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Is there a healthy alternative to sugar?

Image courtesy of Vudhikrai

We can all benefit from eating less sugar.  White table sugar is incredibly refined and has no nutritional value whatsoever.  Eat too much and not only will you gain weight but it will play havoc with your hormonal balance and can have serious consequences on your health.  But we humans love sweet things; ice cream, chocolate fudge brownies, cheesecake – all delicious but full of sugar.  So is there a healthy way of adding a little sweetness to our diet without compromising our health?

There are plenty of alternatives to refined white table sugar so let’s start by looking at the artificial sweeteners. 

Popular because they are extremely low in calories, there are lots of brands on the market Nutrasweet, Spenda, Sweet ‘n Low to name just a few.  They are widely used in processed foods, in particular foods that are marketed as ‘diet’ or ‘low calorie’ eg. diet drinks, fat free yogurts, fruit cordials and chewing gum.  You can also buy these sweeteners as tablets to pop in your tea or coffee or in granule form to sprinkle on your (already sweetened) breakfast cereal.  Here’s a list of the most common artificial sweeteners:

Aspartame is the most commonly used sweetener in the United States. It is derived primarily from two naturally occurring amino acids (L-aspartic acid and phenylalanine) which are then chemically combined.  It is 200 times sweeter than table sugar.

Acesulfame-K is a calorie free artificial sweetener which is 200 times sweeter than table sugar.  It’s often blended with other sweeteners (usually aspartame or sucralose), reputedly because each sweetener masks the others aftertaste.  It is made from a process that involves combining acetoacetic acid with the naturally occurring mineral, potassium, to form a crystalline sweetener.

Sucrolose is produced by chlorinating sugar (sucrose) and is 600 times as sweet as table sugar.

Saccharin is the oldest non-calorie sweetener that was discovered by accident over 100 years ago.  The manufacture of saccharin starts with phthalic anhydride, an industrial compound used in creating plastics, which is converted into anthranilic acid. This acid is synthesized with several compounds, including nitrous acid, sulfur dioxide, chlorine and ammonia, which produces saccharin.

These products have been tested and approved in the US, Europe and around the world yet you only have to Google ‘artificial sweeteners’ to find thousands of experts denouncing their safety while thousands more attest to a whole host of health problems that have been linked to their consumption;  health problems such as headaches, nausea, anxiety, insomnia to more serious illnesses such as epilepsy, high blood pressure and even cancer.

More recently sweeteners claiming to be more ‘natural’ appeared on our shelves.  Truvia is a non-calorific sweetener developed jointly by the Coca Cola company and America’s largest private company, Cargill.  It combines rebiana (an extract from the stevia leaf), erythritol (a sugar alcohol) and natural flavourings. 

I was a little curious about Truvia when the TV adverts first started appearing in the UK earlier this year.  On their website we are told that to make Truvia “dried stevia leaves are steeped in water, similar to making tea.  This unlocks the best tasting part of the leaf which is then purified to produce a calorie-free sweet taste”

Sounds good so far.  However, digging a bit deeper I found a report in the Guardian newspaper which claims that extracting the rebiana from the stevia leaves (a process patented by Coca Cola) is, in fact, a 42-step procedure using chemicals such as acetone, methanol, acetonitrile, isopropanol, tert-butanol.  Ummm… doesn’t sound quite so appealing now does it?

I strongly advise you to avoid all artificial sweeteners.  If you want to achieve good health through  our diet you need to eat whole foods that are as close to their natural state as possible.  The chemicals in these artificial sweeteners will disrupt your endocrine system and play havoc with your hormones.  And one hormonal imbalance leads to another and then to another.  This will have serious consequences on your health and your weight loss.  Cut these chemical sweeteners out of your diet completely.

So what about more natural sweeteners?  If they come from natural sources they must be better for us right?  Well yes and no.  Many natural sweeteners are pasturised, heated & filtered which makes the finished product look nice but removes many of the nutrients.  These are some of the more readily available choices;

Honey – chose raw, unrefined honey from specialist sellers rather than the over processed varieties sold in the supermarket.  Pasteurisation and high heat processing destroys many of the enzymes and phytonutrients which make real honey so nutritious.

Agave Nectar is taken from the agave plant.  It has a high fructose content which means it has less of an impact on your blood sugar levels.  Chose organic and buy raw if possible.

Maple Syrup is taken from the sap of maple trees.  Chose a high grade, organic syrup.

Coconut (palm) sugar is made from the sap of coconut palms and is naturally rich in a number of key vitamins, minerals and phytonutrients.  It isn’t bleached like table sugar and will have a lower impact on your blood sugar levels.  Ideal if you enjoy baking, chose a raw, organic product.

Xylitol & Erythritol are both naturally occurring sugar alcohols.  Both are safe for diabetics but, taken in large doses, xylitol can result in gastrointestinal side effects, such as bloating, flatulence and diarrhoea.  I use xylitol to make hot chocolate when I get a chocolate craving.  Mix 1 teaspoon of organic cocoa powder and 1 teaspoon of xylitol with a little cold water to make a smooth paste.  Add hot water for an instant & healthy chocolate drink.

Stevia is made from the leaves of the stevia plant and can be bought in liquid or powder form.  It’s so sweet you only need to use a small amount but some people complain of a bitter aftertaste.  I use a few drops if I need to add some sweetness to my fruit or vegetable smoothies.

In a perfect world we wouldn’t eat sugar at all, let alone the refined, processed stuff.  But it’s not a perfect world and it does seem that we humans are hardwired to enjoy sweet tastes.  Here are my top tips for enjoying healthy sweet treats:

  • Avoid ALL artificial sweeteners
  • Drastically reduce the amount of refined sugar in your diet.  Even better, cut it out altogether
  • Use natural sweeteners sparingly.  Replacing large amounts of refined sugar with large amounts of natural sugars is not healthy eating!
  • Chose raw, organic natural sweeteners.  This may mean sourcing products from specialist shops or buying online

Do you use any of the sweeteners I’ve mentioned?  I’d love to hear your views on which ones you prefer and why.

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