A Guide to the Best Natural Sweeteners
By GMB Advisor, Dr Sandy Krafchik
With such a wide array of natural sweeteners available on the supermarket and health food store shelves – it can be extremely overwhelming and confusing to choose the correct one for your needs. Although healthy treats are being touted as healthy alternatives to the traditional sugar-laden treats –they are still treats! Therefore, moderation is key!
The GMB stance is very practical & realistic: sugar and sweeteners cannot always be completely avoided – but their use should always be limited to an occasional indulgence.
Natural sweeteners are usually derived from plants. They taste like sugar, but contain less calories, have less impact on blood-sugar levels and do not cause tooth decay. However, these sweeteners are often added to foods that have high levels of saturated fats – which are proven to be detrimental to our health.
As the harmful effects of sugar and high fructose corn syrup become increasingly more evident, people are turning to natural alternatives. Since consuming too much sugar is a leading cause of obesity, type 2 diabetes and heart disease − even natural sweeteners should always be used in small amounts. In order to reverse these blood-sugar related conditions naturally, it’s best to minimize your overall sugar intake and especially avoid refined sugar (which has been synthetically produced).
Avoid high fructose corn syrup and artificial sweeteners, as they are not natural or healthy. Artificial sweeteners, although calorie-free, are linked to numerous health issues including weight gain, fatigue, anxiety, depression, learning disabilities and short-term memory loss. Many existing illnesses can be exacerbated by repeatedly using artificial sweeteners. It’s possible to form an addiction to artificial sweeteners, since they affect your food cravings and your ability to manage your body’s signs of hunger and fullness.
Sugar and high fructose corn syrup (HFCS) contain two simple sugars - about half glucose and half fructose. Although glucose and fructose look similar, they have completely different effects in the body. Glucose is an incredibly important molecule as it is an important source of energy. Energy is required for the normal functioning of the organs in the body. Many tissues can also use fat or protein as an energy source but others, such as the brain and red blood cells, can only use glucose. It is found in many healthy foods and our bodies also produce it to make sure that we always have enough. Whereas every cell in the human body can metabolize glucose, the liver is the only organ that can metabolize fructose. Fructose is converted directly into fatty acids, and then body fat. In the context of a high-carb, high-calorie Western diet, eating a lot of added fructose can wreak havoc on metabolic health. The liver gets overloaded and starts turning the fructose into fat, which increases blood lipid and triglyceride levels. Some of the fat can lodge in the liver and cause non-alcoholic fatty liver disease.
Although fructose doesn’t raise blood sugar levels in the short-term, it can contribute to insulin resistance when consumed in large amounts. This can cause major increases in long-term blood sugar and insulin levels, increasing the risk of metabolic syndrome and type 2 diabetes.
Recommendations when eating fruit is to choose those with a low fructose content like berries and kiwi fruits and limit intake to 2 fruits per day. Our bodies can easily metabolise the small amounts of fructose found in fruit.
Stevia is a plant grown in Brazil and Paraguay
It contains no carbohydrates.
It is beneficial for people looking to control weight or manage diabetes.
Taste: 250 to 300 times sweeter than sugar. It can have a bitter after-taste, but manufacturers are making this less noticeable.
Side effects: None.
Stevia was approved for use in Australia in 2008.
Foods: Stevia is found in sugar-free chewing gums, chocolate, cordials, soft drink, cereals, biscuits and yoghurts.
It is also sold as a sweetener, which can be used in beverages or baking. A teaspoon is equal in sweetness to a cup of sugar.
Stevia does not appear to pose any health risks when used in moderation
Safe to use in pregnant or breastfeeding women, children, diabetics, people with allergies
Stevioside, the main glycoside of stevia, has been found to be nontoxic in acute toxicity studies. No major contraindications or adverse reactions have been documented. Based on published research, independent scientific experts have concluded that stevia is safe for people of all ages and populations and the Acceptable Daily Intake is 4 mg per kg body weight.
Maple syrup is a great source of manganese, and contains calcium, potassium, zinc, iron and magnesium. Rich with antioxidants, this all-natural sweetener helps to neutralize free radicals and reduce oxidative damage. Native to North America, it comes in Grades A and B. Select darker, Grade B maple syrups, as they contain more beneficial antioxidants than the lighter syrups. It is heat stable. Maple syrup contains higher levels of beneficial nutrients, antioxidants and phytochemicals than white table sugar or high fructose corn syrup. When used in appropriate amounts its benefits include the ability to lower inflammation, supply nutrients and better manage blood sugar levels.
