Sweeteners That Are Good For Your Health

Anyone with a sweet tooth didn’t have a choice of sugar substitutes during the first half of the 20th century. It was either sugar or saccharin, unless you wanted to mess with something like honey, molasses or maple syrup.

For a period of about ten years, they could also choose cyclamate – that is, before it was banned by the FDA (Food and Drug Administration) in 1969 because of a belief it might cause cancer. (Spoiler alert: that was never proven and cyclamate is still being used in well over 100 countries, even though it remains banned in America.)

It wasn’t until the 1980s that aspartame (Nutrasweet) became an alternative – and it still took decades before people had the huge choice of sweeteners that we have today. Saccharin (Sweet ‘N Low) and aspartame are still around, but now there’s also sucralose (Splenda), neotame (Newtame), acesulfame potassium (acesulfame K, sold as Sweet One), sorbitol, xylitol, erythritol, stevia, monk fruit and many more that haven’t become as popular.

Most people use sweeteners because they don’t want to consume sugar’s calories, or because they want to keep their blood sugar levels under control, or because they want to avoid tooth decay. In other words, it’s because they think sweeteners aren’t “as bad as sugar.”

Some experts might argue that point, but it’s generally true. Sweeteners, used in moderation, are better for your health than sugar.

But are sweeteners actually good for your health?

Some actually are. Let’s find out more.

Do We Really Need Sugar Substitutes?

When we talk about sugar, we usually mean refined sugar, commonly known as table sugar. It may be made from cane sugar (the product of sugar cane), or a combination of cane sugar and beet sugar (the product of sugar beet plants). Either way, the granulated sugar you put in your coffee or use for baking has the same basic chemical composition – and provides the same benefits.

There are benefits to consuming regular sugar? Absolutely. And we all know instinctively what they are.

The Benefits of Sugar

The first benefit is energy. Table sugar is a carbohydrate known as sucrose, which is actually composed of two simple sugars, glucose and fructose. As soon as the body breaks it down, the glucose is metabolized to provide an almost-immediate boost of energy. Just as importantly, excess glucose is stored as glycogen in the liver and in fat cells, giving the body an energy reserve that can be used whenever it’s needed.

(Ever wonder why you’re likely to reach for candy, cookies or cake when you’re under pressure? The brain needs about ten percent more energy to function properly when you’re stressed, and sugar can provide it in a hurry.)

The second benefit is mood. It’s not your imagination or an uncontrollable urge; there’s a physiological reason why we feel better after eating something sweet. Sugar triggers the release of the hormone serotonin, which is known colloquially as the “feel good” hormone.

More energy and a better mood? Sounds pretty good, right? Unfortunately, it’s usually not going to end well when you get too much of a good thing.

The Drawbacks of Sugar

Sugar is often vilified unfairly.

A meta-analysis of research on the effects of sugar concludes that “fructose-containing sugars can only lead to weight gain and…cardiometabolic risk factors insofar as the excess calories they provide.” 

In other words, sugar isn’t bad for you, in and of itself. The problems come when you eat too much of it. And as a society, we eat way too much.

U.S. dietary guidelines recommend that people get no more than ten percent of their daily calories from added sugar; the American Heart Association says that’s about 150 calories for men, 100 calories for women. The National Institutes of Health, however, says the average adult gets 15% of their calories from sugar. That equals (no pun intended) 17 teaspoons a day, and the numbers are even worse for kids.

And when eaten in large amounts, sugar has been shown to contribute to a laundry list of health problems: obesity, diabetes, heart disease, fatty liver disease, some types of cancer, and even cognitive issues.

It would seem simple to fix that problem by simply reducing your sugar intake. That’s not as easy as it sounds, though. Scientists can’t agree on whether “sugar addiction” is a real thing, but there’s at least some evidence that the brain may become accustomed to either the energy that sugar produces, or the serotonin release it induces.  

There’s one other factor to consider, and it’s sociological. For decades, we’ve been sold the benefits of diet soda and other diet products containing sugar substitutes. But a growing body of research has shown that diet soda consumption is also related to obesity and cardiovascular risk. That’s led many to turn to water and sugar-free beverages, but it hasn’t made a major dent in overall sugary drink consumption – which is still twice as high as it was in the 1990s

The bottom line: sugar intake is still a major health problem in America.

