In the western world we appear to have an insatiable hunger for sugar. Given the health risks associated with sugar it is inevitable that alternatives will be sought. Today the sheer range of sweeteners available and the truth and lies surrounding them means making the right choice is fraught with difficulties. Let’s firstly look at the problem with sugar before examining the four main groups of sweeteners available. Finally I will conclude by summing up (IMHO) what options are best to use.
Firstly sugar – Sugar is derived from sugar cane or sugar beet, however that is where its relationship with nature ends. It goes through a highly intense process before it ends up in our sugar bowls and this includes bleaching. Sugar is high in calories making it a poor choice for weight loss or weight control. It can lead to tooth decay and is the primary cause of the type 2 diabetes epidemic. An often overlooked side effect of sugar is that it actually leaches vitamins and minerals from our bodies. In lay man’s terms your body has to use its resources to eliminate the sugar from your body. As sugar doesn’t bring anything nutritional to the table, so to speak, vitamins and minerals are lost.
So what are the alternatives?
1. Artificial Sweeteners
These include Aspartame, Saccharin and Suralose (Splenda) and are basically chemicals manufactured to be used as sugar replacements. They are used in the home to add to tea or sprinkle on cereal and are included in many processed food. Most notably soft drinks usually contain Aspartame. Studies on lab rats have suggested these substances may have carcinogenic properties and have also been tentatively linked to brain tumours. There is plenty of anecdotal evidence that they can cause headaches and migraines. There is also concern that they may skew our metabolism and insulin responses leading to a stimulated appetite and obesity, and even type 2 diabetes. Supporters of these sweeteners (Coca-Cola being one of the biggest) will tell you that none of these side effects have ever been conclusively proven and they have been passed as safe by the DFA/EFSA (although cynics will tell you Coca-Cola may have had a hand in that). I say there is no smoke without fire and your better safe than sorry. One thing is for sure we don’t know what effect taking large quantities of these substances over a prolonged period will do; as is the case with consuming diet soft drinks on a daily basis. Personally I wouldn’t risk consuming large quantities of anything that unnatural.
2. Sugar Alcohols
These include sorbitol and xylitol. These are sugars derived from fruit. Despite the name they do not contain any alcohol. These are generally considered safe and natural although are not digested that well by the body so can cause bloating and discomfort. They also contain calories (albeit 40% less than sugar) and are not as sweet as sugar. These are generally used in processed products as a pose to in your own kitchen, however can be bought online.
3. Novel Sweeteners
Novel sweeteners have been termed so because they are natural sweeteners that cannot be described as natural sweeteners due to the manufacturing process involved in extracting them. The novel sweetener with the most attention at the moment is Stevia. The pro-Stevia camp has a very strong argument and Stevia has been touted as capable of supressing the appetite, stabilising blood sugar levels (and potentially curing diabetes), acting as a plaque retardant due to its anti-bacterial properties and reducing recovery time from cold and flu. Unfortunately much of the supporting evidence is anecdotal and there is no hard core scientific data available. The Anti-Stevia crowd (read Tate and Lyle) will point you to research linking the substance to cancer and male infertility. However, on review I found the Carcinogenic study to have been discredited as the Stevia used had been modified before testing. The male infertility study was 40 years old and the results have not been replicated in subsequent studies. Add to this that the substance has been used by indigenous people in South America (where it originates) for hundreds of years, and makes up 50% of sweeteners used in Japan for the last 40 years I think any serious complications would have come to light sooner. So what’s the catch? – Price. Stevia is much more expensive than the alternatives. This has led to the development of hybrids such as Truvia. Beware of this sweetener! Although it is described as a Stevia based sweetener it actually contains very little Stevia and a whole lot of Erythritol. Erythritol is a sugar alcohol made by processing genetically modified corn. This wolf in sheep’s clothing has been developed by (have you guessed yet?) Coca-Cola and is already being used in Sprite Green – A (ahem) natural soft drink.
4. Natural Sweeteners
These are the ones that are found naturally and require minimal processing to get them ready to eat. They include Agave, Date Sugar, Fruit Juice Concentrate, Honey, Maple Syrup and Molasses. These are natural options, however many of them have distinct tastes making them unsuitable for an all-round sweetener. For example honey might work great in your banana muffins or your camomile tea, but will give your breakfast tea a very funny taste! You also need to bear in mind these metabolise just like sugar and often have 1.5 times the calorie content, so have debatable health advantages.
Agave has been touted as the next big thing in natural sweeteners and is often found in organic products such as raw chocolate and nut milks. However, Agave can contain up to 90% Fructose. The problem with fructose is if it is consumed in large quantities it can overwhelm the body’s ability to process it and could even lead to type 2 diabetes, in the same way as sugar.
So in conclusion, if we must use sugars or sweeteners, Stevia looks like the smart option. The proof however is, quite literally, in the pudding. Therefore I will be switching to Stevia to sweeten my morning porridge and bake my cakes. (When I say ‘my’ obviously I mean ‘my wife’s!) I will report back my findings.