Everyone loves to eat sweet things because sweets impart tremendous pleasure and satisfaction. After all, sweet is one of the five basic taste sensations, the others being bitter, salty, sour, and umami.
Sadly, all sweet things contain some forms of sugar, and consuming excessive sugar has been blamed for nearly every known disease in mankind. Saying sugar is bad for you is the ultimate understatement. The far-reaching problems sugar can cause are well documented in numerous medical journals throughout the world.
Having said this, does it mean that if you want to be healthy, you need to deprive yourself of the sweet sensation for the rest of your life? It doesn’t sound any fun at all, does it?
Whether a sugar is good or bad depends entirely on its composition. Learn about the different effects of glucose and fructose on your body, as well as the worst sugars that you should absolutely avoid. Lastly, believe it or not, there are four sweeteners that are natural, versatile, and even have some benefits to the human body.
Why Is Excess Glucose Bad For You?
If you eat a food that is very high in glucose (such as waffles, puffed rice cakes, corn flakes, or baguette), it is broken down almost immediately and a flood of sugar is released into your blood stream. Since too much sugar is toxic to the body, the pancreas quickly secretes a huge amount of insulin to restore blood sugar equilibrium by taking the excess out of the blood stream into your muscles. But since your muscles can only store so much sugar, the surplus is stored as fat. As a consequence, if you do this frequent enough, you will, without doubt, gain weight. What’s worse, chronic high insulin contributes to many degenerative diseases such as diabetes, heart disease, and cancer.
To avoid all these ill effects, you want to choose foods that don’t break down to sugar right away. The Glycemic Index (GI) measures the effects of a food on blood sugar levels. The higher the index, the faster the conversion to sugar. For reference, glucose has a GI of 100. If you always choose foods with a GI of 55 or less, your blood sugar and insulin levels will stay in a healthy zone.
Fructose Is Worse Than Glucose
Fructose is probably the most dangerous natural sweetener on the planet! It fools many people, including health experts, because fructose doesn’t have much of an effect on blood sugar; its GI is a lowly 15!
This fact allows manufacturers to mislead the public about the health benefits of their products by saying that they are healthy because they are low glycemic. In reality, when consumed in excess, these fructose-sweetened low glycemic foods may be even more damaging to health than glucose. Studies show that they may lead to conditions like:
- Increased triglycerides (fat in blood) and LDL (so called “bad”) cholesterol
- Weight gain and abdominal obesity
- Insulin resistance and diabetes
- Elevated uric acid, gout, and kidney stones
- Non-alcoholic fatty liver
The main sources of fructose are obviously fruits and fruit juices. However, fructose can be hidden and disguised in many processed foods. Look out for these common names in your food products, they are equivalent to fructose:
- Fruit sweetened
- Fruit juice sweetened
- Grape juice concentrate
- Pear juice concentrate
Having discussed the damaging effects of glucose and fructose, the following three types of sugars are the absolute worst for your health. They provide empty calories with very little nutritional value.
(Please note that artificial sweeteners are not mentioned here because these chemicals are almost like poison. If this were a perfect world, they would have already been made illegal and banned!)
1. Agave Nectar
Agave is currently the king of healthy sweeteners because of its low glycemic index and effect on blood sugar. It has been heavily promoted by its manufacturers and is used in almost all the “healthy” food products.
But knowing the detrimental effects of excess fructose on our health, how can agave be healthy when it contains up to 92% fructose?
Agave is a highly processed sweetener derived from the plant that makes tequila. No matter whether the agave is raw, organic, or blue, it is definitely the worst sweetener available on the market.
2. High Fructose Corn Syrup
For many decades, food manufacturers have been using this sweetener because it is cheaper than sugar. It contains 55% fructose and 45% glucose. It is widely used in soft drinks, snack foods, and many processed foods. Tons of research have confirmed that high fructose corn syrup wreaks havoc on your health.
The term sugar refers to sucrose or table sugar made from sugar cane or sugar beet. They include different forms of white granulated sugar, brown sugar, and raw turbinado sugar. Sugar is made of 50% fructose and 50% glucose. Consuming too much will have the same detrimental health effects.
The following sweeteners are listed in order of their safety, health benefits, and suitability for use by diabetics.
Stevia (correct pronunciation is STE vee ah, not STEE vee uh) is a fascinating plant native to the rain forests of Paraguay in South America. For over 1,600 years and perhaps as long as 2,000 years, the natives used its leaves as a tonic to relieve stomach upset and a sweetener in brewing herbal teas.
Stevia is not a sugar, but an herb. Steviol glycosides are the compounds responsible for the sweet taste of the stevia leaves, and rebauioside A (Reb A) has the least bitterness of all the steviol glycosides. To extract Reb A, stevia plants are dried and subjected to a water extraction process.
Stevia was first adopted widely in Japan as a natural sugar substitute in 1970. After having banned artificial sweeteners in the 1960s, Japan began seriously researching the safety and anti-diabetic properties of stevia. Since then, Japanese food companies have been using stevia in numerous food products.
In the U.S., stevia was slow to gain popularity because the FDA did not permit stevia to be sold as a food additive (sweetener). Moreover, stevia faced severe opposition from both the artificial sweetener and sugar industries. It was not until the end of 2008 when stevia became available as both a food additive and a dietary supplement sold in health food stores.
Stevia is an extraordinary sweetener with a long history of use by humans. There are over 1,500 published studies that show stevia is not only safe but can also promote better health and well-being. Here are the highlights:
- There is no evidence of gastrointestinal upset or toxicity causing cancer or birth defects.