Thankfully, there are healthier alternatives.

The Best Sweeteners – Fruits

It’s likely that you already have at least one or two of these healthy sweeteners in your kitchen. Fresh or frozen fruits without added sugar are the ideal choice as a sweetener, because they don’t contain any empty calories.

It’s true that fruits contain the same fructose that table sugar contributes to the diet, but in substantially lower amounts than, for example, diet soda. And the water and fiber in most fruits, plus the fact that it usually takes a while to chew and digest them, means that their fructose is metabolized much more slowly by the body, lowering any negative health impact.

Then, there’s the fact that most fruits provide antioxidant benefits and contain a wealth of vitamins and minerals – and the fact that the generous amounts of fiber they contain can help to lower cholesterol levels, promote cardiovascular and gastrointestinal health, aid in weight management, and help in all of the other ways they kept preaching in health class. Needless to say, they were right. Fruit is good for you.

Cooking or baking with fresh or frozen fruit is a great way to go, but of course, you can’t easily add most fruits to your morning coffee or tea. If you could, the taste would be…odd, to put it mildly.

So fruit may be the best sweetener for your health, but it’s often not the most practical.

Let’s keep going.

Types of Sugar Substitutes

The industry that produces alternatives to natural sugar is huge, and growing. The global market was estimated at nearly $14 billion in 2016, and is projected to reach more than $16 billion by 2024.

Much of the growth has come in the newest category of sweeteners. They’re known as “novel” sweeteners because they don’t fit easily into other categories like natural sweeteners, artificial sweeteners and sugar alcohols.

Artificial sweeteners are the ones that have been around the longest. They’re synthetic products (although some are synthesized from natural substances), they contain few or zero calories, and they are so sweet that just a tiny amount can produce the same amount of sweetness as a teaspoon of sugar. For that reason, they’re often called high-intensity sweeteners; they’re also called non-nutritive sweeteners because they don’t provide nutritional benefits. Aspartame, sucralose and saccharin are just three examples.

The description “natural sweeteners” is used for sugar substitutes like fruit juice, coconut sugar, molasses, agave syrup and honey. They may not be completely natural, though, since many undergo various types of processing before they’re sold. Most have very high caloric content.

Sugar alcohols don’t actually contain alcohol. They’re sweeteners which are sourced from fruits and vegetables, although some companies do produce them artificially as well. Many sugar alcohols are zero-calorie sweeteners, while others contain about half the calories of regular sugar. These sweeteners are usually used to make processed foods but it is possible to purchase them. Xylitol, sorbitol, isomalt, mannitol and maltitol are some of the sugar alcohols you may see on ingredient lists.  

Most novel sweeteners, like stevia, monk fruit extract and tagatose, contain no calories or carbohydrates.

And as it happens, novel sweeteners are apparently the best choice for your health, too.

Novel Sweeteners and Health

Stevia comes from the leaves of the South American stevia plant. As the first novel sweetener to be designated as “generally recognized as safe” (GRAS) by the FDA, back in 2008, it’s the one that researchers have looked into most closely. And the results have been encouraging.

The other approved novel sweetener that’s gained a lot of traction in the market is monk fruit sweetener, which comes from the Asian monk fruit plant and was given the green light by the FDA in 2010. There have been fewer studies into monk fruit, but there’s enough information to show that it’s apparently a good choice, too.

Here’s what we know.

Both stevia and monk fruit sweetener are all-natural. They’re non-nutritive and calorie-free, containing no sugar, carbs or artificial ingredients. They have a glycemic index (GI) of zero, meaning they don’t raise glucose levels – good news for those with type 2 diabetes. They’re safe, even for kids and pregnant mothers, and they’re ideal choices for those on low-carb weight loss diets like keto and paleo.

In truth, though, that simply establishes that these novel sweeteners aren’t bad for you. The question that’s just important: are they good for you?

It turns out that they have impressive health benefits. Let’s start with blood glucose. Monk fruit sweetener and stevia have each been shown to lower blood sugar levels, while the former also seems to stimulate insulin production (important for diabetics with insulin resistance) and the latter appears to lower insulin and A1C levels. Cholesterol levels? Both monk fruit sweetener and stevia apparently help lower bad cholesterol and increase good cholesterol.