What makes maple syrup better than regular sugar? Both are made of about two-thirds sucrose, but maple syrup supplies less sugar overall to your diet and more nutrients. The glycaemic index of maple syrup is about 54, whereas that of cane sugar is 65. Thus maple syrup impacts blood sugar levels a bit less than table sugar does. Maple syrup also supplies some trace minerals and antioxidants, whereas sugar lacks both. Maple syrup is derived from the sap of maple trees and is thus a much more natural, unrefined product. Refined cane sugar undergoes a long, complex process to be condensed into crystalized sugar.
Health Benefits of Maple Syrup
1. Contains numerous antioxidants
Maple syrup contains up to 24 different protective antioxidants. These reduce free radical damage (which can cause inflammation and contribute to the development of various chronic diseases).
2. Has a lower glycaemic index than sugar
Refined sugar and refined carbohydrates are rapidly metabolized by the liver — causing a “sugar high,” followed by a quick “sugar crash.” Consuming too much sugar quickly spikes your blood sugar and raises insulin levels, which over time can lead to lower insulin response and problems managing blood glucose levels, resulting in diabetes.
3. Fights inflammatory diseases
Maple syrup supplies inflammation-reducing polyphenol antioxidants which assists in preventing inflammatory diseases like arthritis, inflammatory bowel disease and heart disease. Maple syrup’s plant-based compounds reduce oxidative stress, which is responsible for aging us at a quicker rate and reducing the strength of our immune system.
4. Helps protect skin health
Maple syrup can help to lower skin inflammation, redness, blemishes and dryness.
5. Alternative to sugar for improved digestion
Consuming high levels of refined sugar can contribute to candida, Irritable Bowel Syndrome, leaky gut syndrome and other digestive system disorders. Reducing refined sugar intake and opting for small amounts of natural sweeteners instead can contribute towards healing leaky gut and autoimmune disorders. Most artificial sweeteners also cause symptoms of indigestion, including gas, bloating, cramping and constipation. To keep the digestive tract healthy maple syrup can be a much better alternative to use than sugar.
6. Supplies important vitamins and minerals
Maple syrup contains zinc and manganese in fairly high amounts, in addition to potassium and calcium. Zinc can help fight illness and improve immunity since it keeps your level of white blood cells up, while manganese plays a role in fat and carbohydrate metabolism, calcium absorption, blood sugar regulation, brain and nerve function.
7. May enhance antibiotic effects
While targeting bad bacteria, antibiotics can also attack healthy cells, while the overuse of antibiotics results in the creation of “superbugs” that no longer respond to antibiotic treatment. Researchers have found that maple syrup extract increases the permeability of the bacteria, helping the antibiotics into the interior of bacterial cells.
Rice Malt Syrup
Rice malt syrup (RMS) is made from 100% organic brown rice. It is made through culturing rice with enzymes to breakdown the starches and then cooking it until it becomes syrup. The final product contains soluble complex carbohydrates, maltose and a small amount of glucose. RMS is 100% fructose free. It is a slow-releasing sweetener so it doesn't overload the liver as much as pure glucose does.
The carbohydrates in RMS provide a steady supply of energy, requiring up to 90 minutes digestion time. Other sweeteners like sugar, honey, maple syrup, coconut sugar and agave, which range from 50-90% fructose, are faster releasing sugars which cause insulin spikes, the associated blood sugar crashes (the blood sugar-insulin rollercoaster) and therefore cravings, hunger and fatigue. Chronically elevated insulin levels lead to fat accumulation and eventually obesity and diabetes.
Avoiding the blood-sugar rollercoaster is the key to satiety, hormonal control and weight management.
The most accessible source of monk fruit in Australia is from a product called Norbu. Monk fruit is a small round melon native to the remote mountain regions of Southern China and Northern Thailand. Traditional Chinese doctors have been prescribing it as a treatment for diabetes, digestive issues and obesity for centuries. Norbu is created by removing the seeds and skin of the fruit, and fermenting the fruit to extract a specific part called "mogrosides" that contains no sugar. Monk Fruit extract has been certified by Food Standards Australia New Zealand (FSANZ) for use in both food and beverages. Most people report that monk fruit extract tastes BETTER than sugar.
Unlike many other sweeteners, Norbu contains no fructose and therefore does not affect blood glucose levels. This makes it suitable for use by diabetics. Norbu is a granular sugar powder & can be substituted for sugar in cooking. Norbu tastes very like sugar but doesn’t have an aftertaste.
