I cut sugar - what now? The 101 on sugar alternatives
So you've decided to give up the white powder (sugar). Good for you! Nobody needs it.
Your sweet tooth doesn't give up that easily though, so now what? Here's my guide to sweeteners and which ones you should be eating.
Nutritive vs Non-nutritive
First up, let me explain that their are two types of sweeteners.
Nutritive sweeteners, also known as caloric sweeteners or sugars, provide energy in the form of carbohydrates. Meaning they have calories, and if we pick the right ones, also give us other vitamins and minerals too.
Nutritive sweeteners without beneficial nutrients (the ones to give up) include:
- table sugar
- icing sugar
- castor sugar
- glucose, glucose syrup
- brown rice syrup
- high fructose corn syrup (HFCS)
- corn syrup
- confectioner's sugar
- pure fructose
- golden syrup
- invert sugar
- beet sugar
- cane sugar
- agave nectar
Nutritive sweeteners with benefits (vitamins and minerals. Note some have a higher content than others, and contain various types of nutrients) include:
- fruit juice and fruit juice concentrate
- maple syrup
- coconut sugar/nectar
- fresh fruit or fruit purees e.g. dates
- dried fruits
Some sugars are found naturally in foods. For example, fructose is found in fresh fruits. Fruit is good!! By eating the whole fruit, you not only consume fructose, but you feed your body fiber, vitamins, minerals, and phytonutrients [plant nutrients] that you do not get from sugar alone.
Many of the sugars in our diet come from "added sugars" - sugars added to food prior to consumption or during preparation or processing. Added sugars are used to enhance the flavour and texture of foods and to increase shelf-life. These are typically from the 'nutritive sweeteners without benefits' category. Manufacturer's use them because they're cheaper, easy to work with, and have a great shelf-life.
On the other hand, the latest range of sweeteners to hit the shelves are non-nutritive. They pride themselves on being able to be eaten without the calorie guilt, or the blood sugar spikes. They also don't give us any nutrients. Thanks for nothing!
Classified by the American Heart Association as low-calorie, artificial, and non-caloric sweeteners. They include:
- Aspartame (NutraSweet® and Equal®)
- Acesulfame-K (Sweet One®)
- Saccharin (Sweet’N Low®)
- Sucralose (Splenda®)
- Stevia (Truvia and PureVia, Natvia)
Whilst I'd never recommend consuming artificial sweeteners (see below 'side effects'), Stevia is still debatable. It is a natural plant extract with an extremely intense sweetness level (200-300x sweeter than table sugar) so you use very little. However unless it's the actual leaves or the green powder, it's still quite a highly processed product. Not to mention the peculiar aftertaste of some varieties. Some stevia products are also blended with alcohol sugars, dextrose and/or maltodextrin to mimic granulated sugar so be sure to check the label for pure stevia extract.
How Stevia is made:
Regardless of the steps to bring stevia to the table, it doesn't appear to be detrimental to our health (full disclosure: we need more studies to be sure). It also doesn't come with the side effects of other non-nutritive sweeteners such as sugar alcohols.
Erythritol and xylitol are sugar alcohols, a class of compounds that have been used for decades to sweeten chewing gum, candy, fruit spreads, toothpaste, cough syrup, and other products. Newer, cheaper ways to make sugar alcohols from corn, wood, and other plant materials, along with their sugar-like taste, are fueling their use in a growing array of foods.
One concern about artificial sweeteners is that they affect the body’s ability to gauge how many calories are being consumed. Some studies show that sugar and artificial sweeteners affect the brain in different ways.
The human brain responds to sweetness with signals to eat more. By providing a sweet taste without any calories, however, artificial sweeteners cause us to crave more sweet foods and drinks, which can add up to excess calories. So while nutritive sweeteners signal a positive feeling of reward, non-nutritive, artificial sweeteners aren't very effective in curbing our cravings.
On another note - if you eat too much of these sugar alcohols you may end up with gastro side effects. The alcohols can induce a laxative-like effect on your bowels as they are only partially absorbed, and bring water into the bowel causing diarrhoea and gut irritation. Ability to induce bloating, gas, loose stools, and abdominal discomfort is not something I look for in my food's qualities. This is especially important for those with IBS or a sensitive gut. Many Low Fodmapers need to avoid natural occurring polyols, and other alcohol sugars including erythritol, xylitol, sorbitol, mannitol, and maltitol. The "-ols".
All in all, I always recommend eating the item that is going to give you nutrients. My food motto is "make every mouthful count". This goes for sweeteners too. Opt for the nutritive sweeteners with benefits so you are getting a little extra dose of vitamins and minerals. Use stevia if you desire, and opt for alcohol sugars if you can tolerate them and wish to cut back on your total sugar/carbohydrate intake.
As for the nutritive sweeteners without benefits, and the chemically created non-nutritive sweeteners - you're sweet enough already. Leave them on the shelf.