Studies on the other health and wellness benefits of these natural sweeteners are still in their early stages, but there’s some evidence that one or the other (or both) may help lower blood pressure, and act as strong antioxidants and anti-inflammatories. Monk fruit sweetener even shows promise in inhibiting the growth of cancer cells.

Since these sweeteners are so new, most of the studies to date have been done on animals rather than humans. Even so, it’s quite clear that monk fruit sweetener and stevia are far better for health than their older “competitors.” Tagatose is another FDA-approved sweetener in this category, but it’s too new for scientists to have much evidence on it yet.

Several important notes before we move on:

  • There have been occasional reports of allergies to novel sweeteners. People allergic to gourds (like cucumber and melons) may experience similar reactions to monk fruit sweetener, and those allergic to ragweed and sunflowers may have trouble with stevia. These allergies are very rare.
  • Each of these sweeteners do have a slight aftertaste (monk fruit is better than stevia in that department) – but that doesn’t make their health benefits any less impressive.
  • Since these sweeteners are incredibly sweet and can’t fill an entire “sugar packet,” you’ll often find packaged monk fruit or stevia “bulked up” with additives like sugar alcohols like erythritol (used in the Truvia brand) or xylitol (which can cause stomach issues), maltodextrin (which isn’t good for diabetics because of a high glycemic index) or even sugar. The healthiest approach is to stick to pure extracts like Pure Monk Sweet or Purisure (for monk fruit), or NuNaturals and Now Foods stevia.
  • If you plan to use a sweetener in your coffee, especially for keto dieting, here’s the healthiest approach: ready-to-drink Super Coffee. It’s pre-sweetened with monk fruit and has no added sugars, MCT oil has been added for all of its energy and keto benefits, and each 12-ounce bottle contains just one carb and 80 calories.

By comparison, the other sweetener choices aren’t particularly good for your health, but let’s check them out anyway.

Sugar Alcohols

These naturally-occurring low-calorie sweeteners are the next-best choice for health. They have many fewer calories and carbohydrates than table sugar, they don’t affect glucose levels because the body doesn’t need insulin to process them, and they don’t cause tooth decay like sugar does.

Erythritol tops the list, as the lowest-calorie sugar alcohol with the fewest side effects. It also apparently has some antioxidant properties. Xylitol has about 40% of sugar’s calories and is the sugar alcohol most often used in chewing gum because of its anti-cavity effectiveness. Mannitol tastes most like sugar, but similar to other sugar alcohols like sorbitol and maltitol, it’s known for causing stomach distress, bloating and diarrhea.

Are sugar alcohols good for your health? Well, they’re better for you than sugar and may have a few health benefits, but even the benign ones can cause digestive issues for those with existing gastrointestinal problems. They’re a decent choice, but nowhere near as good as novel sweeteners.

Artificial Sweeteners

These zero- or low-calorie sweeteners have been around for a long time, and most people don’t even think about what’s inside the white, pink or blue packets they grab when they buy a cup of coffee, or what’s used to sweeten the diet drinks, baked goods or canned foods they consume. They should – because artificial sweeteners are not a healthy choice.

It’s true that they don’t affect glucose levels or directly cause an increase in body weight. (You should still ask your doctor or dietitian for their opinion if you’re diabetic or overweight, though.) The FDA has classified all of the artificial sweeteners on the market as “generally recognized as safe.” And the decades-long rumors that they cause cancer have never been proven (even for cyclamate).

There are potential issues, though.

The most important: many scientists believe that even though artificial sweeteners don’t cause weight gain, their sweet taste tricks the brain into still feeling hungry, causing people to either eat more than usual or crave sugary foods. So while there’s no hard evidence that these sweeteners cause weight gain, some studies have reported that it happens. There is also some research linking their consumption to the development of diabetes and metabolic syndrome.

Are Sweeteners Good For Your Health?

Medical experts would all agree that it’s healthier to take your coffee black than to add sugar or sweetener to it, and that water’s a healthier beverage choice than soda – whether the soda is sweetened with sugar or another sweetener.

Nevertheless, we’re all going to consume sugar or sweeteners to some degree, and the evidence is clear: novel sweeteners like monk fruit and stevia are healthier choices than sugar, most natural sweeteners (including sugar alcohols) and artificial sweeteners.

Written by Liz Moore

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