Monk fruit and sugar are both natural and sweet. The main difference is the effect on one’s health. Sugar is extremely high in calories (1 teaspoon contains 16 calories). In contrast Monk fruit contains zero calories. Sugar has a huge negative effect on your health. It can lead to obesity, diabetes and heart disease. In addition, it may cause tooth decay, acne, skin aging, mood swings and mental illness. Monk fruit is 150-200 times sweeter than sugar - so you only need a small amount to get the same sweet hit – without all the side effects associated with sugar.
Raw honey is a true superfood packed with enzymes, antioxidants, iron, zinc, potassium, calcium, phosphorous, vitamin B6, riboflavin and niacin. These nutrients help to neutralize free radicals while promoting the growth of healthy bacteria in the digestive tract. It also has high levels of antioxidants.
One tablespoon of raw honey has 64 calories and has less impact on glycaemic load than a single banana. Look for local raw honey at farmer markets and directly from local beekeepers. The darker the honey, the richer the flavour and the greater the health benefits.
Erythritol is a sugar alcohol (like xylitol). It is found in fruit (berries, melons, grapes pears) and produced commercially by fermenting corn or sugar beets.
Food: Erythritol is found in chocolates, soft drinks, chewing gums, yogurts, fillings, cookie coatings, jellies, jams and sugar substitutes
Side effects: diarrhoea, bloating, stomach ache and headache.
Erythritol is rapidly absorbed in the small intestine, but is poorly metabolized, has no known functions in the body and is excreted through the urine unchanged. It is safe for use by diabetics since it does not affect blood glucose or insulin levels.
It can be used in beverages and cooking.
Calories: 0.2 calories per gram
Taste: 70% as sweet as sugar
Known as a sugar alcohol or polyol, it is a natural low digestible carbohydrate that resists starches and includes fibre. It is found in fibrous fruit and vegetables. Produced in the body during normal metabolism, it is commercially extracted from birch tree bark or corn cobs.
Calories: Contains 1.9 - 2.4 calories per gram (40 % less than sugar).
Taste: The same amount of sweetness as sugar.
Side effects: Excessive amounts can have a laxative effect as sugar alcohol can't be broken down in the small intestine and acts like fibre.
It can be used to sweeten beverages and in baking.
Foods: Xylitol is found in chewing gums, mints, baked goods, jams and energy bars.
Using xylitol may be beneficial for oral health, although it’s not safe for consumption in large amounts.
The Agave plant grows natively in the southern U.S. and South America. It is most commonly associated with Mexico. The most common use of the Agave plant is fermenting the sugars in it to produce the alcoholic beverage tequila. The Agave sweetener sold today is made by treating the sugars with heat and enzymes, which destroys all the beneficial health effects of the Agave plant. The end product is a highly refined, unhealthy syrup. The Glycaemic Index (GI) is a measure of how quickly the sugar in a food enters your bloodstream. Agave nectar is low in glucose and therefore doesn’t spike blood sugar levels much. This gives the sweetener a low glycaemic index. However, Agave Nectar is dangerously high in fructose and contains minimal antioxidants. Agave nectar is about 85% fructose, which is much higher than plain sugar.
This sugar is derived from the coconut palm tree. It is a natural sugar made from the sap of the coconut plant. Coconut sugar contains iron, zinc, calcium and potassium, along with some short chain fatty acids, polyphenols and antioxidants that may also provide some health benefits. It contains a fibre called inulin, which may slow glucose absorption and explain why coconut sugar has a lower glycaemic index than regular table sugar. Coconut sugar is very high in calories and is loaded with fructose.
Regular table sugar (sucrose) is 50% fructose, 50% glucose. Coconut sugar is made of 70%-80% sucrose, which is half fructose. For this reason, coconut sugar supplies almost the same amount of fructose as regular sugar. Consumed in excess, added sugars will cause metabolic syndrome, obesity, diabetes and cardiovascular disease.
Dietary guidelines to using natural sweeteners
Always use natural sweeteners in moderation. Natural sugars retain vitamins, minerals and other components essential for their digestion, and are metabolized more slowly than white sugar.
Norbu is a great choice to sweeten your tea or coffee when dining out as it is fructose free and usually readily available at the table. It is safe for use by diabetics.
Other good options to sweeten your food and beverages include RMS (fructose free), honey and maple syrup (40% fructose).
Rice malt syrup is the GMB natural sweetener of choice as it is fructose free.
Avoid using agave syrup (90 fructose).
Avoid white sugar! White sugar places strain on the body, depletes stored vitamins and minerals and suppresses the immune system.
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