Sweet Nothings

From birth, our brains are hardwired to crave sweetness. Mothers’ milk is high in carbohydrates and preferring this taste is essential to human survival. Even as adults most of us experience intense pleasure from this sensation. Those of us committed to maintaining and protecting our health are on the lookout for the healthiest and safest sweeteners so we can indulge without harm. Many new sweeteners have popped up on the market over the past decades, some of which are devastatingly harmful, especially when consumed in excess.

Artificial sweeteners gained popularity in the 1950’s when dentists warned us about serious damage from sugar. Cyclamate was the sweetener that made Tab and Diet Pepsi America’s beverages of choice. But in 1970 cyclamate was banned, and chemical companies sought the next great zero calorie sweetener from which to make millions and billions in profits. By nature, they are non-nutritive chemicals and like all chemicals there are potential adverse effects.

Popular belief is that these sweeteners have no effect on our blood sugar, but this appears to not be the case. Instead, there is evidence that many of them lead to weight gain and elevated blood sugar following the meal eaten after consuming the sweeteners. (The exception appears to be erythritol.) Shortly after we taste something sweet the pancreas secretes insulin in preparation to get the blood sugar under control. If no glucose was ingested the result of consuming a zero calorie sweetener is an increase in appetite. This may be why consuming these sweeteners leads to weight gain instead of weight loss. As the famous ad from the 70’s said: “It’s not nice to fool Mother Nature”.

Glycemic Index

The higher the glycemic index the more insulin is required to balance blood glucose/sugar levels. This is particularly important for diabetics and those with metabolic syndrome (pre-diabetes) to carefully monitor. If this is an issue for you — look for foods and sweeteners low on the GI scale. Once the liver is loaded with glycogen it begins to convert the glucose it absorbs from the blood into fatty acids for long term storage as body fat.

The glycemic index for sweeteners is determined by three things:
1. The amount of carbohydrate present.
2. The type of carbohydrate present.
3. The presence of other substances (such as soluble fiber) that slow metabolism of carbohydrates.

Artificial Sweeteners ~ Read Labels to Avoid These Ingredients

Saccharin (Sweet ‘N Low, Sweet Twin, Sodium Saccharin, Necta Sweet) (Glycemic index of 0) was the first product made and marketed by Monsanto back in the late 1800’s. Their plan was to add it to Coca-Cola.  You can find it in drinks, cookies, candies, gum, toothpaste, medicines, fruit spreads and more. It’s a chemical with no nutritive value. Avoid.

Aspartame (Equal, Nutrasweet, Nutra Taste Blue) (Glycemic index of 0) was pushed through FDA approval at the demand of Donald Rumsfeld shortly after Ronald Reagan’s inauguration in 1981. (Mr. Rumsfeld was heavily invested in its manufacturer Searle Pharmaceutical.) The FDA committee had long resisted its approval due to long-term evidence that it caused brain tumors in rats. It has become the most widely used artificial sweetener in beverages, gum and over 500 prescription medications and thousands of other products. It is 200 times sweeter than sugar.

Aspartame isn’t heat stable and is more toxic when included in hot beverages. If allowed to get hot, such as sitting outside in the heat, the consumable becomes downright dangerous. The worse news is that there is no way for a consumer to know if a product they purchase was exposed to heat. People with type II diabetes should be especially wary of aspartame as it may produce excess free radicals, alter gut microbial activity, increase cortisol levels and exacerbate insulin deficiency or resistance. Aspartame has never been tested for safely in the quantities many people consume. The most common complaints are: headaches, migraines, dizziness, manic episodes, mood disorders, memory loss and neurological issues. It is in no way safe to consume during pregnancy. It can also be addictive, which may explain why so many people are hooked on Diet Coke. If you are curious to learn more I have included a link to the best source of facts at the bottom of this article.* Avoid.

Acesulfame Potassium (Ace K, ACK, Sweet One) (Glycemic index of 0) is 200 times sweeter than sugar and is frequently added to sucralose or aspartame to make them taste more “sugar-like”. Avoid.

Sucralose (Splenda) (Glycemic index of 0) is one of the most heavily advertised sweeteners known for being suitable for baking. It is made by replacing three specific hydrogen-oxygen groups on the sugar molecule with three chlorine atoms.  Chlorine is added to water as a disinfectant since it kills bacteria. Unfortunately, it also kills the beneficial bacteria that are supposed to be flourishing in the gut. This can lead to long-term diarrhea and an unhealthy imbalance in the microbiome. It can negatively alter the pH level in the intestines and have a harmful effect on an important glycoprotein needed for proper function of the body. Please be wary of this sweetener; it’s not nearly as safe and healthy as they’d have you believe. Check the fine print on your medications, because like aspartame sucralose is often added to medicines. If you have unexplained diarrhea or other problems, ask your pharmacist if any of your prescriptions contain this sweetener. Have your doctor find a replacement without it. Avoid.

If you want to avoid these health-stealing sweeteners you must read labels of beverages, foods and OTC medications carefully. Mass market, mainstream products tend to include all kinds of undesirable chemicals that offer no benefits. This is another reason to always choose natural brands.

Natural Sweeteners with Calories

Sugar (Glycemic index of 63) is one of the most addictive substances ever created. It is a processed food, isolated from sugarcane or sugar beets, and stripped of all nutritional value. It actually steals nutrients as it passes through the body. It contains both glucose and fructose. There are numerous problems from sugar. Avoid.

