MealEnders Blog

The Beginner’s Guide to Natural Sweeteners

By Tami Lyon, MPH, RD
May 12, 2016

Natural Sweeteners Guide

One of the few undisputed facts of health and nutrition is that added sugar is bad for you.

And yet, despite the obvious evils, we keep eating it by the pound. Because it just tastes that good. And for many of us, it’s just that addictive.

While for a time, sugar substitutes tricked us all into believing that we could have our cake and eat it too (in the most literal sense), it’s since become evident that what seems too good to be true probably is.

So generally, when caving to the sweet beast, it’s best to stick with a sweetener from the more natural end of the spectrum.

That’s right–the spectrum. Like most things in life, it’s hard to draw hard lines when it comes to natural sweeteners. For the sake of categorization, we’re considering natural sweeteners to be those derived from natural sources, rather than those created in a laboratory. On top of that, we’ve split natural sweeteners into three larger sections: natural sugars, sugar alcohols, and in-vogue sweeteners.

There are several types of sugar compounds, all known as dietary monosaccharides, disaccharides or simple sugars. Monosaccharides include glucose, galactose and fructose. Disaccharides (meaning two monosaccharides linked together) include sucrose, maltose and lactose. Most natural sweeteners are composed of sucrose, the scientific name for table sugar, which is composed of equal parts glucose and fructose.

Glucose naturally occurs in starches and supports our survival. It provides energy for muscles and organs and can be used by every cell in the body. We store glucose in our liver and muscle tissue, and this backup source’s carbohydrate is called glycogen. Eat too much glucose and the body will either try to top off glycogen stores or store it  as fat. Fructose, on the other hand, is almost exclusively metabolized by the liver. So if you consume it in excessive quantities via table sugar or high-fructose corn syrup (HFCS), it may overload your liver’s ability to process it, ultimately converting this sugar into fat. In nature, fructose is found in fruits and vegetables and is accompanied by fiber. In this state, it’s difficult to overdo it.

Natural Sugars

This group includes tried and true sweeteners like, honey, syrup, and agave. Though at times some of these have been portrayed as “healthy sugars,” all are still sugar and all still have calories.

Honey Bees

We’re all familiar with Winnie the Pooh’s sweetener of choice, honey. Honey is produced by bees, which vary from colony to colony, and thus, their honey varies as well. Generally, honey contains antioxidants, which lower our risk for disease. But the antioxidant content of honey depends largely on the bee colony and can vary as much as 20-fold. Usually, darker honeys, such as Buckwheat honey, contain greater amounts of antioxidants. Nevertheless, honey is more than 82 percent sugar, is about just as sweet, and provides 64 calories per tablespoon. So while honey is healthier than refined sugar, it should still only be consumed in moderation.

Maple Syrup

Maple syrup is collected from the sap of maple trees, mostly in Canada. Much like wine, its taste varies with its origin, growth climate, soil, tree health, and more, but it always has a distinct maple flavor. It’s 67 percent sucrose by weight and one serving, or a single tablespoon, tallies 52 calories and 12 grams of sugar. It contains some nutrients–mainly calcium, potassium, iron, zinc, and manganese–and boasts at least 24 different antioxidants. However, it’ll take a lot of maple syrup for these benefits to add up, and the detriments of the calories and sugar will outweigh the advantages. While maple syrup isn’t as bad as regular ol’ sugar, it still shouldn’t be a significant component of your weight loss plan.

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Agave nectar (or syrup) was once all the rage. Its honey-like flavor and syrupy texture made it a top choice for sweetening coffee, baking, and topping yogurt and granola. You may remember a few years ago when it was the sweetener of choice for health-conscious foodies. Yet, once the general public came to understand that agave is 100 percent fructose–a sugar that we do not want to consume in concentrated forms or excessive quantities–this plant-derived sweetener largely slipped off of restaurant menus. While it may have been marketed as a healthy sweetener, don’t be fooled: this deceptively unhealthy sugar alternative is even worse for you than sugar itself.

