Is it best to have natural or artificial sweetners? Do natural sugars affect blood glucose levels? What about sugar effects on Diabetics? Do sugars affect children's metabolism? (The 'sugar rush' in children)
There are so many questions with regards to "sugars", and on the debate of "natural vs. artificial sweeteners". So how do we take control of our daily sugar consumption and prevent overindulgence? It’s all about balance, but often the options for sugars and sweeteners can be confusing and overwhelming.
Most of us are aware that sugar isn’t the healthiest food out there, and it goes far beyond tooth decay and sugar highs. Studies have shown that refined sugars can suppress the immune system for hours after ingestion. In fact, research shows that consuming just 8 tablespoons of sugar, the equivalent of about 2 cans of soda, can lower our immune system by up to 40%!
Many people do not realize that 80% of your immune system is housed in your digestive system. Sugar feeds “bad” intestinal bacteria, and proliferation of these bad bacteria causes lowered immunity. This is why gut health is extremely important for boosting your immune system and warding off illness.
Sweeteners: The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly:
It is important to remember that the more natural something is, the closer it is to coming straight from the earth and not being modified by humans, and thus the healthier it is. Not all ‘sugar’ is the same, and when it comes to alternatives, one substitute is not just like another. Here is a basic overview of some of the more common sweeteners:
Organic sugar is sugar produced with farming methods that use less chemical pesticides and herbicides than sugar not labeled ‘organic’. Organic does not mean unprocessed. All sugar must undergo some form of processing to be considered fit for human consumption.
Raw sugar is the product of sugarcane that’s been processed, split into components, and crystallized. Although it is considered healthier than highly refined sugar, the levels of nutrients found in raw sugar are so minimal that you would have to consume an overwhelming amount to obtain any health benefit.
The key to remember is that ‘sugar is sugar’, and should be consumed in moderation regardless of the source. Raw sugar is just like white sugar in that it is high in calories and affects blood glucose and insulin levels the same way.
Table Sugar, aka granulated or white sugar, is produced when raw sugar is further refined and chemically processed. Colour is removed through carbon filtration, sometimes of an animal bone source, causing a problem for some vegetarians, although this process is not as common these days. Brown sugar is simply the product of adding molasses to refined white sugar.
Stevia is presently considered one of the best sweeteners available. This highly sweet substance comes from the leaf of the Stevia plant, and has been used for thousands of years in South America. Stevia is shown to be completely safe in its natural form, and a good replacement for sugar. It is a great option for diabetics, as it doesn’t spike blood sugar. Keep in mind that Stevia is 300 times sweeter than regular sugar, so be sure to adjust amounts accordingly. Try various brands until you find the one you like the best, as some are more likely to have a slightly bitter aftertaste.
Honey, in its raw form is completely natural and has many health benefits when used in moderation. Manuka honey, in particular, is very high in antioxidants, has antibacterial properties and was traditionally used for wound healing. Honey does raise blood sugar and should not be used in excess by diabetics. To reduce refined sugar intake in recipes, try substituting ¾ cup plus 1 tablespoon of honey in place of 1 cup of sugar. Honey is 20-50% sweeter than sugar, and may cause your recipe to be more moist and sweet. Honey is also acidic, so adding a pinch of baking soda can help make the flavor more neutral.
Maple Syrup, in its purest form, is high in antioxidants and minerals, including calcium, magnesium, phosphorus, and potassium. Maple syrup does raise blood sugar and contains over half the calories of table sugar. You can use pure maple syrup in place of sugar when baking. Substitute ¾ cup for every 1 cup of sugar called for in your recipe. Darker syrups are thicker and recommended for baking because of their flavour.
Molasses, particularly blackstrap molasses, has a number of health benefits. It is a source of minerals including iron, and contains B vitamins. Like sugar, molasses is calorie-rich and has a high glycemic index making it unsuitable for diabetics.
Agave Syrup is often advertised as a natural sweetener and a suitable sweet alternative for those with blood sugar issues. In reality, Agave syrup is typically very highly processed, potentially leading to same damaging effects as high fructose corn syrup. Evidence is now showing that the end product of Agave syrup sold in most health food stores doesn’t even remotely resemble the original Agave plant.
