Use this guide to know the right natural sweetener for you!
Do you ever wonder what makes something you eat sweet? Yes you are right, sugar (or table sugar, ahem). It doesn’t always have to be sugar. Sugar may be sweet, but it’s not nice to your pancreas, not to mention your overall health.
Let’s backtrack a little here. Let’s make this article a wholesome reading experience shall we? Do you know why you even need to look for sugar substitutes? Sucrose or table sugar is made up of one molecule of glucose and one molecule of fructose. Glucose is responsible for the release of insulin from your pancreas. You see, insulin is a neat hormone. It likes to keep your blood free of glucose. It does this by storing them inside cells. Whenever your pancreas detects the presence of glucose, it releases insulin. Insulin promptly stores the glucose inside the cells. A large load of glucose can spike or increase the amount of insulin secreted. This can be harmful to your body. Continuation of this sort of insulin release on a daily basis can lead to the development of heart disease and diabetes mellitus. This is probably the most important reason why we would like to find alternatives for sugar. Regulation of insulin secretion is very important if you want to avoid metabolic diseases like gout, obesity, diabetes etc.
Other reasons for using sugar substitutes (whether natural or artificial) include:
- People interested in losing weight use sugar substitutes to reduce the number of calories they eat (the calorie conscious dieters or weight watchers).
- Some sugar substitutes like xylitol are good for your teeth. Bacteria in your oral cavity don’t like xylitol because they can’t use it for food. They need food to stay on your teeth so they can feed on it and multiply. Xylitol can help prevent this.
- Some people don’t like the idea of eating refined or processed foods. Let’s face it, refined foods may be approved by the US FDA (United States Food and Drug Administration), but the long term effects of these foods on our health have not been thoroughly studied. The unrefined sugar substitutes give these people peace of mind and provide the body with valuable nutrients.
Sugar substitutes can be conveniently divided into two groups: artificial (or synthetic) sweeteners and natural sweeteners. Artificial sweeteners don’t contain carbohydrates. In addition, they don’t increase the level of glucose in your blood. The US FDA (United States Food and Drug Administration) has approved the following artificial sweeteners (some of the common brand names are in brackets below):
- sucralose (Splenda)
- aspartame (Nutrasweet or Equal)
- acesulfame potassium or acesulfame K
Note: Except for aspartame, the rest of the artificial sweeteners listed above can’t be broken down (digested) by your body. This means if you ate sucralose for example, it will leave your body still as sucralose. These artificial sweeteners don’t affect blood sugar levels. However it’s important to point out that the food they’re mixed or added into may contain sugars which can stimulate insulin secretion. Artificial sweeteners are also highly processed and their long term effects on health are largely unknown.
Finally, we get to the natural sweeteners (which is the main topic of this article). Natural sweeteners, as the manufacturers claim, were created as healthier alternatives to sugar and artificial sweeteners. The next time you go to your favorite supermarket, check out the natural foods section. This time around, maybe you will not get so confused.
Agave Nectar. This natural sweetener is also called agave syrup. It comes from the agave plant, the same plant where your tequila comes from. What does tequila remind you of? You might answer Mexico. Most of the exported agave nectar comes from Mexico.
Agave is said to be 25 percent sweeter than sugar. A cup of table sugar is equivalent to ¾ of a cup of agave nectar. It’s basically made up of 90% fructose. This is the reason why there’s not so much insulin released when you put it in your food. In addition, it has a hint of a caramel taste to it. The color ranges from light, amber and dark. The darker the color, the more you can appreciate the caramel flavour. Pancakes or waffles? Instead of using maple syrup, why not try agave nectar on your favorite breakfast.
Stevia. Let me warn and prepare you. The statistics on this natural sweetener is full of zeroes! That doesn’t mean that it’s full of crap. It has zero calories (really!) and is one hundred percent natural. Furthermore, it’s 200 to 300 times sweeter than table sugar. See? A lot of zeroes, right? Good zeroes, that is.
This natural sweetener comes from the stevia plant found in South America. By the way, did you know that you can eat the leaves of the stevia plant fresh? Amazing, huh? The sweetest ingredient in the leaves is a complex sugar called rebaudioside A. Some brands of stevia can have a slight licorice aftertaste so try out different brands to find one you like. The licorice aftertaste can also occur when you are simply adding too much! In this case try to tame that sweet tooth of yours. Some stevia products may also be mixed with sugar alcohols such as erythritol to give it characteristics closer to that of sugar (such as for baking with). See our Stevia recipes for some great ideas!
Honey. Who said Winnie the Pooh (a bear) is the only one who likes honey? We mammals (who belong to the same group, mammals not cartoons) love honey just like Winnie the Pooh. Relatively speaking, it has the same sweetness as table sugar. Just remember that the darker the color of the honey, the more its packed with flavour. Did you ever wonder why bees are such resilient insects? It may be because of their diet (raw honey). Honey contains vitamin B6, vitamin B2, manganese and iron. In addition, raw honey also contains a high concentration of antioxidants and antibacterial properties to support the immune system.