Sugar Alcohols

Sugar alcohols are a more obscure concept because you’ve likely never used them to sweeten your coffee or bake a cake. More often than not, these plant-derived sweeteners are used in processed food. While they may be sweet, they’re not associated with the usual downfalls of sugar, and some even boast some benefits, such as: dental health, a low glycemic index, bone health, and skin health. And since sugar alcohols are incompletely broken down and absorbed by the body, as a result they provide fewer calories than sugar. While sucrose provides four calories per gram, sugar alcohols can contain zero to three calories per gram. Yet, they’re not nature’s perfect answer to sugar, as they can cause digestive discomfort. And beware: foods containing sugar alcohols are technically sugar free and are frequently labeled as such. However, they can still affect blood sugar levels due to their carbohydrate content. So, if you’re diabetic or looking to lower your sugar intake, be sure to look at the nutrition facts and listed ingredients on the package.

Xylitol is the sugar alcohol best known for its dental benefits. It occurs naturally in small amounts in some fruits and vegetables, has only 2.4 calories per gram and a low glycemic index, and thus has little effect on glucose levels. It contains absolutely zero fructose, but tastes like sugar. Plus, it can actually benefit your dental health and prevent tooth decay by starving bad bacteria to death. It can also reduce the rate of ear infections in children, fight infections caused by Candida albicans yeast, and may reduce the effects of aging (according to research done on rats). But xylitol is highly toxic to dogs… so make sure to keep it out of the jaws of your furry friend.

There’s also erythritol, which is naturally found in fermented items and some fruits, indicating that it is a byproduct of the metabolism of sugar. It has even fewer calories, at only 0.24 calories per gram and doesn’t cause the typical intestinal issues associated with sugar alcohols. Best of all, its taste is nearly identical to sugar’s–but with a fraction of the calories.

In-Vogue Sweeteners

It seems that there’s always some new sweetener trend and right now natural is all the rage. In 2016, we’ve seen several new natural sugar substitutes hit the shelves and make it big online.

Stevia

Stevia is a leafy green plant that grows in South America. The packaged version that you see on grocery store shelves is a refined version of the plant, and usually contains isolated versions of two of the stevia plant’s prominent sweet compounds: stevioside and rebaudioside A. Both are hundreds of times sweeter than sugar, but often have a bitter aftertaste. Stevia is a zero calorie sweetener and though that may be wary to try it because of the potential bitterness,  it actually has a host of benefits. Studies show that it can help lower blood pressure, reduce blood sugar levels, and may even have anti-inflammatory and anti-cancer agents. But since stevia is the name of the plant rather than a brand name, its composition varies from brand to brand. Additionally, most commercial stevia is refined and includes a host of filler ingredients, such as erythritol, dextrose, and “natural flavors.” Lastly, there is some concern about stevia’s negative impact on fertility–though it would likely have to be consumed in high quantities to have any such effect.

coconuts

The rise of coconut sugar has followed the popularity of its cousin, coconut oil. Coconut sugar is made from the sap of the coconut plant, which is collected and placed under heat until the liquid evaporates off and leaves the sweet, natural sugars. Unlike refined sugar, this sweetener is more than just another delicious taste–it also contains nutrients, including iron, zinc, calcium, and potassium. However, to reap the benefits of these nutrients, you’d have to eat a lot of coconut sugar, and at 3.75 calories per gram, it probably wouldn’t be great for your weight loss efforts. Besides, it’s made up of 78 percent sugar–equal parts fructose and glucose.  So while coconut sugar does contain more nutrients and fewer calories than refined sugar, it’s still loaded with fructose–so it’s probably best to steer clear of this trend if you’re looking to manage your weight.

Monk fruit sweetener is extracted from, you guessed it, monk fruit, a small, round fruit that is grown in Southeast Asia. It contains no calories and is 100 to 250 times sweeter than sugar, though some find that it has a bitter aftertaste. Despite the fact that it’s been used in traditional Chinese medicine for centuries, the FDA only approved it in 2010. While most fruits are sweet due to fructose and glucose, the monk fruit’s sweetness comes from an antioxidant known as mogroside, which has anti-inflammatory and anti-cancer effects. Plus, monk fruit sweetener is calorie-free and low-carb, marking it as a good option for diabetics. So far, monk fruit seems to be a promising natural alternative to sugar. However, it’s still relatively new to the American market and will need to undergo more studies before we have any conclusive answers.

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(Click image to enlarge!)

When it comes down to it, sugar is sugar, whichever form it’s in, and it’s best to limit sweeteners when you can. Luckily, there are promising natural alternatives with some surprising benefits for when you do need to add a little sweetness to your life. Additionally, remember that there’s no cure-all, and no magic pill. No sweetener will make all your weight loss woes disappear, and not every sweetener is for everyone. And as always, moderation is key.

*Individual Results May Vary