Most of us would be better off if we consumed less sugar, right? In our attempt to improve our health and decrease sugar consumption, many turn to sugar alternatives to make up the difference.
The problem with this: not all sweet alternatives are equally beneficial. Some are nearly identical to sucrose, which is table sugar, despite health claims to the contrary, while others have been vilified for no scientific reason. I see this frequently in my work with nutrition clients. When we first meet they wonder if honey is a better alternative to sugar, and whether or not artificial sweeteners are dangerous. This leaves the general population confused about what to sweeten their morning oatmeal with and what to avoid.
Today I will discuss 6 different sugar alternatives, from high fructose corn syrup, to “natural sweeteners” like honey and raw sugar, to artificial sweeteners and give you the science behind them so that you can make the most empowered choice for you.
Here’s the summary:
Now for the more thorough version: let’s get the facts straight about sugar
Typically when we think about “sugar” an image of white crystals in a rectangular paper bag comes to mind. This so called “table sugar” or “white sugar” is sucrose, a 50/50 combination of glucose and fructose. This sugar is refined from sugar cane or sugar beets.
Most people attempting to decrease sugar intake begin by eliminating, decreasing, or swapping out white sugar for other sweeteners. There is a vast array of sugar alternatives on the market, and it can be confusing to navigate all the health claims and different options. Some have sworn off the white stuff all together, although that may not be necessary or helpful.
Recently while browsing Instagram, I ran across a cake recipe touted as “sugar free.” However, the alternative sweetener used was still high in sugar, even though there was no white sugar sugar in the recipe. Likewise, there also seems to be a trend of misinformation involving sugar as being the better option than other commercially available sweeteners.
To put this confusion to rest, I’ve compiled a list of 6 alternative sweeteners to table sugar, and discuss the claims made about each one, and uncover which ones are truly more beneficial if sugar reduction is the goal.
[High Fructose Corn Syrup] You think it’s worse than sugar, but it’s nearly identical
While no one is searching out high fructose corn syrup as a “healthy alternative”, it’s worth mentioning because there are so many myths about the substance. Many people will go out of their way to avoid high fructose corn syrup, opting for sucrose instead. As a teenager, I remember learning to read labels for high fructose corn syrup because that was the stuff everyone said to avoid.
High fructose corn syrup is a derivative of corn starch consisting of a glucose fructose blend. While regular corn syrup is pure glucose, high fructose corn syrup has been treated with an enzyme to transform a portion of the glucose molecules to fructose. This gives it the sweet taste that is comparable to sugar. There are varying ratios of glucose to fructose in these blends the highest regularly used concentration contains 55% fructose, which is just slightly more than the 50/50 split of sucrose. While “high fructose” makes it easy to think you are getting way too much fructose, the “high fructose” is actually in comparison to corn syrup, which has no fructose. There is a HFCS 90, which is 90% fructose, however this is used in very small quantities in low calorie products, and is labeled “fructose” on the nutrition label.
Many claim that high fructose corn syrup is the main cause of the obesity epidemic, and that sucrose is a preferred sweetener. In reality, high fructose corn syrup and sucrose (table sugar) are remarkably similar. This chart from a 2008 report shows the sugar composition of high fructose corn syrup, table sugar, corn syrup, and inverse sugar (I’ll be explaining what each of these are below).
Many people now are opting for cane sugar sweetened coca cola, or high fructose corn syrup free ketchup in an attempt to improve their health. But how much difference is it actually making? The only biochemical difference between table sugar and high fructose corn syrup is in the bonding between the glucose and the fructose. However, there is no metabolic difference in how our body processes either one.
From the same report as the chart above:
The inability of the body to distinguish fructose-containing nutritive sweeteners from one another once they reach the bloodstream is critical to the HFCS discussion, but often overlooked. Sucrose, HFCS, invert sugar, honey, and many fruits and juices deliver the same sugars in the same ratios to the same tissues within the same time frame to the same metabolic pathways.
While not so relevant to the discussion yet very interesting: “invert sugar” is sucrose that has a bond between molecules similar to HFCS. This “invert sugar” is a phenomenon that occurs when sugar (sucrose) sweetened beverages are stored for a period of time before distribution. So those drinking “pure sugar” sodas are still drinking sugar with a chemical composition more similar to HFCS than table sugar… so you can skip the fancy expensive “sugar sweetened” sodas.
Beyond the chemical and metabolic similarities of table sugar and high fructose corn syrup, it is also important to note that high fructose corn syrup consumption is not a predictor of obesity in the United States or globally. In the US, high fructose corn syrup consumption rose sharply between 1970 and 1998, then leveled off and has been declining since 2002, while obesity has continued to rise. Globally, as of this 2008 study, only 8% of caloric sweeteners were from high fructose corn syrup, yet the obesity rate continued to rise worldwide as well.
The verdict on high fructose corn syrup: just like with sucrose, excess consumption is not advisable for health. However, the risks are not greater with high fructose corn syrup than with sucrose. Attempting to eliminate high fructose corn syrup and replace it with sucrose won’t improve health or body composition.
