Americans consume approximately 20 teaspoons of sugar each day. The World Health Organization, however, recommends that sugar from soda, candy and even healthy sources, like fruit, should be kept to a mere 6 teaspoons per day. That’s 24 grams, and it adds up quickly, especially considering that sugar is lurking in many sneaky places, like crackers, meats, soups, and other processed foods. If you’re going to indulge your taste buds, you need to educate yourself about the types of sweeteners that are available and decide which are best for you.
You might think table sugar, or sucrose, is the “purest” sweetener. In reality, the industrial process used to refine sugar results in a product that has been stripped of its nutrients. Because it’s lacking vitamins and minerals, sucrose steals resources from the body to be broken down. It has a moderate GI (Glycemic Index) rating of about 65. (Remember that the GI rates foods based on how quickly they release glucose into the bloodstream.) A lower GI rating is good, because glucose is released slowly and steadily. This prevents blood sugar spikes and an overproduction of insulin. Excessive intake, especially sugary drinks, has been linked to diabetes, cardiac disease, cancer, and lowered immunity. However, the American Diabetes Association says reasonable amounts of sugar can be incorporated into a healthy diet.
The good news about artificial sweeteners is that they are low-calorie and low-carb so they don’t cause blood sugar spikes. Most cannot be digested, so they pass straight through your body. On the other hand, the Global Healing Center states that many chemically derived sweeteners are “dangerous.” Because they are difficult to break down, they expend enzymes and nutrients from our body. Artificial sweeteners are toxic, they kill cells, may cause cancer, and are linked to obesity. They also trick your body into believing you are about to get sugar and, when you don’t, your brain still wants it. This results in carb cravings. You will find these destructively sweet chemicals in food, toothpastes, medicines, drinks, and much more. Some of the major artificial sweeteners on the market include:
- Aspartame (Nutrasweet, Equal) – Aspartame is considered in some circles to be the Big Kahuna of bad sweeteners. It seems to have a large impact on the brain, causing depression, headaches, dizziness and a general foggy feeling. Animal studies have linked this, currently FDA approved, sweetener to cancer.
- Sucralose (Splenda) – Sucralose was discovered while researchers were trying to develop a new insecticide and it contains chlorine, a known carcinogen. Sucralose alters gut microflora in a negative way, thus impacting the immune system. Use may also lead to irritable bowel syndrome, anxiety, skin irritations, and mood swings.
- Saccharin (Sweet ‘N Low, Sugar Twin) – Saccharin disrupts your intestinal microflora thereby raising your risk of obesity and diabetes. It may also induce gut dysbiosis and gluten intolerance in otherwise healthy people.
- Acesulfame K (Sunett, Sweet One) – The Center for Science in the Public Interest says there is a link between Acesulfame K and cancer and its use can lead to thyroid damage in lab animals. Other side effects may include headaches, neurological issues, nausea, vomiting, and liver problems.
The results of studies on the effects of artificial sweeteners can be confusing as many are funded by the companies marketing and selling the products. Only you can decide whether using sugar substitutes is right for you.
Foods labeled “sugar-free” or “no sugar added” often contain plant-derived sweeteners known as sugar alcohols. You will also see sugar alcohols on the labels of toothpaste, mouthwash, and gum. These sugar alternatives have fewer calories than sucrose, but they do not fully absorb into our bodies and can therefore cause gastrointestinal distress such as gas, bloating and diarrhea. On labels, look for sugar alcohols by these names:
The American Diabetes Association recommends satisfying your sugar cravings with fruit, a good option if not abused. Nature has also provided us with other nutrient dense, flavorful sources of sweetness. Choosing these options for your allotted amount of daily sugar may make things easier on your body and help prevent afflictions and disease.
- Raw Honey – Unheated, unprocessed honey is full of vitamins, minerals and helpful enzymes. It has a GI rating of about 58 along with antioxidant and antimicrobial qualities, making it great for cell health and immunity. Next time you have a cold, drinking tea with a little bit of honey may help you recover more quickly. In addition, honey from bees in your local area may lessen the effects of seasonal allergies.
- Stevia – Stevia in its natural form is a plant in the daisy and ragweed family. People in South America have used stevia for hundreds of years to sweeten foods. Natural stevia has no calories and no carbs and is 300 times sweeter than sucrose. However, many variants of stevia currently on the market are highly processed and should be classified as artificial sweeteners. Look for pure stevia in health food stores or the organic/natural section of your supermarket. Stevia may also lower blood pressure (beware if you take blood pressure medicine), blood sugar, and cholesterol. It has also been used as a treatment for burns and colic. While other sweeteners may cause cancer, some evidence shows that this little plant fights it and has anti-inflammatory properties.
- Agave – Agave can be a good sweetener choice or not depending on how the plant is processed. One method involves boiling the agave root until its nutrients are gone (not so good); another involves vacuum evaporation and distilling while not allowing the temperature to become too hot (good). Agave’s GI rating is 30. Suponins in properly processed agave nectar provide anti-inflammatory and anti-microbial benefits. Inulin, a prebiotic fiber, provides friendly gut bacteria and gives the immune system a boost.
- Blackstrap Molasses – This extremely nutritious and delicious byproduct of processing sugar cane has a GI around 55. Blackstrap molasses helps maintain an adequate red blood cell count with iron, folate, and B vitamins. Magnesium, calcium, potassium, and manganese support the nervous system. Because of its neurologic support, it may also be beneficial for those suffering with hyperactivity and ADD.
Sugar is bith a gift and a curse and must be used with caution, regardless of its form. With a small amount of healthful sugar sources, our bodies can thrive. Yet the enormous amount that most Americans consume often results in obesity and disease. Slow down, read labels, and choose your sweeteners wisely.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Karyn Wofford is a type 1 diabetic who has been educating herself about health and wellness for 14 years. She has been an Emergency Medical Technician for 5 years and is now studying to become a Health and Wellness Specialist. Her aspiration in life is to bring helpful information to those seeking to be as healthy as they can be.
Disclaimer: This information is not intended to take the place of medical advice. Always discuss any dietary or lifestyle changes with your doctor first.