High Fructose Corn Syrup (HFCS), very commonly found in sweetened drinks and processed foods, is quickly gaining attention for its high level of consumption in today’s diet, and for its potential adverse side effects. HFCS is extracted from corn stalks through a chemical enzymatic process. Whereas cane sugar requires digestion in order to break it down into simple sugars, HFCS does not require any digestion, so it is rapidly absorbed into the bloodstream, spiking your blood sugar and insulin, and triggering the production of cholesterol and triglycerides. New evidence is showing that HFCS may lead to metabolic disturbances causing increases in appetite, weight gain, inflammation, food sensitivities, diabetes, heart disease, cancer, dementia, and more. Be sure to look out for labels that state “natural corn sugar”, another name for HFCS.
Xylitol is one of the more commonly used alternatives today. For commercial purposes, Xylitol is usually extracted from birch tree wood chips, or corn. It has a very sweet taste, but does not raise blood sugar or insulin levels. Xylitol is incompletely absorbed by the small intestine so it offers fewer calories than sugar, but can often cause digestive side effects such as bloating, diarrhea, and flatulence. Research has shown that Xylitol also has antimicrobial actions, decreasing bacteria associated with tooth decay and ear infections. However, just like other sugar alcohols when used regularly, Xylitol can actually make you hungrier, slow your metabolism, and cause you to store belly fat.
Sorbitol is a sugar alcohol used in sugar-free candies, treats, and diet foods. This sweetener occurs naturally in some fruits, but is normally commercially produced through chemical processing. Similarly to Xylitol, Sorbitol can cause numerous side effects including abdominal pain and intestinal gas and bloating, and promote weight gain in the long run.
Aspartame, aka “NutraSweet”, is an artificial sweetener that doesn’t raise blood sugar, and is therefore considered a safe alternative for diabetics by the Canadian Diabetes Association. However, recent evidence is showing that Aspartame can actually trigger hunger; increasing appetite and making people eat or drink more. Even worse, Aspartame may disrupt brain chemistry, causing adverse neurological effects in susceptible people, and possibly increasing risk of seizures, depression, and headaches.
Neotame is an artificial sweetener from the makers of NutraSweet. Neotame is 13,000 times sweeter than table sugar and about 30 times sweeter than Aspartame! It is approved in North America for use in a wide array of food products, including baked goods and sweets. Neotame is essentially Aspartame with a slightly different chemical makeup, and is thought to be an even more potent and dangerous neurotoxin. Interestingly, Neotame has been used in cattle feed, and is known to increase the amount that cattle eat, counteracting the idea that artificial sweeteners are beneficial weight loss aids.
Sucralose, aka “Splenda”, is a chlorinated artificial sweetener just like Aspartame. Although Splenda won’t raise your blood sugar and has zero calories, research has shown detrimental health effects. Splenda has been known to cause gastrointestinal problems, seizures, dizziness, migraines, blurred vision, blood sugar increases, and weight gain. One study showed that Splenda reduced the amount of good bacteria in the intestines by 50%, contributed to increased body weight, and affected the absorption of various medications, shunting them back to the intestines rather than being absorbed by the body.
If you think a particular sweetener is affecting you or causing side effects, perform an elimination challenge to know for sure. This process involves eliminating the suspected culprit for a period of time, and then reintroducing it to determine if it is causing a problem for you. The key is to take notice of how your body is feeling with the reintroduction, especially if it feels different than when you were free of artificial sweeteners.
Experience the Sweetest Side of Life
For optimal health, focus on getting your sugars from natural fruits and vegetables, and when it comes to adding a little sweetness into your life, go for some of the healthier options, like Stevia or Manuka honey. Remember, little tweaks add up to big changes. Before you know it you’ll be on the path to better health, while still enjoying the things you love!
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Nikola Kempinska is a Naturopathic Doctor practising at Drury Lane Naturopathic Health Centre in Burlington, Ontario.
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