Are Natural and Low-Glycemic Sweeteners Healthier Than Sugar?

Post 27 SweetenerThe negative health effects of added sugars like evaporated cane juice and high-fructose corn syrup (HFCS) are well-documented and include increased risk of weight gain, diabetes, cardiovascular disease, and cancers. But we still want our sweet stuff! So, in recent years, “natural” sweeteners like maple syrup, honey, agave, and coconut sugar have been marketed and often touted as healthier alternatives to these types of added sugars. But are they really or are they just wolves in sheep’s clothing?

I vote for wolves in sheep’s clothing because these alternatives are still low-nutrient, concentrated sweeteners and they add substantial calories to your diet while contributing very little nutritional value. And get this, maple syrup and honey elevate blood sugar similarly to sugar (sucrose) which leads to disease-causing effects in the body. Oh, oh! Agave and coconut sugar fare slightly better because they don’t raise your blood sugar as much, but are still empty calories. What’s worse is that repeated exposure to these excessively sweet tastes dulls your taste buds to the naturally sweet tastes of fresh fruits. This, in turn, perpetuates cravings for sweets and can undermine weight loss. Ugh! To be fair, some natural sweeteners go through fewer processing steps than sugar and may retain some phytonutrients from the plants they come from. But their nutrient-to-calorie ratio is still very low and there is minimal or no fiber to slow the absorption of their sugars. Just what you need, a major sugar rush!

I’m not trying to give you a chemistry lesson here, but it’s important to see what these allegedly “healthy” sweeteners are made of. Agave nectar is marketed as a low-glycemic sweetener because of its high fructose (fruit sugar) content (agave is approximately 90% fructose). Sucrose is half fructose and half glucose. HFCS contains 55% fructose and 42% glucose. All sweeteners (and fruits) contain some combination of glucose and fructose. Maple syrup contains about 90% sucrose, so it is very similar to regular white sugar. Coconut sugar contains 70-80% sucrose, and honey contains 49% fructose and 43% glucose. That’s a lot of sweet!

Now fructose and glucose are broken down differently by the body. When fructose is absorbed, it goes directly to the liver, where it is broken down to produce energy. Fructose itself does not stimulate insulin secretion by the pancreas. However, much of the fructose is actually metabolized and converted into glucose in the liver, so it does raise blood glucose somewhat (but not as much as sucrose or glucose). Even though it’s low glycemic index, added fructose in the form of sweeteners still causes problems. This is because fructose stimulates fat production by the liver, which contributes to elevated blood triglycerides, a predictor of heart disease! Elevated triglycerides have been noted in human studies after the consumption of fructose-sweetened drinks.  Fructose, when used as a sweetener, has also been shown to have effects on hunger and satiety hormones that may lead to increased calorie intake in subsequent meals. Not so great when you are trying to lose weight!

Remember, when you consume any caloric sweetener, you get a deadly cocktail mix of disease-promoting effects: the glucose-elevating effects of added glucose and the triglyceride-raising effects of added fructose! Unlike whole fruits, sweeteners are concentrated sugars without the necessary fiber to regulate the entry of glucose into the bloodstream and fructose to the liver. All of these sweeteners can promote weight gain, diabetes and heart disease regardless of their ratio of glucose to fructose, or what type of plant they originate from. So, guard your health and stay away from these health destroyers. Get your sugar fix directly from whole fruits. You can even use fruits to make some yummy smoothies and desserts. Check out The End of Dieting by Dr. Joel Fuhrman for some yummy inspiration.

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