The Bitter Truth About Non-Sugar Sweeteners
Are you eating too much sugar? Probably.
Are the sugar substitutes you hear about so widely a good idea? Probably not.
Yes, we want to be careful about sugar consumption but making smart choices for sweeteners shouldn’t be so hard. In this article I’ll demystify some of the most popular choices so you can make smart decisions… easier.
We all know a high sugar diet high is associated with a wide range of health conditions, so it’s no surprise everyone is searching for an alternative.
Read ingredient labels carefully and you’ll find most popular sugar alternatives are chemical- or plant-based substances mixed with sugar alcohols or corn-based simple sugars.
Your choice of sugar substitute starts with your health goals. But you also need to listen to your body. How do you feel after consuming it?
In this article I’ll share what to look for and beware of in the more common sugar substitutes as well as provide some personal recommendations for those looking to replace sugar with a more healthful alternative without the ugly side effects.
Artificial and Non-Sugar Sweeteners
Many sweeteners are usually “fake” or chemically processed. Some may be derived from herbs, fruits, or sugar itself, but they are often combined with sugar alcohols.
Sugar alcohols are used to improve palatability by reducing the sweetness of the natural herb. This helps the substitute more closely mimic the taste of sugar.
These fillers also allow for a 1:1 ratio when cooking or baking. This makes them easier to use with recipes. However, most sweeteners, even when using natural herbs as the promoted ingredient, have relatively little amounts of the actual herb.
Yes, the substitutes add sweetness with virtually no calories, but regular use can introduce a myriad of health challenges. These sugar alcohols and other added fillers are often the culprit behind “toxic” gut health with diarrhea, bloating, and gas.
Let’s examine some of the more popular non-sugar sweeteners.
Splenda®, Ez Sweetz®, SucraPlus®
Splenda® is the reigning champ for artificial sweetener use. It is the most common product used today which contains sucralose.
It is about 600 times sweeter than sugar and often mixed with bulking agents, especially maltodextrin and dextrose, which pose a number of potential health challenges (see Issues with Artificial Sweetener Additives).
Sucralose can be found in a variety of baked goods, beverages, chewing gum, gelatins, and dairy desserts.
Studies show consuming Splenda® and other sucralose-based products can affect blood sugar and have been known to cause GI issues. These effects are heightened when eating with carbs which rapidly impairs glucose metabolism.
Nutrasweet®, Equal®, Sugar Twin®
Aspartame remains one of the most popular artificial sweeteners used today. You will find this synthetic chemical in many “sugar-free” and “non-sugar” products including Diet Coke, Diet Pepsi, Kool Aid, sugar-free Jell-O, Trident, Dentyne, and many other brands.
Artificial sweeteners are not digested by the human body, which is why they have no calories; however, they still pass through the GI tract. Unlike other artificial sweeteners, aspartame travels throughout the body and leaves accumulating deposits in tissues. These result in serious health, behavioral, and learning problems.
Aspartame also disrupts the signaling process that usually occurs when you eat food with more calories and actually increases your appetite.
Many studies link aspartame to an increase in aggressive types of brain tumors, cancer, cardiovascular disease, stroke, dementia, Alzheimer’s, seizures, brain damage, headaches and migraines, mood disorders, diabetes, and significant weight gain (exactly the opposite effect most consume the artificial sweetener for in the first place).
3. Stevia (Stevia rebaudiana)
Stevia in the Raw®, Truvia®, Pure Via®, SweetLeaf®
Stevia is derived from the leaves of the Stevia rebaudiana plant. It is native to South America and has been used for food and medicinal purposes for an exceptionally long time. Stevia sweeteners are made by extracting steviol glycosides from the leaves of the stevia plant and purifying them.
Stevia made from whole Stevia leaf is green whereas the white one is made after most of the leaf’s contents are removed leaving behind only the sweet white mixture. The green Stevia is said to be the most nutritious of the two.
These steviol glycosides are not absorbed in the upper gastrointestinal tract and so they do not contribute any calories to our diet. The gut uses the glucose molecules as an energy source and the excess is metabolized by the liver and excreted in urine.
