How much do you really know about sweeteners? There are so many products available, it can be nearly impossible to keep track when it comes to evaluating Natural vs Artificial Sweeteners.
You could get lost in the sheer number of things to consider.
Natural vs Artificial Sweeteners is something to take seriously. Some artificial sweeteners have serious health effects, and even some of the products that claim to be natural have some hidden realities lurking behind the claims.
We should be thankful, though, that the market for alternatives to the old choice between plain white sugar and saccharine has progressed to a point where we have some real choices between Natural vs Artificial Sweeteners.
While it seems like a simple question of reading product labels, making informed choices between Natural vs Artificial Sweeteners can get a little complicated. Precisely because we do have many choices these days, we need to get the facts when it comes to Natural vs Artificial Sweeteners.
What Are Artificial Sweeteners?
Artificial sweeteners, or non-nutritive sweeteners as they are sometimes called, are low-calorie or non-caloric sweeteners. They contain fewer calories than sugar, corn syrup, and other natural sweeteners. The most common examples of artificial sweeteners are aspartame (NutraSweet and Equal), sucralose (Splenda), acesulfame potassium, neotame, and saccharin (Sweet’N Low)
These products have been welcome additions since they provide the sweet taste without the calories or the effects of sugars in the body. For people who are watching their weight and for people with diabetes, artificial sweeteners have been something of a blessing. Artificial sweeteners allow these people to indulge in sweets and soft drinks without all of the caloric dangers and toxic effects that sugar can have on the body.
The Food and Drug Administration has approved the safety of all of the above artificial sweeteners. However, there are some warnings about these chemicals. One concern is that consuming artificial sweeteners can lead people to over-indulge in other ways. The fact that you are not consuming calories can lead you to get those calories from other sources. It is a simple mind-game: If I drink diet soda, I can indulge in cake. This negates any benefit you may derive from consuming artificial sweeteners.
Non-nutritive sweeteners are also far more potent than natural sweeteners. This can deaden your ability to taste things. As a result, you may find naturally sweet foods like fruits to be unappealing and vegetables may become disgusting. These chemicals can ruin your ability to taste things properly.
Another thing to consider about artificial sweeteners is that they can be addictive. One study showed that rats who were given cocaine were then given a choice between more cocaine or saccharine. Most of the rats chose saccharine.
One final word about the safety of artificial sweeteners. There used to be concern about cancer risk for some artificial sweeteners, particularly saccharine. It turns out these studies date back to the 1970s when saccharine was first made widely available. Further studies showed that there is no real risk of cancer from saccharine. However, this does not mean it is completely safe.
What are Natural Sweeteners?
First of all, plain old sugar is a natural sweetener. The problems we run into with table sugar have more to do with processed sugars than with naturally occurring sugars.
The two natural sugars are glucose and fructose. Glucose exists in every living thing including our own bodies. We produce glucose in our bodies naturally. It is an elemental source of energy for the body and we need it.
Fructose is sugar derived from fruits and other plants. It is a more complex sugar and our bodies need to break it down in order to make it useful. One of the great benefits of fructose is that it requires energy to be useful in the body and therefore is less apt to become stored in fat in the body.
Most of the sugars in processed foods, soft drinks, and other foods are made from complex processed sugars. These are primarily some form of sucrose which is a combination of glucose and fructose. Most of this is derived from high fructose corn syrup. Herein lies the problem with these types of sweeteners. While they are derived from natural sources, they are not natural sweeteners. These kinds of sweeteners overload the body, particularly the liver, and cannot be processed as energy and nutrition and are simply not healthy.
Due to an increase in awareness of the health problems associated with sugars, especially processed sugars, there have been a number of natural sweeteners that have come out to replace them.
Of the natural sweeteners that have become available just about anywhere, stevia is one of the most common. It is found under a number of brand names like SweetLeaf, PureVia, and NuStevia. Stevia is a leafy herb native to South America. It has been used for centuries by native people.
Extract of stevia is around 100 to 300 times stronger than white sugar. You can use stevia as table sugar, baking, and cooking. It comes in a liquid and powder form and is therefore easy to measure for baking and cooking. Stevia can be added to tea and coffee just like sugar.
One of the great advantages of stevia is that it does not have any significant effect on blood sugar levels. It is safe for diabetics and for anyone who is sensitive to blood sugar spikes. It also contains zero calories. Stevia is an ideal sweetener if you are counting calories.
Honey is the oldest natural sweetener we have. The use of honey as a sweetener stretches back to prehistory. Ideally, get your raw honey from a local source. We want to stress the importance of raw honey rather than processed honey that is more commonly available. Raw honey contains enzymes, minerals, and vitamins. Processed or pasteurized honey will destroy many of these nutrients.
Local honey can range in flavor from a dark and strong taste, to light sweetness depending on the plant life in the region. Another benefit of local raw honey is that you will be consuming honey made from local pollen sources and thus building a tolerance for these pollens. Local raw honey can work as a natural remedy for seasonal allergies.
Molasses is made from sugar cane or beets. After extracting the juices these are clarified and blended to make blackstrap molasses. Organic molasses is another natural sweetener that has been around for a long time. It is rich in calcium, iron, magnesium, and potassium. Darker molasses tends to be sweeter.
