Your guide to the best sugar substitutes

Sugar, sugar, sugar…

Seems every which way you turn there’s another report on how bad sugar is for your health.

Although the message gets boring, it’s a lifesaver…

Many studies show that excessive sugar intake is associated with higher risk of obesity, diabetes, cancer and heart disease among other things.

You may be well aware of this, but that probably doesn’t stop you from wanting to satisfy your sweet tooth. And let’s face it — we all have a sweet tooth, some of us more than others.

Thankfully, there are a variety of sugar substitutes available — some of which support good health, while others have quite the opposite effect…

Artificial sweeteners

As you walk through the supermarket, you’ll see hundreds, if not thousands of “sugar-free” and “diet” options lining the shelves. The majority of these will contain artificial sweeteners.

Some widely-used artificial sweeteners are:

  • Saccharin (Brands: Sweet’N Low, Sugar Twin, Necta Sweet)
  • Aspartame (Brands: Equal, NutraSweet, Natra Taste)
  • Acesulfame-K (Brands: Sunette, Sweet One, Swiss Sweet)
  • Sucralose (Brands: Splenda)

Artificial sweeteners have been promoted as beneficial for those with obesity and type 2 diabetes, but this isn’t the case.

Even though they score zero on the glycemic index and provide zero calories and carbs, studies show they increase weight gain and promote type 2 diabetes and cardiovascular disease risk. That’s right, I said increase — not decrease — as one would expect.

Out of all the artificial sweeteners, sucralose has the least amount of side effects. Though, unfortunately, it has been shown to negatively affect gut bacteria and this in itself may have various metabolic consequences.

Conclusion: Steer clear of artificial sweeteners as they cause negative health effects.

Sugar alcohols

Sugar alcohols are neither sugars nor alcohols but are categorized as such due to their unique chemical structure, which is known to stimulate the sweet taste bud receptors.

Sugar alcohols include:

  • Erythritol
  • Xylitol
  • Sorbitol
  • Mannitol
  • Lactitol
  • Maltitol

Sugar alcohols claim to be ‘natural’ because they are naturally occurring in some foods. For mass production purposes however, the ‘tols’ are produced via fermentation of things like wheat and corncobs. After fermentation the solution gets purified, may be chemically treated and then is crystallized to form the various sweeteners.

Sugar alcohols are not zero calories but generally contain around 40-80 percent fewer calories than sugar and 75 percent less carbohydrates than many other sweeteners.

While the evidence behind the ‘tols’ is not so harsh as for artificial sweeteners, there are still things to consider…

Firstly, be aware that the ‘tols’ can raise blood sugar, which is especially important for diabetics. Secondly, they have been shown to disrupt food cues, leading to increased consumption of food in some people. Thirdly, they are known to cause gastrointestinal upsets in some people. And lastly, these are still highly processed substitutes.

  • Calories: 0.2 to 2.6 calories per gram
  • Carbs: zero
  • GI: range 1- 13

Conclusion: Sugar alcohols are a better option than artificial sweeteners. Since some products now use the ‘tols,’ these should be your preferred option when having to choose between the two. Erythritol is the best overall option as it is lowest in calories, GI and digestive side effects.

Stevia

Stevia is an herb originating from South America. Since the sweetener is derived directly from an herb, it is considered one of the best natural options.

Still, there are three forms to be aware of:

  • White powder (more processed)
  • Green leaf powder (unprocessed but not overly sweet)
  • Liquid extract (less processing required)

The active compounds in stevia are steviol glycosides, rebaudioside A and stevioside. When extracted these compounds are 250 times sweeter than sugar.

So far, studies indicate no toxic effects and no negative side effects from consuming stevia. In fact, some studies show stevia may benefit your health by regulating appetite and increasing insulin sensitivity, with no impact on your blood glucose levels. It’s even been shown to cause cancer cell death.

  • Calories: zero
  • Carbs: zero
  • GI: zero

Conclusion: Stevia is a good natural sugar substitute, especially for diabetics.

Monk fruit

Much the same as stevia, monk fruit sweetener comes from a natural source — monk fruit. Part of the gourd family, monk fruit grows on a vine much like passionfruit.

To create the sweetener, the monk fruit juice is combined with a hot water infusion, filtered and then dried to create a granulated powder that is 300-400 times the sweetness of sugar.

Dating back to Buddhist monks in the 13th century, monk fruit was termed as the “longevity fruit” due to its high levels of antioxidants called mogrosides. These antioxidants are what gives monk fruit sweetener its unique sweet taste.

Monk fruit has no effect on blood sugar, has been shown to fight free radicals and prevent oxidative damage to DNA, may help lower risk of obesity and diabetes, and is known to have anti-inflammatory properties.

You can find the dried monk fruit in Chinese markets, which is commonly used in soups and teas. Or purchase the monk fruit sweetener in a granulated, liquid or powdered form.

  • Calories: 2
  • Carbs: less than 0.5 g
  • GI: low

Conclusion: As a natural sugar substitute, monk fruit is a good choice as it provides a range of health benefits.

When choosing packaged products, always read the labels and seek out products that contain higher quality sugar substitutes. If you prefer baking or cooking at home, these substitutes can be used in any recipe that contains sugar, in much smaller amounts.

One thing is for sure; using the more natural sugar substitutes is a great way to satisfy your sweet tooth without increasing your risk of sugar-driven chronic diseases.

Sources:
  1. Shanker, et al. Non-nutritive sweeteners: Review and update. Nutrition. 2013;29:1293–1299.
  2. Baird, et al. Repeated Dose Study of Sucralose Tolerance in Human Subjects. Food and Chemical Toxicology. 2000;38(Suppl. 2):S123-S129.
  3. Moon HJ, et al. Biotechnological production of erythritol and its applications. Appl Microbiol Biotechnol. 2010;86:1017–1025.
  4. Anton SD, et al. Effects of stevia, aspartame, and sucrose on food intake, satiety, and postprandial glucose and insulin levels. Appetite. 2012;55:37–43.
  5. Glycemic index for sweeteners. Retrieved March 7, 2017, from http://www.sugar-and-sweetener-guide.com/glycemic-index-for-sweeteners.html
  6. Sugar alcohols fact sheet. Retrieved from http://www.foodinsight.org/articles/sugar-alcohols-fact-sheet
  7. Monk fruit: Nature’s best sweetener? – Dr. Axe (2016, January 12). Retrieved March 7, 2017, from Immune System, https://draxe.com/monk-fruit/

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Jedha Dening

By Jedha Dening

Jedha Dening is a qualified nutritionist (MNutr), researcher, author, freelance writer, and founder of type 2 diabetic nutrition site Diabetes Meal Plans. Her masters thesis on nutrition and inflammation was published and then presented at a national scientific conference. She has millions of words published in the health industry across various print and online publications. Having been in the field for over 15 years, she’s incredibly passionate about delving into the latest research to share the myths and truths surrounding nutrition and health. She believes when armed with the right knowledge, we’re empowered to make informed choices that can truly make a difference.