Brown sugar (Glycemic index of 63) is processed white sugar colored with molasses. Avoid.

High Fructose Corn Syrup (Glycemic index of 58) is made from corn starch. The fact that they warn you up front that it is high in fructose should be a flashing red light. Avoid.

Molasses (Glycemic index of 55) is what remains when sugarcane or sugar beets are boiled down into syrup. It contains potassium, magnesium, iron and vitamin B6 and comes with a strong taste. Use sparingly.

Maple syrup (Glycemic index of 54) at only 50 calories/tbs. pure maple syrup is nutritionally superior to brown sugar and honey and has the unique quality of being high in antioxidants. It is rich in manganese, zinc and riboflavin (vitamin B2), delivering more nutritional benefits of any sweetener. For maximum benefits choose maple syrup that is dark and thick (more nutritious) which will deliver a more robust maple flavor than the option of syrup with a golden color and delicate taste which is produced earlier in the season. Use sparingly.

Date sugar (Glycemic index of 50) contains fiber, minerals and antioxidants and can be added to recipes. It is not suggested for beverages since it doesn’t dissolve or disperse.

Honey (Glycemic index of 45-64) should be purchased with care since many products on the store shelves labelled as honey are not. Two ways to know for sure: if it won’t stick to your thumbnail or ignite when exposed to a flame it’s not real. Always choose organic raw honey which guarantees that you won’t be consuming concentrated herbicides the bees collected on their journey. Honey is high in fructose and low in nutrition and is considered “less bad” than sugar or high-fructose corn sweetener. Use sparingly.

Fructose (Glycemic index of 25) is a component of processed sugar and other natural sweeteners, and by itself is typically processed from corn. Glucose can be metabolized by every cell in the body but fructose can only be metabolized by the liver. Fructose consumption in excess from any source can lead to rapid weight gain unless you get a lot of exercise. Avoid.

Coconut Palm sugar (Glycemic index of 35) has become popular over the last few years. The coconut palm flower bud stem is “tapped” and sap is collected. It is then cooked over a fire in a large pan while being stirred constantly while sugar is added. It has a very pleasant taste and provides some potassium and antioxidants. Use sparingly when a rich flavor is desired.

Xylitol (Glycemic index of 12) appears to have some dental health benefits and is often the sweetener of choice in natural dental care products such as toothpaste, mouthwash and chewing gum. Keep in mind that xylitol is toxic to dogs.

Brown rice syrup (Glycemic index of 0) has no nutritive value and is high in glucose while containing no fructose. Avoid.

Barley Malt syrup (Glycemic index of 0) is thick and sticky with a distinct malty flavor. It is usually added to bagel and bread recipes. It is half as sweet as white sugar. Avoid.

Agave nectar (Glycemic index of 15) is made from the same plant as tequila and is concentrated syrup. It is non-nutritive and considered to be similar to high-fructose corn sweetener. Avoid.

Yacon syrup (Glycemic index of 1) comes from a plant grown in the Andes. It is high in a type of fiber (FOS) which encourages beneficial bacteria in the intestines and is dark and thick like molasses. It may support weight loss but don’t overdo it, as excess can cause digestive disturbances.

Sorbitol (Glycemic index of 4) is a sugar alcohol that isn’t zero calorie and isn’t very sweet. Because of this people use more and may experience gas and a laxative effect from overdoing it. This sweetener is frequently found in sugar-free candies. Avoid.

Erythritol  (Sugar alcohol, Zerose, ZSweet) (Glycemic index of 1) appears to one of the very best sweeteners because it doesn’t spike blood sugar or insulin levels and has no effect on cholesterol or triglycerides. It is 70% as sweet as sugar with about 6% of the calories as an equal amount of sugar.  It contains antioxidants which is a nice benefit. It occurs naturally in some fruits and also exists naturally in human tissues and body fluids. It contains no belly-fat producing fructose. It is very safe, but like other sugar alcohols, if you consume too much at a time it may lead to gas or loose bowels, though this is less of an issue with erythritol than the other sugar alcohols.

Natural Sweeteners with No Calories

Stevia (Glycemic index of 0) is becoming the go-to zero calorie sweetener for those that want to avoid the artificial options. It is derived from the leaf of a plant (Stevia rebaudiana) native to Brazil and Paraguay. Find a brand and dosage that works for you. It can safely be added to beverages and recipes. Like other sweeteners (except erythritol) it can cause a slight increase in blood sugar after the next meal, so use all sweeteners sparingly.

Luo Han Guo (Monk Fruit extract, also called Lo Han) (Glycemic index of 0) is another safe option since it is high in antioxidants. It is more expensive than most others and some people dislike the aftertaste. Make sure the one you buy doesn’t include dextrose. Try it and see how you like it.

Mannitol (Glycemic index of 2) is a sugar alcohol; naturally found in peaches, button mushrooms, cauliflower and snow peas, and should be avoided by people with IBS symptoms. It’s frequently found in sugar-free candies.

The Healthiest Choices

After all of the discussion it comes down to three: Stevia, erythritol, Luo Han Guo. All of them are readily available in the marketplace. To satisfy your sweet cravings eat whole fruit daily. Fruit juice has a high glycemic index and should be consumed in moderation if at all.

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*Aspartame info:  http://www.mpwhi.com/main.htm