[Fructose] Some claim it is poison, but it’s really a non-issue
For many people, curbing a sweet craving involves eating a piece of fruit with a meal, rather than a piece of cheesecake. While most nutrition experts would applaud this decision, there are some experts who are claiming that eating “too much fruit” is a cause for obesity because of the fructose content. They promote a “fructose free” diet in the name of curbing obesity.
Fructose is a 5 carbon sugar, and half of the content of sucrose. Fructose has received special attention from some experts because it is rapidly metabolized by the liver, and doesn’t require an insulin response. According to the theories, this makes fructose uniquely obesogenic.
It is important to understand that the fructose research that led to this hypothesis was done on rats, with unphysiological levels of fructose… meaning we couldn’t eat that much fructose from natural sources (or even drink that much fructose from sugar sweetened beverages). In nature, and in high fructose corn syrup, fructose is found in combination with other sugars, particularly glucose. There are no pure fructose sources like the ones used in these studies. Even fruits are a combination of multiple sugars, and contain a combination of glucose and fructose.
Beyond that, fructose consumption actually hasn’t risen in the past 90 years beyond what can be accounted for in the increase of overall sugar consumption. Although some of the sucrose was replaced with high fructose corn syrup, the fructose content is nearly identical. For those who say that increasing fructose has led to the obesity epidemic: Overall, it is the increase in calories, from both sugar and fat, and the decrease in movement and exercise, that is driving the obesity epidemic, not fructose.
Furthermore, a 2014 feeding study showed that replacing fructose with glucose did not show any significant improvements in physiological measures, as is hypothesized by the low fructose advocates.
The verdict: fresh fruit is a fantastic alternative to many deserts because they are nutrient dense, lower in calories, and more satisfying. Fruit juice may not be the best alternative because fruit in liquid form is much less satisfying per serving.
[“Natural” sugars] They are really no different than table sugar.
Another easy mistake for those wanting to be healthier is assuming that the less refined the sugar is, the more “healthy” it is. There is an entire lineup of “natural” sugars that are competing for a more virtuous position than table sugar.
Sucanat is the brand name of an “unrefined” cane sugar. Turbinado, or “sugar in the raw” is another sugar that many believe is healthier because of its darker color and trace minerals. This is actually known as brown sugar. There are other varieties of sugar that are touted to be more natural, and some may be slightly less refined, while others just have a more natural sounding name like “cane juice.”
It’s important to note that regardless of the amount of processing, these sugars have the same number of calories per teaspoon, and the same impact on blood sugar. The trace minerals and minimal processing are insignificant to human health.
The processing of brown sugar into table sugar removes the trace minerals, these incredibly small amounts of calcium, iron, and potassium aren’t relevant to human health – almost any other food eaten will have a higher concentration of these nutrients, making the small contribution from “unrefined” sugar completely negligible. While Turbinado sugar has 1 mg of calcium where refined cane sugar has none, the amount contributes insignificantly to the average daily requirement of 1000 mg per day. In truth our bodies metabolize these “natural” sugars identically to their more processed counterparts.
The conclusion: the “natural” brown sugar substitutes are still sugar, and contribute to caloric intake identically to refined sugar, without providing any additional benefit. Their use can be interchanged with table sugar, but they aren’t actually any healthier. This is why you may need to start thinking not just about finding an alternative to sugar, but a brown sugar substitute in particular.
What is a healthy substitute for natural brown sugar?
As I continue, you’re going to continue finding that science doesn’t lean towards natural sugar in terms of calories and how your body metabolizes it. I’m going to explain benefits that artificial sweeteners have over brown sugar, and then you can decide for yourself which is the best.
Artificial sweeteners and stevia seem to have an edge over brown sugar. Many people use honey as a brown sugar substitute but that’s not an ideal sugar alternative either..
[Honey] It’s not actually a “superfood;” It’s just sugar.
Honey is a sweet substance produced by honey bees from the nectar extracted from flowers. Many natural health experts claim it is a superfood, that can heal all types of diseases.
It is a sticky topic (pun intended) because there are so many medical claims about the substance that have not been supported by science. Hop on google for five minutes and you will see hundreds of “ways to heal yourself using honey.”
Some of these claims may make you miserable (relying on honey to cure seasonal allergies will probably leave you with itching eyes) while relying on honey to control asthma or cure a urinary tract infection may land you in the hospital (don’t do it, go see a doctor!) The most important thing to know about these claims is that there is no science to support them, except that honey may be useful as a cough suppressant and applied topically in wound healing. However, neither such use warrants daily intake.
The thing to remember about honey is that it acts very similarly to sugar in the human body. If you look at the chart at the top, honey is strikingly similar to both table sugar and high fructose corn syrup, a blend of mostly glucose and fructose. Moreover, honey is more dense than sucrose.
From the USDA databases:
1 tablespoon of sugar = 49 calories, 12 grams of sugar.
