Following the breaking scientific research published on September 17th* that showed that consuming the artificial sweeteners saccharin (Sweet’n Low), sucralose (Splenda) and aspartame (Equal) may actually lead to diabetes and obesity due to their impact on gut bacteria, we at The Tasteful Pantry have received questions from readers asking what is ok to eat if now artificial sweeteners are bad for us and sugar is bad for us? It’s a completely natural question to ask, especially if you know you have a sweet tooth. The short answer is, there is no one right answer for everyone, and as with many things, moderation is the key. However read on for more information to help you weigh your choices.
Let’s consider the pros and cons of sugars and artificial sugars. All sugars that contain calories contain carbohydrates and affect blood sugar. Artificial sweeteners do not contain calories and do not raise blood sugar. How 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) in the calorie and carb content.
Sweeteners with a high GI (glycemic index) result in blood sugar spikes which can lead to inflammation. Lower GI products are therefore generally considered healthier. However there are other health effects to consider for each alternative:
All zero calorie sweeteners, both artificial (saccharin, sucralose and aspartame) and natural (stevia, monk fruit) have a GI of zero, but some have other problems such as the artificial ones affecting gut bacteria. Prior to the September 17th study the other objection to these types of sweeteners was that although they do not raise blood sugar, they do not help weight loss. The theory behind the lack of weight loss is that the body is fooled by the sweet taste and as a response the pancreas secretes insulin. Ultimately excess insulin causes weight gain and increases hunger.
Stevia is a zero calorie sweetener that many consider to be healthier and less processed than the others mentioned above. It was not included in the September 17th study. The sweetener comes from the herb Stevia Rebaudiana, which is then made into a liquid or powder. It tends to have a bitter aftertaste, less so in the liquid form. It is generally considered safe and may even have positive medicinal properties, although there is ongoing debate and research on the potential risks and benefits of stevia in its various forms. There is some research that suggests stevia may interact negatively with certain medications, so be sure to consult your doctor if you are on any medications and plan to consume stevia in large quantities.
Although there have been studies that highlight other unwanted side effects from artificial sweeteners, there is one new zero calorie sweetener that so far has not received the bad press that other sweeteners have. Monk Fruit or Luo Han Guo, has been used in China for centuries for its healing properties. It has zero calories and therefore a GI of zero, has been GRAS (generally regarded as safe)-approved by the FDA (as is the case with the rest of the sweeteners mentioned here), and has not been associated with any toxicity to date. Downsides? It has some aftertaste and some monk fruit products are manufactured with chemicals. And 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.
Sugar alcohols such as erythritol, sorbitol, mannitol, glycerol, xylitol, etc. also have low GI but have been known to cause abdominal cramping. They each are metabolized differently in the body and have fewer calories than most sugars.
Coconut sugar is made from the coconut palm flower sap. It has a low glycemic index of 35 (vs. refined sugar in the 80-90 range). The downsides to coconut sugar are that it takes longer to dissolve in cold liquids, and it is expensive at $5-10/ lb. The upsides are that it has a good flavor and retains from the palm nutrients like potassium, phosphorus, magnesium, sulfur, zinc and B vitamins. It is about as sweet as refined sugar and can be used in place of refined sugar 1:1 in baking and cooking.
Organic cane sugar and Sucanat are more expensive but 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.
Honey and maple syrup have a similar number of calories as sugar. Raw honey is the least processed sweetener available, but some brands of non-raw honey and maple syrup are processed more than others. 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.
Agave nectar also has a low GI (15-30). 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 very sweet. Both fructose (GI 25) and agave have been recommended for their low GIs but have proven to have some negative health effects. 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.
As with all foods, sugar in any form should be used in moderation. Sugar is not generally a healthy product but using a natural sugar in limited amounts may be healthier and more eco-friendly than your run-of-the-mill table sugar. If you want to avoid sugars and sweeteners altogether but still crave something sweet, try eating a small piece of dark chocolate or some dried or fresh fruit! Good luck and feel free to email me at Lea@tastefulpantry.com with any of your nutrition questions and see my response on our site!
Lea Basch is a registered dietitian and has been in the nutrition industry for over 30 years, most of which she spent at Longmont United Hospital in Boulder, Colorado, where she was one of the founders of the facility’s nutrition program. Longmont’s Planetree philosophy of caring for the body, mind and spirit of patients is very much in line with Lea’s interest in both traditional and alternative therapies for treating chronic illnesses. Gluten-intolerant herself, Lea now focuses much of her time on the latest research and issues relating to gluten-free diets and other food intolerances. She is a diabetes educator and is a Registered Dietitian with the American Dietetic Association. Lea’s lifelong passion has been combining the science of nutrition with the heart that it takes to change lifelong habits.
Lea received her BS and MS in Nutrition and Dietetics at Florida International University and BA in Education at University of Florida. Ask Lea your nutrition questions at Lea@tastefulpantry.com
* Artificial Sweeteners Induce Glucose Intolerance by Altering the Gut Microbiota, published by the journal Nature