Stevia sweeteners are 200 to 350 times sweeter than sugar and used in beverages, canned fruits, syrups, and condiments. A little goes a long way.
Stevia is frequently recommended to people with diabetes as an alternative to sugar.
Since Stevia comes from a plant, we could consider it “natural.” However, all the brands listed above include additional ingredients such as maltodextrin, dextrose, erythritol, and inulin. Stevia may be a good choice for you but beware of these common potentially health challenging additives. (see Issues with Artificial Sweetener Additives)
4. Monk Fruit Sweetener
Lakanto Monkfruit Sweetener®, Monk Fruit in the Raw®, ZenSweet®
Monk fruit is also known as lo han guo or “Buddah” fruit. It is a small round melon native to southern China and has been used for centuries in Eastern medicine as a cold and digestive aid.
These monk fruit sweeteners are 150 to 200 times sweeter than sugar without adding calories. Because of this, little is needed to achieve the desired sweetness.
It gets its sweetness from a compound called mogrosides. Mogrosides are low in carbohydrates, do not raise blood sugar levels (rated zero on the glycemic index), and add zero calories. Studies show mogrosides also have antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties and could promote weight loss.
In order to make it easier for use, monkfruit sweeteners are usually blended with additives like erythritol, maltodextrin, and allulose. This is where the health benefits once again get tricky (see Issues with Artificial Sweetener Additives).
Issues with Artificial Sweetener Additives
As mentioned above, most artificial sweeteners add ingredients to increase the bulk for easier measurement and use in a ratio similar to sugar. However, these additives can each pose health challenges of their own.
Maltodextrin is added into many foods to improve flavor, thickness, and shelf life. It has been known to cause rashes or skin irritations, asthma, cramping, and difficult breathing.
Sometimes manufacturers source maltodextrin from genetically modified corn, rice, potatoes, or wheat. Those with celiac disease or gluten intolerances must be aware of this.
Maltodextrin also may increase the activity of Escherichia coli (E. coli) bacteria which plays a role in the development of irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), inflammatory bowel disease (IBD), and Crohn’s disease.
Dextrose is derived from corn and can be found in many packaged processed foods, sports supplements, baking products and pastries. It has been known to cause blood sugar spikes and contributes to diabetes, insulin resistance, obesity, and heart disease.
Like sugar, dextrose provides a quick energy boost which is why it is used in many supposedly healthy food products. This can lead to dangerously high blood sugar or fluid buildup in the body, which may also cause swelling and fluid in the lungs. Even the FDA warns that dextrose can cause severe adverse reactions. How and how much dextrose you consume matters.
Erythritol is a sugar alcohol produced by fermentation from a simple sugar derived from corn. Some sugar alcohols can cause digestive problems including bloating, cramps, and gas.
Inulin is a type of dietary fiber naturally occurring in many plants such as chicory. It is sometimes added to improve digestive health. Inulin is also a prebiotic which means it feeds the good bacteria in the gut. Research shows there are many health benefits to inulin.
However, manufacturers can also modify inulin for commercial use. Higher amounts of inulin or use of lower-quality inulin can trigger side effects. The most common side effects are gas, bloating, abdominal discomfort, and diarrhea.
Still relatively uncommon, allulose has been found in some monk fruit sweeteners. This low-calorie sugar was identified in wheat, figs, jackfruit, and raisins. It is naturally present in a variety of foods and resembles fructose.
You might find allulose listed as psicose, d-psicose, d-allulose, or pseudo-fructose. It has been noted that consuming large quantities of allulose can produce some abdominal discomfort including bloating, abdominal pain, diarrhea, gas, and decreased appetite.
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The body handles sugar found naturally in fruits and plants quite differently from refined sugars. I prefer to use whole foods and real food sweeteners as much as I can. It isn’t all about avoiding sugar. Instead, it is about moving away from overly processed foods with additives that make you feel horrible and just don’t help you.
There are alternatives and knowing what these are can help you make informed decisions about their place in your diet. Here are the sweeteners I personally recommend trying first if you wish to move away from sugar and keep the sweet.
Monk Fruit Sweeteners if you can handle erythritol well (1:1 sugar substitute):
PURE Monk Fruit Sweetener: No Fillers or Additives