1 tablespoon of honey = 64 calories 17 grams of sugar.
Despite the greater density of honey, it’s likely those making “healthier choices” would be adding more honey, not less rationalizing that it is “healthier.”
There is now some research claiming that honey has the potential to lower blood sugar levels in diabetics. However, clinical trials have yet to show an antidiabetic effect.
The conclusion on honey: most of the health claims are markedly false. If you choose to use it as a cough suppressant or on wounds, please talk to your doctor first (and public service announcement: please do not feed honey to infants under 1 year old due to the risk of botulism.) The findings on potential antidiabetic properties are inconclusive.
While some studies may sound promising in regards to controlling blood sugar, until there is conclusive research, it’s safe to say that honey acts similarly in the human body as sugar and high fructose corn syrup, and is actually more dense than table sugar, so it requires smaller portions than sugar.
[Artificial Sweeteners] they tell you to avoid them, but they may be your best option.
I’m still baffled by the number of people who tell me that they plan to start losing weight by cutting out diet soda. Cutting out diet soda won’t help you lose weight. Weight loss requires cutting out calories, and decreasing non-caloric beverages won’t do the trick.
Interestingly, the media has latched on to a few studies that say “diet soda increases obesity” or that “diet soda is associated with type 2 diabetes.” These studies seemed to have diet soda pegged as the culprit for our health and obesity concerns.
It is important to understand how study design plays a factor. In observational studies, studies where questionnaires are asked to determine how people live and what could be causing disease, diet soda consumption can conceivably correlate with higher rates of obesity and type 2 diabetes – there are various lifestyle factors: late nights out, frequent fast food intake, more purchasing of processed foods that also likely mean more soda consumption, diet or not, and increased calories do lead to a greater likelihood of obesity or diabetes. However, interventional studies where sugar sweetened soda is replaced with diet soda, resulted in weight loss and decreased disease risk.
In one observational study, not only did sugar sweetened and artificially sweetened beverage consumption increase the “risk” of type 2 diabetes, but so did water consumption… so take correlational studies with a grain of salt.
So we now know that artificial sweeteners do not increase the risk of obesity, let’s talk about their safety. There is a lot of concern about these “chemical” sweeteners and cancer or diseases. One argument that many make is that our bodies don’t know how to process these chemical sweeteners, and they accumulate in our bodies.
This actually isn’t true: our bodies do metabolize and excrete these compounds. For example, aspertame is metabolized in our bodies into aspartic acid (an amino acid,) phenylalanine (another amino acid,) and methanol. And while methanol is toxic at high doses, you couldn’t drink enough diet coke to get poisoned, and may actually get a higher dose of methanol from natural fruit sources. The methanol is then excreted through the kidneys.
Other artificial sweeteners are similarly disposed of by our bodies.
What is the best sweetener?
Here’s what science says on the best sugar alternatives and on what brown sugar substitute to choose:
Aspartame has been found to be safe for human consumption worldwide by more than 90 countries.
Acesulfame-k does have a metabolite, acetoacetamide, that can be toxic in large enough doses. However, human exposure to the metabolite is negligible considering the possible range of human consumption of ace-k.
Sucralose has been studied extensively. The FDA reviewed more than 110 studies in both animals and humans designed to uncover any toxic effects including carcinogenic effects, reproductive concerns, or neurological impairments. No evidence could be found pointing to any of these effects. The daily intake limit based on these studies is 5mg/kg body weight/day. The estimated amount that the greatest consumers ingest is 1.6mg/kg body weight/day.
Xylitol has less calories than sugar, and was found safe for human use, without a specified upper limit in 1996 by the joint expert committee on Food Additive (JECFA), and has also been deemed acceptable for dietary use by the scientific committee for food of the European Union (EU). It’s important to note that large doses of xylitol can cause gastrointestinal distress.
The artificial sweeteners available in the market today are not harmful to human health at levels that we could actually ingest, and may be a better option for those who are looking to decrease their calorie intake or limit their sugar intake that replacing table sugar with “natural” sugar alternatives that act similarly to sugar in our bodies.
[Stevia] A natural sweetener without the sugar
Stevia is an herb that contains a sweet glycoside, not metabolized by the human body. Interestingly, not only does stevia provide a calorie free sweetening option, but there are also some studies that suggest it can lower elevated blood pressure and improve nutrition status in diabetes. This is one “natural” sweetener that actually is worth considering, since it also has the benefit of being calorie free.
Which one of the sugar alternatives should you choose?
The next time you see someone posting a “sugar free cake” on Instagram, here’s what to remember: Swapping out sugar for honey or “natural” sugars won’t make a noticeable difference. Likewise, choosing sucrose over high fructose corn syrup has no impact on health. If your goal is to decrease sugar intake, your best bet is to rely on the calorie free sweeteners, either using artificial sweeteners or stevia.
Did any of this research on sugar alternatives or brown sugar substitutes surprise you? What are your favorite calorie free sweetening options?
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