Another old-fashioned staple of natural sweeteners is maple syrup. This is just sap from the sugar maple tree boiled down to a thick syrup. Maple syrup is rich in manganese and zinc. Beyond the obvious topping for pancakes and waffles, it can be used in baking and other cooking. Make sure you buy 100 percent maple syrup. The more common brands you find the grocery are little more than high fructose corn syrup with a cheap and artificial maple flavoring.
This is sometimes called coconut palm sugar or sap sugar. Coconut sugar is made from the nectar of the coconut flower buds. The nectar is heated until it caramelizes. This is then dried and ground into a granule that resembles regular table sugar. IT is filled with nutrients like potassium, iron, and vitamins. Coconut sugar has around the same number of calories and carbohydrates as regular sugar, but it has a lower glycemic impact than sugar. Because coconut sugar releases glucose into the blood at a much slower rate, it is safer than regular sugar.
Pros & Cons of Natural vs Artificial Sweeteners
Natural and artificial sweeteners both have advantages and disadvantages. The persistence of artificial sweeteners on the market speaks to the fact that there are things in the pro column for them. Natural sweeteners are ideal, but there are some things you need to understand before trying to switch over to all-natural sweeteners. There are pros and cons to both natural and artificial sweeteners.
Low-calorie or no-calorie: Artificial sweeteners can be ideal for people who want to or need to lose weight. With the obesity epidemic, some people simply get the most benefit from artificial sweeteners.
No glycemic impact: For people who are sensitive to sugar, particularly people with diabetes and other blood sugar conditions there is no alternative to artificial sweeteners.
They are easy to find: Artificial sweeteners are ubiquitous. You can find them in any supermarket or restaurant.
Health risks: Artificial sweeteners are complex chemicals and they impact the body in unnatural ways. Artificial sweeteners taste much sweeter than natural sugars and can make it difficult to taste natural sweet flavors.
No nutritive value: Artificial sweeteners do nothing but sweeten. They offer no nutrients.
Risk of metabolic syndrome: Metabolic syndrome is a cluster of conditions like high blood pressure, high cholesterol, and heart disease. Studies have linked artificial sweeteners with metabolic syndrome.
Easier for the body to metabolize: Natural sweeteners are easily accessible to human metabolism. Unlike artificial sweeteners and processed sugars, natural sweeteners tend to break down and become a source of energy without building up in the form of fats.
No chemical additives: Natural sweeteners are exactly what they say they are. There are no added chemical products of the kind that interfere with natural physiological processes.
Sweeter than Artificial: Natural sweeteners are much sweeter than artificial forms. Stevia is a great example. It is far sweeter than plain sugar. You need less to sweeten your coffee or your baked goods.
Added nutrients: Nearly all-natural sweeteners have additional nutritious value. Vitamins, minerals, and enzymes can be found in natural sweeteners. They are much more healthy than artificial sweeteners or even processed sugar.
Glycemic impact: For people with diabetes or other blood sugar conditions, many natural sweeteners remain potentially dangerous. Other than stevia, the sweeteners detailed above are all sugars of one form or another and can be a problem for diabetics.
Health issues: Stevia has been shown to cause an unsafe drop in blood pressure in some people. It has also been shown to have a negative interaction with some medications. If you have issues with blood pressure, or if you are taking medication, consult a doctor before eating stevia or products that contain stevia.
In addition to natural and artificial sweeteners, there are a few sugar substitutes. While high fructose corn syrup is a sugar substitute, it is not considered at all healthy. Some healthy sugar substitutes are worth considering.
Agave is generally viewed as a healthy alternative to ordinary sugar. It is a distinctly sweet product made from the agave plant (the same plant used to make tequila).
Agave also has a low glycemic index which means it tends not to spike blood sugar levels. The downside of agave is that is chemically a sugar and contains large amounts of fructose. It can lead to weight gain.
These are not alcohols in the same way as the things that get you drunk. Chemically, these fall into the alcohol family. The two main sugar alcohols are erythritol and xylitol.
Xylitol is already used widely in chewing gum and toothpaste. Erythritol is a naturally occurring chemical found in fruits and even mushrooms. These are not sugars and cause none of the complications associated with sugars. The only downside is they have been known to cause acid reflux in some people.
How much sugar is too much?
Guidelines given by the American Heart Association set sugar intake levels at no more than 6 teaspoons of added sugar per day for women and 9 teaspoons per day for men. The limit for children, depending on age and their caloric demand, is between 3 and 6 teaspoons per day.
Added sugar should not exceed more than 10 percent of your daily caloric intake, and you should keep it closer to about 5 percent. It is generally recommended that any added sugar comes from natural sources like fruit juices, honey, and the types of natural sugars described above.
Wrapping things up
We all tend to indulge in sugary treats. They just taste good and they are fun. But we need to remember that they are treats and over-indulging in added sugar in the form of soft drinks and junk foods are one of the major drivers of the obesity epidemic. Sugar in itself is not a bad thing. We need it for basic metabolic functions. Too much sugar can be like poison to our bodies.
There are plenty of natural sugar sources on the market these days. The benefit of the general market demand for healthy foods has provided us with numerous options for natural sweeteners. From simple raw honey to relatively new products like stevia, we have healthy options that will not put on pounds and make us sick.
For some people, diabetics, for example, there is no choice but to find alternatives to conventional sweeteners. These too have improved drastically since the days in which saccharine was the only option. Here again, it was market drives that led to more options for sugar alternatives.
Choosing between artificial vs natural sweeteners comes down to a little research and taste testing on your own.