- It supports the pancreas, helps improve insulin sensitivity and reverse diabetes and metabolic syndrome.
- It provides zero calories and zero carbohydrates.
- It does not promote tooth decay and gum disease.
- It helps reduce blood pressure.
- It enhances mental acuity and cognitive functions.
Stevia is many times sweeter than sugar. It is heat-stable and can be used in cooking and baking. The stevia products on the market varies in terms of taste and sweetness. They usually come in the form of a white powder or a liquid concentrate.
There are many brands available on the market and many contain ingredients other than stevia. Make sure you choose one that does not contain dextrose or maltodextrin. Dextrose is a glucose and maltodextrin is a glucose polymer. Both are highly processed food additives that serve nothing to your health.
Several brands contain sugar alcohols. It is generally safe to use in small amounts as long as your body can tolerate them. That’s why it is preferable to choose a sweetener that does not list sugar alcohols as the first ingredient. (For more about sugar alcohols, please read Best Sugars #4).
Stevita contains Reb A (stevia extract) and erythritol/xylitol (sugar alcohols).
Sweet Leaf contains inulin (natural soluble fiber) and stevia.
Pure Via contains dextrose/maltodextrin, Reb A (stevia extract), cellulose powder, and natural flavors.
Stevia In the Raw contains dextrose and stevia.
Truvia contains erythritol (sugar alcohol), rebiana (stevia extract), and natural flavors.
2. Yacon Syrup
Yacon syrup is derived from the yacon plant, a tuber grown in the Andes by the Inca and their descendants. Yacon is related to the sunflowers, and the Peruvian locals use it cut up in salads or in sweets. The roots are rich in iron, potassium, and the antioxidant vitamins A, C, and E.
Unlike other tubers that store carbohydrates as starch (glucose), yacon stores carbohydrates as fructooligosaccharides (FOS). FOS is a soluble fiber and a prebiotic which serves as food for the good intestinal bacteria, so it aids digestion and helps stimulate the colon. Since humans have no enzyme to digest FOS, it cannot be absorbed by the body and the carbohydrate is excreted whole through the system.
Studies show that a diet rich in FOS may help with weight management and lowering of blood pressure, LDL cholesterol, and triglycerides. It increases absorption of calcium, magnesium, and the B vitamin complexes.
Yacon syrup is dark brown in color, very thick, sticky, and tastes like molasses. It can be used as a direct substitute for brown sugar, maple syrup, molasses, or honey in cooking and baking. Yacon syrup has approximately 30 calories per tablespoon, which is half the amount of honey. Studies show that it has no adverse effect on blood sugar and can be safely used by diabetics. The only drawback is that it is not cheap; therefore, unless the price comes down, it is unlikely to be widely used.
3. Luo Han Guo (Monk Fruit)
This is a tie with yacon syrup. Luo han guo is a fruit that originates from China. It thrives in the warm, humid, and shady environment of the Guilin mountains. This incredibly sweet fruit was first consumed by monks going back to the 13th century.
Luo han guo extract has only been available since the mid 1990s when a process was developed for isolating the sweet components of the fruit (mogrosides) from other compounds present in the pulp. Luo han guo is 300 times sweeter than sugar and is extremely low in calories. It can be used in baking and cooking. Studies show that it has no adverse impact on blood sugar and has antioxidant properties.
At present, there aren’t many pure luo han guo products available in the market and even if you can find them, they are not cheap. However, there are various products that blend luo han guo with other ingredients. Choose carefully as some brands do have some unsavory additives.
Sweet Fiber – Contains inulin (natural soluble fiber), luo han guo, and natural flavor.
Lakanto contains erythritol (sugar alcohol) and luo han guo.
Nectresse contains erythritol, sugar, luo han guo, and molasses.
4. Sugar Alcohols
A sugar alcohol is a form of carbohydrate that is partly sugar and partly alcohol in its molecular structure. The common names include maltitol, mannitol, sorbitol, and newer ones like erythritol and xylitol. Although sugar alcohols are naturally present in plant foods, most are manufactured from corn or sugar beets.
Sugar alcohols are not as sweet as sugar and are very low in calories. They are traditionally used as a food additive to mask the unpleasant aftertastes of artificial sweeteners. Some newer sugar-free food products have entirely replaced the artificial sweeteners with sugar alcohols.
Sugar alcohols are not metabolized by the oral bacteria, therefore, they do not contribute to tooth decay. In fact, xylitol actually inhibits bacterial growth in the mouth.
Sugar alcohols are usually incompletely absorbed into the blood stream from the small intestines, hence, their impact on blood sugar is minimal. However, depending on the individual sugar alcohol, there may still be a slight increase in blood sugar. People with blood sugar problems should use with much caution.
As sugar alcohols are not totally digestible substances, a common complaint is bloating, flatulence, and diarrhea when you consume too much. Different people have different reactions to different sugar alcohols. You may find that one works perfectly for you while another causes problem. People who have undergone gastric bypass surgery should be careful with sugar alcohols.
So far, studies have not indicated any other side effects of sugar alcohols apart from those mentioned. However, as humans have only used sugar alcohols for a relatively short period of time, it has not been time proven and tested like stevia, and to a lesser extent yacon and luo han guo. If your body tolerates the sugar alcohols well, it is probably fine to use in small amounts, but don’t go overboard.