Guo is a plant native to China and has been used there for its proposed medicinal properties for hundreds of years. It is used for respiratory ailments and sore throats.
Warnings: No known concerns.
Read ingredient lists! There are tons of different sweeteners, most of which should not be consumed in large amounts, especially artificial sweeteners and modified sugars. Even though most- but not all- of these sweeteners have only been shown to cause harmful effects if eaten in excess, why take the risk? It’s not worth it. Instead of buying processed foods full of additives, make your own version at home with whole foods. Fruits are amazing natural beauties that are both sweet and beneficial for the body and thus are the best sweeteners to use in baking or cooking. Try using bananas, plantains, apples, applesauce, or dates the next time you’re craving a sweet treat.
Here are some incredible recipes that give those refined foods a run for their money:
- Two ingredient banana pancakes
- No-Bake Carrot Cake Balls (With Dates & Applesauce)
- No Churn Vegan Chocolate Ice Cream (With Dates)
- Five Ingredient Salted Caramel Peanut Butter Truffles (With Dates)
And if you really do need just a little something extra, use some honey or maple syrup in moderation since they do have more nutritional value than the other sweeteners. BUT remember that their nutritive value is minimal and does not mean you can eat crazy amounts – they’re still high in sugar and must be consumed in moderation!
Here are some creative ways to use honey or maple syrup:
If you are looking for a sweetener to cook and bake with that has a low glycemic index, experiment with one of the sugar alcohols or the natural zero caloric sweeteners. And although they are low in calories, be conscientious of how much you consume – moderation should still be applied.
Here are a few fun recipes:
You can replace sugar with Stevia in any of your favorite recipes with this conversion
- Banana Daiquiri Ice Cream (With Stevia)
- “Nutella” (With Stevia)
Xylitol can replace sugar in a 1:1 ratio
- Easy Chocolate Pudding (With Xylitol)
- Pumpkin Pie (With Xylitol)
In regards to all of the sweeteners: remember to be kind to your sweet self, nourish with nature, and exercise balance.
By Giulia Tondo, Clinical Nutrition Student