Sweeteners are low-calorie or calorie-free chemical substances that are used to sweeten food and drink. They are found in thousands of products, from juices, fizzy drinks, ready meals and desserts, to things like chewing gum and toothpaste. However, with so much conflicting evidence out there, it’s tricky to know which sweeteners you should be avoiding and which sugar alternatives are actually good for us. Here are some common sweeteners to ditch and more natural, healthier options you could introduce to your diet, to make it easier for you to digest.
Sweeteners to Avoid:
It might be the obvious one to avoid, but it shouldn’t be forgotten. Sugar is made up of 50% glucose, the component that spikes blood sugar, and 50% fructose, the stuff that goes straight for the liver. It’s the sheer quantity of sugar that we’re eating which is driving obesity and other diseases.
Around 100 years ago, humans ate the equivalent of one tablespoon of sugar a day; now it’s up to seven tablespoons daily, because sugar is becoming increasingly hidden in a lot of food and drink.
On those rare occasions that you do use sugar, choose organic to avoid pesticide residues and to ensure the sugar was grown without the use of genetically engineered crops.
High-fructose corn syrup
With a slightly higher fructose level than sugar, high-fructose corn syrup does most of its damage because it’s added to an array of processed food. Waistlines have been growing ever since the sweetener sneaked onto the market around 30 years ago and it’s banned for use in organic food.
According to studies from the University of California, high-fructose corn syrup is stored as fat in the liver and makes people resistant to leptin, a hormone which increases appetite. Further studies have also found that it’s sometimes laced with mercury, a heavy metal linked to autism and heart disease.
Many agave nectars consist of 70-90% fructose, which is more than what’s found in high-fructose corn syrup. Agave nectar is probably one of the worst sweeteners on the market, and it’s misleading because it’s being marketed as a healthy alternative.
Even though it doesn’t cause a big blood sugar spike the way regular table sugar does, agave nectar’s high fructose levels go directly to the liver, where the organ repackages it as blood fats called triglycerides, increasing the risk of heart disease. These high fructose levels can also contribute to insulin resistance, a risk factor for diabetes, as well as non-alcoholic fatty liver disease.
Using a teaspoon of agave nectar here or there in dessert recipes is reasonable, but you want to avoid drinks and foods sweetened with it.
Sucralose is better known as brands like Splenda and other generic labels. It’s processed using chlorine, and researchers are finding that the artificial sweetener is passing through our bodies and winding up in wastewater treatment plants, where it can’t be broken down.
Tests in Norway and Sweden found sucralose in surface water released downstream from treatment discharge sites. Scientists worry it could change organisms’ feeding habits and interfere with photosynthesis.
Aspartame is a common chemical sweetener used in diet fizzy drinks and other low calorie foods. There’s a lot of conflicting evidence regarding its safety, but some people do report headaches or generally feeling unwell after ingesting anything containing the artificial sweetener.
A test-tube study from the University of Liverpool found that when mixed with a common food colour ingredient, aspartame actually became toxic to brain cells. Additionally, more studies suggest that aspartame increases blood glucose levels similarly to sugar, which could explain the association between diet fizzy drinks and diabetes.
Healthier Alternatives to Sugar:
Raw honey is a true superfood. It’s packed with enzymes, antioxidants, iron, zinc, potassium, calcium, phosphorous, vitamin B6, riboflavin and niacin. While honey does boast higher fructose levels, it also contains a lot of cancer-defending antioxidants, and local honey has been said to help ease allergy symptoms. It also has a low glycemic index, so adding it to your tea or yogurt won’t lead to energy-busting blood sugar drops later in the day.
Maple syrup is an outstanding source of manganese, and contains calcium, potassium, and zinc. Rich with antioxidants, this all-natural sweetener helps to neutralise free radicals and reduce oxidative damage. It’s lower in calories and packed with more minerals than honey, and may even ward off cancer and heart disease. When you’re buying it, just make sure the label reads 100% maple syrup.
Stevia is one of the safest sweeteners there is. All types of stevia are extracted from the leaves of the stevia plant, but some forms taste better than others. Today, stevioside, the element in the leaves that makes it more than 200 times sweeter than sugar, is available in liquid drops, packets, dissolvable tablets and baking blends. It has zero calories, zero carbohydrates and none of the nasty side effects of artificial sweeteners, making it an ideal natural sweetener.
The health benefits of coconut water, milk, flour and, fresh coconuts have become increasingly well known. Now, more and more people are using coconut sugar as a natural sweetener because of its low glycemic load and rich mineral content.
Packed with polyphenols, iron, zinc, calcium, potassium, antioxidants, phosphorous and other phytonutrients, coconut sugar is versatile and becoming more available. Coconut sugar is extracted sap from the blooms of the coconut and then heated. Then, through evaporation, we get coconut sugar.
Blackstrap molasses is highly nutritious, rich in copper, calcium, iron, potassium, manganese, selenium and vitamin B6, making it a healthier choice than artificial sweeteners. One tablespoon of blackstrap molasses provides more iron – but fewer calories and fat – than a three-ounce serving of red meat.
Molasses is the syrupy by-product of the process that turns sugar cane into refined white table sugar. Sugar cane juice is boiled three times to extract the crystallised sugar, which first creates a light molasses, then a dark molasses, and finally, the super-concentrated, nutrient-rich blackstrap molasses.
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