Since most people know about the dangers of artificial sweeteners, let’s look at how healthy (or not) some all-natural sweeteners actually are.
Natural Sweeteners Bad For You?
“Natural sweeteners” such as honey and agave may seem like healthier choices, but these natural sweeteners are loaded with fructose – and fructose overload leads to obesity, liver disease, and insulin resistance.
Agave nectar could be considered worse than high-fructose corn syrup, because it can be 90% – 95% fructose (HFCS, in comparison, averages 55 percent fructose). Agave may be natural, but it isn’t healthy.
Honey is also high in fructose, averaging around 53 percent, but unlike agave:
- Raw natural honey is much closer to the 1:1 glucose-to-fructose ratio found in natural fruit, so it’s not as bad for your liver or for your waistline. Beware of commercial honey that is loaded with additional preservatives and high-fructose corn syrup! Buy natural honey from local beekeepers for maximum health benefits.
- Honey conveys many health benefits when eaten in small amounts in its natural form: It has antiseptic and antibacterial properties; is rich in B vitamins, flavonoids, and other nutrients; and can improve ulcers and gastroenteritis like probiotics.
Safe Sugar Substitutes
Two of the best natural sugar substitutes are from plants: Stevia and Lo Han Guo (or Luo Han Kuo). Stevia, a sweet herb derived from the leaf of the South American stevia plant, is sold as a supplement in powdered form. It appears to be completely safe in its natural form and if you really need to sweeten up your coffee, tea, or water, it makes a good natural sweetener.
For the record, I’m not sold on the sugar substitute Truvia, which makes use of only certain active ingredients found in the stevia plant (not the entire stevia leaf). Your body metabolizes the whole stevia leaf differently than the Rebaudioside A compound that is isolated in the Truvia product, so until more research and information is available, I’d stick with pure stevia powder.
Lo Han Kuo is another natural sweetener similar to Stevia, but it’s more expensive and harder to find. In China, the Lo Han fruit has been used as a sweetener for centuries, and it received FDA approval in 2009.
Sugar alcohols can also be reasonably healthy sugar substitutes. Sugar alcohols are kind-of sugars that don’t contain ethanol (alcohol that gets you drunk) that can be identified by the “ol” at the end of their names: xylitol, sorbitol, maltitol, mannitol, glycerol, etc. They’re not as sweet as sugar, and they do contain fewer calories, but they’re not calorie-free so don’t get tricked by the “sugar-free” label on foods containing these sweeteners. As with all foods, you should read the food labels for calorie and carbohydrate content, regardless of any claims that the food is sugar-free or low-sugar.
One reason that sugar alcohols provide fewer calories than sugar is because they’re not completely absorbed into your body. Because of this, eating too many foods containing sugar alcohols can lead to abdominal gas and diarrhea (glycerol is a common stool softener). Some sugar alcohols (like xylitol) do not have a great effect on your blood sugar, so from that perspective may be a better choice than natural sweeteners containing high amounts of fructose.
In moderation, sugar alcohols are a better choice than highly refined sugar, large doses of fructose, or artificial sweeteners. Of the various sugar alcohols, xylitol is one of the best — the potential side effects are minimal, and it can fight tooth decay. (As a side note, xylitol is toxic to dogs and some other animals, so be sure to keep it out of reach of your family pets!).
If you’d like to learn more about healthy nutrition, send me an email and we can set a time to talk about what I can do to help you.