When you’re at the supermarket, look for raw (unprocessed) honey. It contains more nutrients as they are not damaged by heat. Just remember that it can spike the insulin secretion from your pancreas (but it’s still lower than that of table sugar).
Maple Syrup. I guess you’re one of the many who always associate maple syrup with IHOP, Pancake House or simply pancakes for breakfast? Okay, for all you waffle lovers out there, let’s include waffles too. However maple syrup isn’t just for waffles or pancakes. Do the words cakes and cookies ring a bell? You can also use maple syrup to make your own treats (and your kids’ treats as well). Raw (unprocessed) maple syrup is full of zinc (for your immune system), manganese and antioxidants (to slow down your body’s wear and tear processes). Try adding it to your porridge or yoghurt. It’s not suited for tea or coffee though, unless you’re into that sort of taste. Maple syrup is made in the trunk of maple trees. The syrup is sucked (using a vacuum pump) from the trunk and collected. Maple syrup is usually available in three grades (light, medium and amber). But make sure you get 100% pure maple syrup because there are many look-alike products out there. Check the ingredients panel to be sure.
Brown Rice Syrup. Rice syrup and rice malt are other names given to brown rice syrup. It basically comes from cooked brown rice. Enzymes digest the starch contained in the rice and the liquid obtained is concentrated into a syrup. Brown rice syrup contains carbohydrates that are more complex. These carbs are theorized to be assimilated more slowly (less insulin secreted). The taste is about half as sweet as table sugar. Do you like the taste of butterscotch? It has a hint of that. Just check the label because some brands have corn syrup or sugar added as well.
The Alcoholics. These aren’t people addicted to alcoholic beverages. These are sugar alcohols. They are often already incorporated into the food we eat as sugar substitutes.
- 1. Xylitol – was introduced as a diabetic sweetener (sweeteners for people diagnosed with diabetes). It’s more or less as sweet as sugar, but with fewer calories. One distinct advantage it has over the other natural sweeteners out there is its ability to reduce dental caries (tooth decay). It also aids in the remineralization of your teeth. Another off the track (not related to your digestive system) benefit is that it may reduce the chances of acquiring an acute middle ear infection which is common among children. The xylitol commercially available to us is obtained from hardwoods such as the birch tree or corncobs.
Xylitol only raises insulin very slightly compared to table sugar. Generally speaking, sugar alcohols have a laxative effect on your digestive system, particularly your large intestine. But as time passes, your digestive system gets used to it and the side effects (diarrhea, bloatedness, nausea) lessen.
- 2. Erythritol – This sugar alcohol is produced through the fermentation of glucose by a yeast (Moniliella pollinis). Comparing it with the other sugar alcohols, it doesn’t cause much diarrhea and it’s 60 to 70 percent sweeter than table sugar. More importantly, it doesn’t affect blood sugar levels. In addition, it can also help prevent tooth decay. Hence, it’s loved by your teeth and hated by the bacteria which live in your mouth. They (the bacteria) can’t use erythritol for food. Erythritol as a base is often combined with other high intensity sweeteners like stevia.
- 3. Mannitol – is another sugar alcohol used as a natural sweetener. It has less of an effect on blood sugar levels than regular sugar which makes it a favourite additive for hard candy, sweets, chewing gum and dried fruit. Mannitol is commercially made from fructose which is derived from corn starch or table sugar (sucrose). Mannitol is also found naturally in most plants and in China is commonly extracted from a type of seaweed.
One great thing about mannitol is its application in the field of medicine, particularly among people suffering from Parkinson’s Disease. You see, this natural sweetener can easily pass through what is termed as the blood-brain-barrier (the filter between your blood and your brain). Studies have shown that mannitol, after passing through this barrier, may help to prevent proteins from clumping (which is one of the things that goes wrong in people with Parkinson’s Disease). Promising, right?
Barley syrup. Barley syrup is also known as malt syrup. It’s half as sweet as table sugar. Barley syrup is usually added to flour to give bagels (or other bakery products) a dash of malt flavour. It’s very thick and sticky and is produced from malted barley. Which sugar do you think is abundant in MALTed barley syrup? Correct! It’s MALTose. Again, like rice syrup, barley malt can also have other sugars added to it so read the ingredients carefully before buying it.
The choice as to which natural sweetener you should use will depend on what you need it for i.e. sweetening your hot drink or baking etc. In addition, other factors like your health status and budget will also come into play when deciding on which to use. The take home message here is that you should be aware that there are many options to choose from other than sugar. Sugar will always be sugar. In this day and age where the detrimental effects of carbohydrates are finally unraveling and slowly being accepted by the majority, it’s important to recognise lower carbohydrate alternatives for your precious sweet tooth.