I have a sweet tooth. As I mentioned in this other post, dessert is one of the things that I track on my sticker calendar so that I don’t go off the rails with it. (Don’t judge! We all have our thing.)
However, with as much as I like sugar (after all, what kid who grew up eating Lucky Charms and drinking Coke doesn’t still love sugar as an adult?), I also recognize that the impact of consuming it can be detrimental.
So while any sweetener should be consumed rarely (at most!), there are some sweeteners that are better for us than others.
So let’s talk about the different types of sweeteners and recommendations for consumption…
In this context, an artificial sweetener is anything that was made in a lab by a scientist. This includes:
- Acesulfame potassium (Sunett, Sweet One)
- Adventame (derived from aspartame, no brand names)
- Aspartame (Equal, NutraSweet, Spoonful, Equal-Measure)
- Neotame (no brand names)
- Saccharin (SugarTwin, Sweet’N Low)
- Sucralose (Splenda)
Although artificial sweeteners were originally introduced with the good intention of giving people sweetness without the calories of sugar, they have multiple drawbacks that puts them squarely in the “never” category of consumption frequency. These problems include:
- Sweetness between 180 and 20,000 times sweeter than good ol’ table sugar. This super sweetness leads to greater sugar cravings and sweetness dependence in our taste buds which cannot be met through the natural sweetness of food (like fruit) and leaves non-sweet foods (like vegetables) tasting more bitter.
- Alteration of the gut microbiota which leads to:
- No trigger in the brain’s reward center (i.e., no pleasure) both from the artificial sweetener (the brain only recognizes pleasure from sweetness that comes with calories) and any subsequent consumption of natural sweeteners.
- Toxicity from the by-products associated with metabolizing these chemicals (ex: formaldehyde from aspartame).
Bottom line: Artificial sweeteners do a bunch of harm and no good. Avoid them like the plague.
Although some people would have you believe that anything whose original ingredients came from nature is “natural”, I disagree. In the “natural” sweeteners category, I am including all sweeteners that may have started off as something a botanist could identify, but had to be severely processed before it could be consumed. Basically, if you can’t figure out how to get it from its beginning form (ex: corn kernel) to its state as a sweetener (ex: corn syrup), it’s “natural” (quotes included). These include:
- Corn syrup and high fructose corn-syrup
- Fructose (as an ingredient on a package, not as found naturally in fruit)
- Glucose (as an ingredient on a package, not as found naturally in plants like vegetables and fruit)
- Inverted sugar
- Sugar alcohols (xylitol, sorbitol, mannitol, erythritol, maltitol, lactitol… although these can occur in very small amount in fruits)
Although all of these can’t be avoided all the time, it’s best to limit their intake as much as you can, because each of them can cause different problems. For example:
- Sugar alcohols help prevent tooth decay (which is why they are used in gum), but they can cause digestion issues like nausea or diarrhea.
- High fructose corn syrup (HFCS) is manufactured to have a high proportion of fructose molecules to glucose molecules and the monosaccharides are not bound together. The resulting problems are two-fold: 1) the monosaccharides do not require any digestion and are rapidly absorbed into the blood stream, and 2) the high-level of free fructose leads to metabolic changes that cause weight gain, insulin resistance, higher levels of triglycerides and decreased feelings of satiety. (Yes, all of these have been tied directly to HFCS through research.)
- All sweeteners contribute to the desire for sweet tastes based on the impact to the taste buds.
In addition to the unique problems they cause, they may also cause many of the problems listed below for natural sweeteners.
Bottom line: “Natural” sweeteners induce a range of problems in the body and have been stripped of any nutritive value beyond the monosaccharides. Avoid them as much as possible.
I qualify natural sweeteners to be anything that is basically in the form in which it is found in nature with some basic processing (i.e., filtering, drying, heating). These include:
- Maple syrup (the real stuff, not Log Cabin)
- Sorghum syrup
- Agave nectar
- Sugar (white, brown, raw, table, cane, etc.)
- Stevia leaf powder
If (notice it is bold), you are going to add sweetener to your food or consume foods that are already sweetened, it’s best to use a natural sweetener… and the more natural, the better.
For example, some honey is so processed (cooked, filtered, bleached) that it is devoid of all the good polyphenols, flavonoids and antioxidants that naturally occur in it. The result is that a substance long considered to be medicinal by many ancient cultures becomes a sticky liquid of just glucose and fructose. However, raw honey is full of these powerful phytonutrients which give it its medicinal properties, including being an antibiotic.
Another example is real maple syrup which contains lot of minerals like calcium, iron, magnesium, potassium, zinc, copper and manganese. So, while it is mostly glucose and fructose (1.5:0.7 ratio for commercial varieties), the monosaccharides are hooked together meaning they need some digestion in order to be absorbed and you get some other valuable nutrients with your sugar.
Besides the potential for over-processing, the cautions for this group are:
- Sugar of all kinds can cause a spike in your blood sugar, especially if you don’t consume it with foods that slow the digestion and absorption processes.
- Sugars provide easily fermentable carbohydrates to the bacteria in your mouth, so can contribute to cavities.
- Consuming sweeteners that contain fructose (which is most of them!) contributes to your fructose load and the potential impacts from it on your liver and hormone imbalance.
- High sugar intake has been correlated with an increased risk for cancer, possibly because of its impact on insulin (which is a growth hormone) or insulin-like growth factor 1 (IGF-1) which stimulates cancer cell survival and proliferation.
- Sugar invokes a huge release of dopamine in the reward center of the brain. Depending on a person’s tendencies, this can lead to an addiction to and over-consumption of the sweet stuff.
- Stevia is 300 times sweeter than sugar, so it can have the same affects on the taste buds as artificial sweeteners. (Although it won’t have the same metabolic or microbiota impacts, so it is better overall.)
- At the end of the day, they are still sweeteners that are teaching your taste buds to expect sweetness.
Bottom line: If you are going to consume sweeteners, the more natural the better. And no matter what, eat them sparingly due to the potential negative impacts to your body.
Now that you understand why you need to watch your sweetener consumption, now check out part 2 in which I give you all the different names of sweeteners (or, at least the ones I could find).
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